Sunday, September 30, 2007

Liverpool Sign The "Messi Of Madrid"

Gerardo Bruna has already been dubbed the "Messi of Madrid", the former Real Madrid youth player now making his way to Anfield.

Liverpool have completed the signing of Real Madrid youngster Gerardo Bruna.

The 16 year old, of Argentinean extraction, will join up with the Anfield side's youth teams after being earmarked as the next Lionel Messi.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez himself has apparently given his approval to the signing, citing the youngster as a long-term investment.

This isn't the first time that an English club has sought young talent in Spain. One need only remember Francesc Fabregas, who was brought to Arsenal as a teenager from the Barcelona youth ranks, as was Fran Merida last year.

Gerard Pique, too, was brought to England by Manchester United from Barcelona, albeit to return to Spain on loan last season.

For now, though, all eyes are on Bruna, a player of considerable renown back in Madrid, despite his tender years.

Gerardo Bruna Blanco, born on 29th January 1991, is not considered anywhere near ready for league football, but is rather seen as one for the future. Perhaps, even, the not-too-distant future.

Fowler Set To Make Anfield Return

Robbie Fowler will return to the ground where he remains revered after Cardiff were dealt a trip to Liverpool in the fourth round of the Carling Cup.

The 32-year-old left Liverpool for the second time at the end of last season when he was not offered a new contract by manager Rafael Benítez, but remains massively popular on the Kop.

He has scored four goals in five starts since joining Cardiff, including a brace in their midweek Carling Cup win over West Brom.

Coventry's reward for eliminating Manchester United, meanwhile, is home draw against another big-spending Premier League team, West Ham.

There are two all-Premier League ties: Bolton against Manchester City and Portsmouth versus Blackburn.

Tottenham will host Blackpool, while Gary Megson's Leicester will be away to Chelsea. Everton face a tricky trip to lone League One survivors Luton, while Arsenal's youngsters will have to overcome Bryan Robson's Sheffield United.

The matches will be played in the week commencing the October 29.

Wigan Athletic 0 - 1 LiverpooL

Yossi Benayoun ended Liverpool's mini crisis as Wigan suffered a 17th defeat in 17 matches against the Barclays Premier League's fabled 'big four'.

Liverpool had endured goalless draws in their previous two league games, sparking much criticism of boss Rafael Benitez's rotation policy.

In the end it was substitute Benayoun, a £5million buy from West Ham in the summer, who netted a 75th minute winner for his first league goal for the Reds.
Fernando Torres avoided the axe of boss Benitez's rotation policy.

After scoring a hat-trick in the Carling Cup victory at Reading in midweek, the club record £26million striker managed to retain his place in the starting line-up.

Benitez showed seven changes from the team that faced the Royals, but only two from the side that drew at home to Birmingham a week ago, with Torres and Alvaro Arbeloa replacing Andriy Voronin and Ryan Babel.

Wigan, who have lost all four previous league games to Liverpool without scoring a goal, also showed two changes from the team beaten 2-1 at Reading last week.
Julius Aghahowa started his first game this season with Antoine Sibierski out with a hamstring injury, while Emmerson Boyce took over from the benched Andreas Granqvist.

The visitors had the opening chance inside 70 seconds, with former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland behind a fierce 25-yard drive from Steven Gerrard following a short free-kick lay-off from John Arne Riise.

The Latics replied in the fifth minute, but Marcus Bent was too greedy in electing to shoot from distance when in space, firing wide to the disappointment of Aghahowa who was waiting for a pass inside.

Wigan then bossed matters for the following few minutes prior to a Liverpool break that culminated in an effort from Torres being blocked by Boyce.

Another counter followed in the 18th minute, with Riise and Torres combining before the latter chipped a cross into the area where Jermaine Pennant met the ball first time, only for Kevin Kilbane to block.

As the half wore on it was becoming easier for Liverpool, and they came close again in the 23rd minute with Dirk Kuyt setting up Riise for a flicked shot from 12 yards that was deflected wide.

That was followed by Kuyt cushioning a right-wing cross from Pennant into the path of Torres, but the striker scuffed his shot from just inside the area.
Then on the half hour life-long Liverpool fan Jason Koumas almost paid the penalty for a woeful error on the halfway line, passing directly to Kuyt who immediately set Torres clear.
After outpacing Boyce, Torres stabbed a shot goalwards that was blocked at point-blank range by Kirkland, but with the ricochet coming off the Spaniard and rebounding inches past the left-hand post.

The spectacular followed from Torres two minutes later, dragging a scissor kick just wide in meeting a right-wing ball from Arbeloa, with Wigan's defence nowhere.
HT Wigan 0 Liverpool 0

In front of a near sell-out crowd of 24,311, Bent had the ball in the net in the 50th minute, but it was controversially ruled out.

Aghahowa, running back when the ball was played in by Skoko, was offside, but not Bent who was three yards onside when the cross was delivered before he fired past Reina, only for the flag to stifle his delight.

Five minutes later Koumas forced the first meaningful save out of Reina with a 20-yard drive, before a combination of Kirkland and Skoko denied Kuyt shortly after.

In an end-to-end encounter, a Koumas cross over the top found Scharner beat Reina to the ball on the edge of the six-yard area, but his ungainly flick with the right foot went wide.

Gerrard, not on top of his game with his passing in particular wayward, sent a 25-yard drive narrowly wide.
Then 15 minutes from time the deadlock was finally broken with Yossi Benayoun, on in the 56th minute for Fabio Aurelio, beat Kirkland with a low curling shot from just inside the area.

Voronin replaced Pennant and Mohamed Sissoko came on for Torres in the final 10 minutes as Liverpool held on for the victory.
Yet it was close as Aghahowa should have buried a header in the first of three minutes of injury time, but nodded wide from six yards following a pinpoint Koumas cross.

FT Wigan 0 Liverpool 1

Friday, September 28, 2007

Match Preview: Wigan Athletic vs LiverpooL

Wigan have never beaten Liverpool in the league so this is their opportunity to turn things around. The Latics are a more confident side under Chris Hutchings and play some decent football.

The loss of Emile Heskey has spoilt the manager’s plans but Marcus Bent and Antoine Sibierski should keep the boat floating until his return. The main talking point of Wigan’s inspiring start to the season has been the outstanding performances of Jason Koumas.

Though he is underestimated, the talented midfielder has a very good eye for the game and can play some quality balls into the box. As long as Koumas can keep his form up, Wigan should be fine.

Liverpool have come under heavy criticism recently over Benitez’s decision to leave star striker Fernando Torres on the bench for the disappointing draws against Portsmouth and Birmingham. The young Spanish hitman took his chance to impress the manager by scoring an outstanding hat trick in the 4-2 defeat of Reading in the Carling Cup.

However, what the gaffer must now decide is which pair of his four quality strikers he should choose against Wigan, in order to hurt the Latics most. Come Saturday, the team sheet is likely to contain Torres, though you never know with Rafa Benitez, who likes to rotate his players every game in order to keep them fresh and raring to go.

Liverpool should find this a very easy task. They have never been beaten by Wigan and certainly won’t be looking to lose this weekend. Rafael Benitez’s only problem is whether he should stick to his under fire rotation policy.

Though it does have its upsides, the tactic also has its negatives, such as players being unable to gel with each other. I am sure though that come Saturday evening, with three points in the bag, the pressure will come off Benitez and his tactics.


Teams

Wigan (from): Kirkland, Melchiot, Granqvist, Bramble, Kilbane, Brown, Scharner, Skoko, Koumas, Sibierski, Bent, Aghahowa, Boyce, Cotterill, Hall, Olembe, Taylor, Valencia, Pollitt.

Liverpool (from): Reina, Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Arbeloa, Aurelio, Riise, Pennant, Gerrard, Sissoko, Mascherano, Benayoun, Babel, Kuyt, Crouch, Voronin, Torres, Itandje.

Benitez: I Need To Keep Torres Fit

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez insists his hunger to secure major trophies is precisely the reason Fernando Torres is not starting every game.

Torres played only the last half-hour of last week's Premier League stalemate against Birmingham and responded in midweek with a stunning hat-trick in the Carling Cup win at Reading.

But despite Liverpool's desperate need to get back to winning ways in the league after two successive goalless draws, Benitez has warned Torres is far from guaranteed a starting place at Wigan on Saturday.

Benitez said: "Players can play 20 or 30 games in a row no problem, but the problem is at the end of the season when you are playing for trophies and you need players who are fresh, ready and fit.

"I don't need Fernando Torres fit for playing against Birmingham now if I have got (Peter) Crouch, (Andriy) Voronin and (Dirk) Kuyt. I need the speed of Torres in the last game of the season, for winning the Champions League or the Premier League.

"If you have a lot of strikers, you have to decide who is the best for each game. I decided Torres was best to play against Reading. These are the decisions you have to make as a manager."

Benitez is well aware he has to strike a fine balance between preserving his best players for what he hopes will be a crucial end-of-season run-in, and ensuring his side does not fall too far off the Premier League pace in the meantime.

The dropped points against Birmingham and Portsmouth have only left Liverpool four points off leaders Arsenal, but failure to pick up three points at the JJB Stadium would significantly increase the pressure.

However, Benitez remains as resolute as ever in his conviction his side would not accomplish anything if his squad dictated he had to play all his best players in every match.

He said: "If you are playing against a team with 20 or 25 players in their squad and they are changing their players, in the last weeks of the season they will be ready and fit and you will not.

"You cannot change the physical condition of a player in one week. If they are not ready at the end of the season after five months of playing every game, maybe you will play for trophies and you will lose.

"If you need to use your best players in the Carling Cup then you can't win the Champions League. If you need to play Torres, (Steven) Gerrard and (Jamie) Carragher in every game then it will be impossible."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gerrard: Torres Could Be Our New Ian Rush

Steven Gerrard is so impressed by Fernando Torres's performances for Liverpool this season that he has likened the Spanish striker to the club's goalscoring legend Ian Rush.

"He reminds me a bit of Ian Rush," the Liverpool captain said. "Rush was a great striker and I don't want to put much pressure on Fernando as far as goals are concerned but Rushy got a lot of credit for working hard for the team, tracking back and not giving defenders a minute on the ball, and he [Torres] is similar in a lot ways."

The Spanish international has begun the past two Premier League games on the bench but showed how quickly he has adapted to the English game with a hat-trick in Liverpool's 4-2 win at Reading in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night. And Gerrard was particularly impressed by how the Spaniard dealt with the treatment from Reading's centre-backs André Bikey and Michael Duberry.

"Foreign strikers normally get a bit of stick about the fact that when they get kicked they go hiding," he said. "But he got murdered all night by their centre-halves and kept going back and going back, and worked so hard for the team. I thought he was awesome. He thoroughly deserved his goals but the most impressive thing for me was his attitude. He didn't react to what was happening and kept working hard."

Peter Crouch, encouraged by how quickly the summer signings have settled in, believes Liverpool are in a position to challenge for an unprecedented quadruple. "We are going to challenge on all fronts this year. I really believe that," said the England international, who partnered Torres for the first time at Reading.

"Just look at the players; we've won at Reading but there are players who didn't even travel like [Jermaine] Pennant, [Dirk] Kuyt or [Andriy] Voronin, there was [Steven] Gerrard on the bench. The manager has a lot of players at his disposal."

Crouch believes those resources are already bringing reward. "We want to be as consistent as we can," he added. "Chelsea and Manchester United have proved how consistent you have to be to get anywhere near winning the league and we need to turn some of those draws into wins now. Ten unbeaten is a good start for us. It could have been even better but we need to get that winning mentality."

The sizeable investment Benítez made during the close season has undoubtedly helped, Crouch noting that there had been few problems with any of the new recruits acclimatising to English football. "Sometimes it can take a while to bed in but they've come in and are really firing. That's good for the squad and the team.

Benitez: No Guarantees For Torres


Rafael Benitez refused to promise Fernando Torres a regular starting place despite seeing the Spaniard score his first Liverpool hat trick in its League Cup third round win at Reading.

Benitez sparked an angry reaction from Liverpool fans by resting Torres for Liverpool's recent goalless Premier League draws with Portsmouth and Birmingham.

But the 26 million pound striker responded by inspiring Liverpool to a 4-2 win at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday.

"With Fernando's pace you know he will kill defenders and he had a terrific game," said Benitez.

"If he is not injured and if he keeps training well, maybe he will start the game against Wigan on Saturday.

"We have four good strikers and I need to watch all of them. If you play well you have got a chance and as a manager you have to make difficult decisions."

Israel international Yossi Benayoun put Liverpool in front with his first goal since a summer move from West Ham in the 22nd minute, capping a fine solo run with a powerful finish from the edge of the penalty area.

Bobby Convey drew Reading level with his first goal after a year out with a knee injury just seven minutes later.

Torres restored Liverpool's lead five minutes into the second half with the first goal of his classy treble, holding off Michael Duberry's challenge before side-footing into the bottom left corner.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Benitez Frustration Over Gerrard

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez believes Steven Gerrard's recent England outings have taken a toll on the midfielder.

Gerrard was doubtful for England with a broken toe but played in both Euro 2008 qualifying wins over Israel and Russia.

"It could be that playing twice for England has had an impact," Benitez told the Liverpool Echo.

"They (England) knew (what I felt about him playing in both games) but everyone was talking about how important this situation was for England."

Gerrard came off with cramp after 71 minutes in the win over Israel before playing the full game when Russia lost at Wembley in two crucial games in England's Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.

But, since his return from international duty, Gerrard has seemed to be struggling to reach his usual all-action style as Liverpool's form has also stuttered.

Gerrard came on as a substitute in the 0-0 with Portsmouth, while starting when the Reds came back to draw 1-1 Porto in the Champions League.

He also started in the goalless draw with Birmingham as the Reds were held at Anfield on Saturday with Benitez criticised for his squad rotation.

"His national team is England but it is clear that these players cannot play every game for 90 minutes," added Benitez.

"Gerrard was not 100% physically fresh, I don't mean fit but fresh.

"In these kind of games you need to keep the tempo really high and if you play too many games in a row for 90 minutes, especially if you are not fit then normally you have problems."

Carling Cup Preview: Reading vs LiverpooL

Reading host Liverpool in the Carling Cup third round with both sides hunting the win for varying reasons.

The Royals have endured a disappointing start to the season, where they have recorded only two wins from seven league games, and they will be hoping to kick start their campaign.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have drawn their last three games - against Porto in the UEFA Champions League, and Portsmouth and Birmingham in the Premier League - and will be keen for a return to winning ways.

Reading manager Steve Coppell looks set to make sweeping changes to his first XI in a bid to freshen up his side.

Leroy Lita, who has been the subject of recent newspaper allegations, has been assured of a starting place after being omitted from the Reading squad which recorded a 2-1 win over Wigan at the weekend.

Adam Federici, Ulises de la Cruz, Scott Golbourne, Andre Bikey, Emerse Fae, Bobby Convey and Shane Long are also expected to start after missing out against the Latics, while James Henry is likely to be on the bench.

Kalifa Cisse has recovered from a slight knee injury and could also be a substitute.

Peter Mate (hamstring) and Glen Little (Achilles) are unavailable, while Ibrahima Sonko will not be risked despite recently making his comeback from a knee injury in the reserves.

Liverpool could hand debuts to goalkeeper Charles Itandje and 19-year-old defender Jack Hobbs in a much changed line-up.

Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have also been included in the squad, but the star trio are unlikely to feature.

Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva is expected to play some part in the tie, as well as wingers Nabil El Zhar and Sebastian Leto.

Fit-again Fabio Aurelio - who ruptured his Achilles tendon at the end of last season - and young defender Emiliano Insua could also be involved, while Yossi Benayoun is expected to start after the Israeli missed Saturday's meeting with Birmingham.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hyypia: Rotation Talk Is Silly


Sami Hyypia has labelled the preoccupation with Rafa Benitez's rotation policy 'silly'.

The big Finn is frustrated the subject arises whenever Liverpool drop points – but never when they win.

He said: "The first time the manager tells us about the team is an hour and a half before the game. But sometimes after the meeting at Melwood he'll tell some individual players that they are playing.

"Everybody knows that the manager likes to rotate, and he isn't going to change his style. Nobody said anything about that at the beginning of the season when we were winning games.

"But because we've drawn a few games people have started to talk about it again. It's silly because that's his style and he's not going to change it."

Hyypia, who is about to turn 34, even believes a bit of chopping and changing can do wonders for a veteran for him.

"It's the manager's decision whether I play or not. But I'm not 20-years-old any more and the recovery time isn't the same as when I was younger. But I'm always ready when he needs me.

"The unfortunate injury to Danny means I'm going to get some games now, though I'm not very happy with the way I get them as I would prefer Danny to be fit and help the team."

Reading v LiverpooL: Brazilian ace set to start

Rafael Benitez has admitted he will ring the changes for Tuesday night's Carling Cup clash at Reading.

The Liverpool manager insists the competition is one he would dearly love to win this season, but he knows the importance of giving some of his fringe players a chance as the Reds look to take their first step on the road to Wembley.

Sebastian Leto, Lucas Leiva, Emiliano Insua and Jack Hobbs could all be involved, while there could be a first start for Charles Itandje in goal.

"For some of the players who are not playing too much in the Premier League or the Champions League, this will be an important competition for them," he said.

"It is a trophy I would be happy to win, the first season I was here we got to the final. I would like to be in the final again.

"Some of the senior players will have to play against Reading, I will not change the whole team. It depends on who is available and what cover we have in certain positions.

"But I would hope to give players who are not playing regularly in the Premier League the chance to play.

"It is clear that with a big squad we need to see some of the other players.

"They must be involved because you cannot have them in the squad and then tell them you will not use them in any game.

"If we stay in the Carling Cup, the FA Cup, the Premier League and the Champions League they will obviously have more chances to play."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Liverpool Lose Their Cutting Edge

The most lethal attack in the Premier League, responsible for 11 goals in the opening four games, was frustrated for the second successive game and suddenly some familiar anxieties are beginning to afflict Liverpool.

Vastly superior to their brave opponents for almost the entire game, Rafa Benitez’s team failed to secure the win their control merited through their failure to manufacture more clear-cut opportunities and flagrant profligacy when they did.

Johan Djourou, the 19-year-old on loan from Arsenal, was the epitome of Birmingham’s splendid defiance but Benitez could have expected a more emphatic response to the questions raised during a chastening week. His decision to leave Fernando Torres on the bench yesterday will add to the questions over Liverpool’s ability to end their 18-year wait for another league title. With Peter Crouch also a substitute, the partnership of Andriy Voronin and Dirk Kuyt lacked the necessary cutting edge, for the truth is that Birmingham should have been put to the sword. But Benitez, apparently, is encouraged by his side’s start to the season.

Liverpool made an assertive start. John Arne Riise, on the overlap, played a smart one-two with Ryan Babel on the edge of the Birmingham penalty area, which opened a gap almost immediately and the Norwegian might have done better with a low, powerfully-struck shot that went across the face of goal.

Steven Gerrard was ruthless in breaking up potential Birmingham counterattacks, putting in two particularly hard challenges on Mehdi Nafti and Sebastian Larsson early on and Liverpool’s passing was crisp.

But the promise of some high-tempo fireworks quickly evaporated, giving way to a tepid, disappointing first half.

Having made 38 changes to his team in eight matches previously this season, Benitez, the Liverpool manager, made several more. His hand was forced over defender Daniel Agger and midfielder Xabi Alonso, who were both ruled out with broken metatarsals. Whether the constant tinkering is a factor or not, the fluidity of their dominating display against Derby three weeks ago was conspicuously lacking as the team remained in second gear.

Birmingham’s cause was not helped by an injury sustained by Borja Oubina in the 12th minute. His role was to sit just in front of the back four, but he had to be stretchered off and Blues reverted to four in midfield when Gary McSheffrey was introduced. Starved of possession in attacking areas and closed down fast any moment they threatened, neither McSheffrey on the left nor Sebastian Larsson on the right could make any inroads and Birmingham’s only shot on target in the opening half was an optimistic effort from 40 yards by Wilson Palacios, which Jose Reina gathered comfortably.

Maik Taylor in goal was on a higher state of alert. Liverpool struggled to produce sufficient incisive movement among their attacking players but, from a corner rolled along the deck by Babel, Riise made a sweet connection from 30 yards with the inside of his left boot and his shot narrowly cleared the Birmingham crossbar.

Franck Queudrue made a strong challenge on Kuyt to block the striker’s shot at the expense of another corner but from set pieces Liverpool remained largely impotent. Kuyt headed wide from a dangerous cross by Gerrard, then shot wide from outside the area as frustration grew.

The closest the home side came to a breakthrough was just before half-time when Gerrard played a short free kick to Jermaine Pennant, whose 25-yard shot had to be tipped over by Taylor.

Liverpool’s play lacked the invention, pace and penetration to break down Birmingham’s dogged defending. The Anfield crowd could barely await the introduction of Torres, who was finally unleashed by Benitez just beyond the hour.

Liverpool at last started to ask serious questions of the Birmingham defence but still they held firm. Gerrard and Pennant were combining on the right side of their penalty area with greater effect, stretching Queudrue and Liam Ridgewell. Jamie Carragher’s shot from the edge of the area was blocked by Djourou and yielded a corner, which Pennant steered towards the near post and Gerrard met with a low shot that Nafti, reacting sharply on the line, managed to block and clear. Voronin, who struggled to bring authority to his striking role, almost capitalised on a stray pass by Djourou, holding off the defender and his teammate Ridgewell, to force a fine save from Taylor from the edge of the area.

Birmingham often had 10 men behind the ball, with only Cameron Jerome up front, but the constant pressure was taking its toll. Pennant managed to move in behind the defence from a superb ball by Gerrard and the winger’s low cross had to be booted away by Ridgewell just ahead of Kuyt at the near post. Crouch was added to the attack and increased the stress for Birmingham as his aerial threat was put to use.

But it was the class of Torres that almost made the difference. Pennant was increasingly finding space on the right in behind Birmingham’s beleaguered defence and a cross into Torres in the centre yielded an opportunity. The Spanish striker produced a stunning overhead kick that just cleared the crossbar, much to the relief of Taylor.

As Liverpool maintained their momentum, Torres intervened again with a clever backheel which Crouch and Gerrard ran onto, and only a perfectly-timed tackle by Stephen Kelly saved Birmingham on the edge of the box. Crouch squandered a final opportunity with a wayward header and Birmingham’s bravery and resilience proved enough to deny Liverpool victory.

Two points lost, which Benitez and his team may come to rue.

Liverpool 0 Birmingham 0

The voices of Birmingham's delighted fans boomed around Anfield at the end of this bitterly frustrating Barclays Premier League game for Liverpool.

They may be still unbeaten and boss Rafael Benitez was able to utilise £40million plus of striking talent, but nobody had the ability to prise open the massed blue ranks.

Birmingham unashamedly strung 10 men across their own penalty area at times and fought like lions for a point.

The Midlanders were clearly not going to be letting themselves suffer a six-goal thrashing like Derby did recently, and set out to suffocate the life from Liverpool's game.

Steve Bruce's side more than achieved their aim - and fully deserved the point.

Liam Ridgewell and Johan Djourou were outstanding at the back and Benitez has still to register a league win over Bruce's men after five attempts.

Benitez restricted himself to just two changes - he has been averaging five a match so far this term - from the team which drew their Champions League game in Porto in midweek.

Fit-again John Arne Riise returned in defence with Andriy Voronin coming in up front as Liverpool attempted to maintain their unbeaten record this term.

Birmingham arrived with a suffocating gameplan, and set about frustrating Liverpool from the start.

Liverpool might have put six goals past Derby last time out in the league at Anfield, but Birmingham looked a totally different proposition.

They strung five across a deep midfield and worked to deny Liverpool space to run into.

Gaps were limited. Ryan Babel combined to play Riise in on the left, and his fierce low cross was too far ahead of Voronin.

Babel then cut in from the left and found Dirk Kuyt - but the striker was forced into a hurried shot wide.

Birmingham's system, though, was disrupted on 16 minutes by what looked a bad injury to Borja Oubina on his full debut for the Midlanders - the loanee from Celta Vigo was carried off and replaced by Gary McSheffrey.

Mehdi Nafti moved into the midfield holding role, and immediately there was space for Riise to fire a dipping 20-yard effort just over.

Birmingham were regimented and organised and were forcing Liverpool to make all the decisions.

Chances were rare, with Kuyt heading wide from a Steven Gerrard cross in the 26th minute.

Jermaine Pennant, against his old club, was switched from right to left wing - and Babel moved in the opposite direction.

But openings, space and time on the ball remained at a premium.

Birmingham at times had 10 players in their final third - with Cameron Jerome the exception - but Bruce's men were sticking to their plan diligently.

Pennant produced a 25-yard effort which was turned over the bar by Maik Taylor, before Jose Reina made his only contribution to the first half when Wilson Palacios shot from 25 yards.

Liverpool continued to toil after the break, and Jamie Carragher saw an 18-yard effort deflected just over.

From Pennant's corner, Gerrard stabbed in a near post effort which Nafti cleared off the line.

Voronin was next to go close, stumbling as he picked up a through-ball, but still able to fire in a low shot that Taylor saved well to his left.

Liverpool sent on Fernando Torres for Babel on the hour, before Olivier Kapo forced Reina into a save with a shot from 30 yards.

Liam Ridgewell was then booked in the 62nd minute for obstructing Reina as he tried to kick clear.

Birmingham increasingly fancied their chances and five minutes later they sent on an extra striker in Garry O'Connor for Palacios.

Peter Crouch finally got on after 74 minutes to add some aerial threat, replacing Voronin - and two minutes later Torres produced an overhead kick which flashed inches over from Pennant's corner.

Birmingham were looking now to punish Liverpool on the break, and McSheffrey almost achieved that with an 18-yard effort which went just over.

Rafael Schmitz replaced Jerome in the 79th minute, as Liverpool's players began to getting in the way of each other in their desperation for a goal.

Torres' backheel was meant for Gerrard's run - but Crouch collided with his more-than-annoyed captain six yards out.

Steve Finnan replaced the injured Pennant with three minutes left, the winger looking to have picked up a hamstring problem.

Gerrard's corner soon after found Crouch rising unchallenged, but he could only bounce his header into the Kop, summing up Liverpool's day.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pennant Pinpointed As Reds Dangerman


Birmingham boss Steve Bruce is wary of the threat posed by winger Jermaine Pennant when he takes his side to Liverpool on Saturday.

Bruce handed Pennant a career lifeline when he signed him from Arsenal and stood by him after he was jailed for motoring offences.

Pennant's form for Birmingham earned him a dream move to Liverpool last summer and Bruce said: "He seems to have knuckled down and did well to get a move to such a top club as Liverpool.

"He appears to have behaved himself since joining Liverpool and made himself into a really good player.

"No-one doubts his ability. He has taken on added responsibility and I felt that in the European Cup final he was their best player.

"Going to prison certainly gave him a wake-up call.

"He was a fantastic player for us and he is a genuinely a good kid.

"After leaving Birmingham he gave me a Liverpool shirt but it does not go down too well in my house," added former Manchester United skipper Bruce.

Bruce believes he has got a more than able replacement for Pennant in the shape of Sebastian Larsson.

"We sold Jermaine to Liverpool for £8million and we brought in Seb Larsson from Arsenal for £1million to replace him," said Bruce. "Seb has been a great replacement for us and he has been a fantastic signing.

"He scored nine goals last season and played a key role in us winning promotion.

"He probably had his best game of the season in the 1-0 win over Bolton last Saturday.

"He is keen to prove himself in the Premier League and he is turning out to be a great replacement for Pennant."

Preview: LiverpooL vs Birmingham City


Liverpool Look To Get Back To Winning Ways When Birmingham Visit Anfield.

The last two results have been rather forgettable for the Reds, not because of the points amounted, but instead due to the abject displays of the team. Rafa Benitez gambled by resting Gerrard, Torres, Babel and Kuyt at Pompey away and it didn’t pay off. The Reds were maybe lucky to walk away with a draw.

No one would argue with the idea that players need to be rested at times, but maybe Benitez needs to pick the games in which he does this more carefully. Pompey are formidable at home, they have already held Manchester United to a draw on their own patch and Liverpool have struggled to beat them at Fratton Park in the past.

Birmingham will look to build on their first home victory of the season in which they disposed of Bolton. They will also look to secure some points from Anfield to avoid getting dragged into any relegation battle this season. Steve Bruce will be fairly happy with the start they have made to the season, twelfth position is indeed a decent position for them to occupy in the league.

The Reds boast an impressive record, and are yet to concede a league goal from open play so far this campaign. Birmingham lead Liverpool by three wins to two in the Premier League head-to-head standings. The Blues have never failed to score at Anfield in the Premier League.




FORM GUIDE



Liverpool



Sep 18 Porto (a, CL) DREW 1-1

Sep 15 Portsmouth (a) DREW 0-0

Sep 1 Derby (h) WON 6-0

Aug 28 Toulouse (h) WON 4-0

Aug 25 Sunderland (a) WON 2-0



Birmingham



Sep 15 (h) Bolton WON 1-0

Sep 1 (a) Middlesbrough LOST 2-0

Aug 28 (h) Hereford WON 2-1

Aug 25 (a) Derby WON 2-1

Aug 18 (h) West Ham LOST 1-0





TEAM NEWS



Liverpool:

Agger and Alonso are out for six weeks with fractured metatarsals. Harry Kewell has not fully recovered from his hamstring injury and misses out. Sissoko returns to the squad after missing the trip to Portugal. Lucas can expect a place on the bench.


Possible Starting XI: Reina, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise, Benayoun, Pennant, Gerrard, Mascherano, Torres, Kuyt



Birmingham:

Birmingham skipper Damien Johnson will not be risked despite coming through a reserve game after a hamstring injury. That means the Blues are set to name an unchanged team, with Olivier Kapo playing in the hole off the strikers.


Possible Starting XI: Taylor, Queudrue, Ridgewell, Djourou, Nafti, Muamba, Larsson, Jerome, Mcsheffrey, Kapo




PLAYERS TO WATCH



Liverpool – Jermaine Pennant will look to impress against his old club and he will also look to put in a good performance after his dismissal in midweek.


Birmingham – Olivier Kapo has settled in really fast and has already notched up a couple of goals from midfield. The former French international has plenty of pedigree and will be a threat.





PREDICTION



Liverpool 3 – 0 Birmingham

Liverpool are dominant at home and I can’t see Birmingham taking anything away from Anfield. The defence has been very miserly this season, only conceding goals from penalties.



Thursday, September 20, 2007

Riise Fit To Play Birmingham


Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez returned from the near-disaster of the Champions League trip to Porto to be boosted by confirmation that Norwegian defender John Arne Riise had declared himself fit for selection for Saturday's home league clash with Birmingham.

It was a small mercy for Benitez, who had witnessed a depressingly poor display in the Group A opener in Portugal, even though Dirk Kuyt's header secured a fortunate 1-1 draw.

The positives from that were, however, clear. Liverpool, despite playing badly, did not lose to arguably their biggest rivals in the group, and it is a point that could be crucial to deciding top spot come December.

Benitez left Riise behind on Merseyside for treatment on a back problem that he had picked up on international duty last week, and which had ruled him out of last weekend's trip to Portsmouth.

The Spaniard will now need assessments on Xabi Alonso and Daniel Agger, who also missed the drama in the Estadio do Dragao.

Alonso failed to shake off an ankle problem that sidelined him at Pompey, while Agger was named on the bench in Porto despite picking up a foot injury.

Benitez knows Liverpool must bounce back against the promoted midlanders to retain their unbeaten record this term.

Riise is likely to return to the side as a wide midfielder, with Alvaro Arbeloa retaining the left-back slot.

Riise said: "I am fit again and raring to go now. It was devastating for me to miss the last two games because they were big matches against Portsmouth and Porto.

"I picked up the injury playing for my national team but a scan showed it was not a serious problem. I missed four days training but I am a quick healer and thankfully I am fit again now.

"Throughout my time at Liverpool I have not picked up too many injuries and have not missed that many games.

"I am full of energy now after not playing in the last couple of games and I am now looking forward to the rest of the week's training and the chance to force my way back into the side at the weekend."

Amauri Linked With Liverpool Move


Forward Amauri Carvalho has been linked with a move to Liverpool next season following comments from Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini.

Amauri has apparently been attracting the interest of the Anfield side while top Spanish clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona have reportedly shown an interest in acquiring the 27-year-old.

"It's going to be very difficult to keep Amauri," admitted Zamparini. "It will be difficult especially if he continues to play as he has done.

"Amauri could finish in a top club in Spain or in the Premiership."

Amauri joined Palermo from Chievo in the summer of 2006 and signed a four-year contract with the Rossaneri.

He scored eight goals in 18 Serie A games last season before suffering a serious knee injury.

Amauri has recovered his form and has scored one goal in three league appearances for the Sicilian giants so far this campaign.

Liverpool Braced For Injury Crisis

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is facing up to the first serious test of the Anfield club's unbeaten season after key players Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso were ruled out with injuries.

At the same time veteran defender Sami Hyypia is having to contend with scrutiny over his ability to continue at the highest level.

Hyypia, 34 next month and in his ninth season at the club, was a summer target of Fulham, Newcastle and Bolton but despite Agger becoming a first choice alongside Jamie Carragher the Finland defender was determined to see out the final year of his contract.

That has paid off quicker than he would have expected as Agger has been ruled out for six weeks with a broken metatarsal.

Spain midfielder Alonso has suffered a similar injury and will be out for a similar length of time, leaving Benitez to cope with Barclays Premier League, Carling Cup and Champions League games without two key figures of his side.

Both will be missed as Benitez has no-one in his midfield who can pass the ball and open up defences to Alonso's standards, while Agger's absence will expose the one genuine weakness of his squad at the heart of defence.

Liverpool are still unbeaten but a Premier League draw at Portsmouth followed by the 1-1 stalemate in Portugal against Porto on Tuesday has given the Red's so-far serene progress this season a real jolt.

Hyypia was partly to blame for Porto's penalty in the Estadio do Dragao, where his increasing lack of pace was exposed.

The Finn, though, did not look for excuses and approached Saturday's home match with Birmingham saying: "That result in Portugal was a kick up the backside for us all."

Liverpool have a Carling Cup game at Reading on Tuesday, in which youngster Jack Hobbs could get his chance in defence now Gabriel Paletta has left, with the team making the trip to Wigan on Saturday week.

They are all matches Liverpool would have been expected to win before the self-doubt set in after Portugal.

"We understand we didn't play well but still got the point which was very important, and we realise what we have to do to get a better result, it can work that way," added Hyypia.

Dirk Kuyt, whose header gave Liverpool the equaliser against Porto, has underlined the determination within the Anfield camp to maintain their nine-match unbeaten run this season.

He said: "What is important now is for us to keep our unbeaten record for as long as possible because this gives everyone a lot of confidence.

"We still haven't played our best football this season but if we continue to work as hard as we have we know we will get better because we have a really good to team. It will improve.

"If we do want to win the Premier League and other trophies, we know we have to do better than that, hopefully starting on Saturday against Birmingham."

Benitez, who has already made 38 changes in their nine matches this season must now search for a solution to Alonso's absence.

At least the manager is boosted by the return to fitness of defenders Fabio Aurelio and John Arne Riise while Alvaro Arbeloa - who has already played left and right-back this term - can also play in the centre of defence.

In midfield Benitez has Javier Mascherano and Mohamed Sissoko but neither have the quality of passing Alonso possesses.

Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva will come into consideration but the 20-year-old clearly lacks experience of the English game.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Liverpool Boss Wants Quick Qualification

Rafael Benitez wants his Liverpool team to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League long before the end of the their group matches.

The Anfield chief has already admitted he sees the Barclays Premier League as his priority for this season, a statement made well ahead of their opening Champions League group A match here in Porto.

In recent seasons, Liverpool have frequently had to rely on last-day heroics - something skipper Steven Gerrard has been forced to specialise in - to make sure that the club reaches the last 16.

That, insists Benitez, has to change if the club are to have any chance of managing their Premier League campaign successfully.

Last season was the first time in the competition's current format that they went into the final group game in Istanbul against Galatasaray with their destiny already assured.

And now Benitez wants that scenario repeated so that when they arrive in Marseille for their last group match in early December, their fate will already be decided.

He said: "It is clear that the perfect situation is to get to the last game and already be qualified for the next stage. Last season we achieved that and by the time we went to Galatasaray for the last group match, we had already qualified.

"This is something we must achieve regularly. The way to do that is to win from the very first match in the group, if you do that it is easier to manage the rest of the Champions League games and to be able to concentrate on the Premier League as well."

With the Premier League title now the prize Benitez covets above all else, he does not need Champions League problems getting in the way of that vision.

Benitez, who will be without full-back John Arne Riise in Portugal because of a groin injury sustained playing for Norway last week, has a very clear objective as the group matches unfold over next three months.

He says: "We are not thinking of drawing this one, like we did with last season's first group game in Eindhoven, we are aiming to win.

"I feel we need 12 points to get through to the next stage. Some people say 10 is enough, but if we win our three home games and then achieve one away win, that should be enough.

"So it is important that we win early in the group, and not have to depend on the last match. It is best to have the points now, that is what you need and that is why we aim to win here in Porto.

"I know the group and the quality of the teams, it will be difficult but we know what we need to do.

"We have confidence and experience in Europe, we should be able to manage the situation."

As the domestic season hots up, Benitez wants to rotate his large squad to make sure the title campaign stays on track, with the Champions League qualification already in the bag.

That is the real step up Liverpool, despite two final appearances in three seasons, have to make.

That is how the real top teams in Europe manage their seasons. And it is something that Liverpool, apart from last term, have struggled to achieve.

But this is a new Liverpool. One with vast money spent on rebuilding Benitez's squad, and they will be expected to act with the confidence and arrogance Manchester United and AC Milan have done over the years.

Benitez adds: "As a top side you must think of winning every competition, everything is a challenge, but right now we can concentrate on the Champions League.

"If we win this one, it will give us the opportunity to clinch qualification early. That is important, if we can start winning now it makes it easier later on.

"Then you can start counting the points, we will be happy then and then think about everything else we are chasing."

Liverpool face a Porto side with a 100% record at the head of the Portuguese league after four successive wins.

Benitez continued: "We have confidence and experience in Europe, we should be able to manage the situation.

"But Porto are a difficult opponent. Every season they seem to sell very good players, but always they have a good team and do well in Europe."

Benitez is expected to start with Gerrard and Fernando Torres, both on the bench for the 0-0 draw at Portsmouth on Saturday, with Dirk Kuyt expected to partner the Spanish star up front.

Benitez says: "Mentally we will be ready but physically we will have to change some players. We trained a little on Sunday, but you can't do too much, it is all about being careful with your players.

"The team has confidence in every game, in the league and the Champions League. We have experience and quality to approach this game with confidence.

"We will now see the quality of our players in these difficult situations.

"We were able to use experienced players from the bench at Portsmouth and almost won the game. Now if we use those same players from the start against Porto it will be a real benefit to our objectives."

Mohamed Sissoko And John Arne Riise To Miss Porto Game

Liverpool's Mohamed Sissoko and John Arne Riise will miss the Champions League Group A match against FC Porto on Tuesday.

Defender Riise has a groin injury he picked up on international duty with Norway last week, while Sissoko and Harry Kewell will also not make the trip to Portugal.

But defender Fabio Aurelio is back in the squad after a lengthy absence with an Achilles tendon injury.

"Fabio is back which is good news for us," Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager said. "He has worked hard to recover from his injury and could be a useful asset for us."

Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano also return for club duty after both missed the game with Portsmouth on Saturday. Mascherano had travelled to Australia to play in a friendly match for Argentina on Tuesday.

Jesualdo Ferreira, the Porto manager, has warned Liverpool that his side will show no fear when they face the five-time European champions.

"In the last four years Porto and Liverpool have both won the Champions League," he said. "So the past is just old stories. There are no favourites in this match."

Ferreira also expects Portugal winger Ricardo Quaresma, targeted by Jose Mourinho as a replacement for Arjen Robben in the summer, to play a key role.

"He is a big player for us and everything else that is going on around him doesn't matter." he added. "We know how Liverpool plays. They are very good on the counter-attack and have a strong defence, but we think we are ready.

"We have our own ideas and if we play well we will have the chances to win. I hope the stadium is full and the supporters will put a lot of pressure on Liverpool."

Liverpool (from): Reina, Finnan, Agger, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio, Arbeloa, Pennant, Benayoun, Babel, Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Crouch, Torres, Kuyt, Voronin, Itandje.

Porto vs Liverpool: Head To Head

Liverpool and Porto are expected to be battling it out for Group A supremacy, with both sides among the recent winners of the Champions League.

Here let’s see how the sides match up in three key areas.

MANAGERS

Rafael Benitez first came to the attention as a major force in the European game when he blew the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly in Spain during his time with Valencia.

His tactical nous and inventive use of formations and players earned him plenty of respect in Spain - a trick he has repeated in England with Liverpool.

Despite a good start to the season domestically his success with the Reds has been predominantly in cup competitions.

He has a superb record in knockout tournaments and the club's displays in the Champions League is second to none in the last three years.

Porto's Jesualdo Ferreira is a vastly experienced coach, having worked as assistant manager of Portugal and with the under-21s. He won the title in his first year as Porto boss and previously cut his teeth at Benfica and Boavista.

EUROPEAN PEDIGREE

Liverpool are England's most successful side in Europe, with five European Cups adorning the Anfield trophy cabinet.

While four of those came between 1997 and 1984 the already legendary 2005 win over AC Milan, followed by a second appearance in the final last season - a defeat to the same opponents - make them one of the most dominant sides recent years.

Former Porto manager Jose Mourinho gave the Portuguese club a glory day of their own in 2004, leading them to a classic underdog victory by lifting the 2004 Champions League trophy.

They claimed the UEFA Cup one year previously, and with a European Cup win to their name in 1987, they are clearly a club who can mix it up with more established sides.

CURRENT FORM

Liverpool's start to the season has been their best in recent memory, with an unbeaten record from their opening five league outings.

The 6-0 win over Derby showcased Benitez's side - and his fine collection of summer signings - at their very best, but Saturday's 0-0 with Portsmouth proved they cannot expect to score at will.

There are still some questions over their best XI but with the Spaniard favouring rotation these may never be answered.

Porto's players come into the match on the back of successive victories, with clean sheets in both after a 3-0 win over Uniao Leiria and a 1-0 triumph over Maritimo.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Portsmouth 0 - 0 LiverpooL


Portsmouth, having drawn with Manchester United here, gave a further indication that they can live with England's Champions League clubs at home by holding Liverpool. True, they have lost away at Arsenal and Chelsea, but it has been a difficult start to the season and, as their fixtures become notionally less hazardous, Harry Redknapp's side can expect to keep climbing the Premier League table until Christmas, when their prospects can be more fairly assessed.

Whether Liverpool's challenge for the title will be as plausible then as now is more difficult to assess. Redknapp was cautiously optimistic on their behalf. "They are going to go close this year,'' he said. ”They've got a big squad and good players. But I still think Manchester United will edge it.''

Even in these early days you can see what he meant: while United were winning at Everton, Liverpool dropped points here (even if it still represented progress in the sense that they lost at Fratton last season). Naturally Rafa Benitez was questioned on why he had used Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres only in the final quarter, but he pointed out that his side had enjoyed the better of the first half; after the dispersal of so many players for international duty, and with a need to think of Tuesday's Champions League opening match in Oporto, careful management of resources had been necessary.

Redknapp, having admitted he was pleased to see Liverpool's starting line-up, said: "Before the game, I'd have taken a point, but we had a few gilt-edged chances to win it.'' Principally a penalty after half an hour. A disputed one. Although Xabi Alonso was shown the yellow card for his leading role in the protests, television suggested one of Mike Riley's assistants had correctly discerned a slight tug on John Utaka's shirt by Alvaro Arbeloa. "It was very slight,'' said Redknapp, "and I've seen those not given a thousand times.'' Not that this even-handedness lessened his exasperation when Kanu's kick was saved by Pepe Reina. "I like to see people run up and put their boot through penalties,'' the Portsmouth manager explained. "Really smash 'em. Kanu had one for a hat-trick against Blackburn last season and tried to place it - he missed that one as well!''

Reina's save was the highlight of the first half. Kanu sent the kick to his right, but the goalkeeper has a history of thwarting penalty-takers and hurled himself to beat away the effort. Portsmouth would have been flattered by the lead, for Liverpool, despite the decision to rest Gerrard and Torres, had been the more impressive side, dominating the midfield through Alonso and Momo Sissoko. Up front Peter Crouch, eager and intelligent, outshone Andriy Voronin, forcing a sharp low save from David James.

Immediately after the interval, Crouch contrived an extraordinary piece of skill. Steve Finnan flighted the ball from the right and the lanky striker somehow flicked up a heel behind his back to almost shoulder height and made controlled contact with the ball, which went just over James's crossbar. A more orthodox volley by Voronin then kissed the bar on its way over.

Yet Liverpool, for all this, made what might have proved a costly error in letting the excellent debutant Papa Bouba Diop's crafty prod travel through the heart of their defence to Utaka, who shot wide; it was a dreadful miss. Infinitely more pardonable was Sulley Muntari's lob on to the roof of the net, because he was under pressure from the advancing Reina. It was also a sign that the initiative had slipped away from Liverpool, and Benitez reacted by sending on Torres and Gerrard.

The changes made little difference and Muntari took his turn to throw away a great opportunity. Kanu set him up cleverly but the Ghanaian, with Reina at his mercy, screwed the ball off target, and in the end it might have been Liverpool who snatched victory when Torres's pass across the face of goal just eluded Voronin. But neither side had made out a convincing case for three points and both managers seemed relieved enough to take one. Redknapp, his aspirations lower, could claim: "We looked strong enough to give anyone a game if we keep all our people fit.'' Benitez prepared to turn his thoughts to Europe and, when asked if the English title, last secured by Liverpool in 1990, was not inevitably the club's top priority, replied: "If we have the choice, yes.''

Benitez Hoping For Fresher Legs As Europe Beckons


Rafa Benitez admitted a week of international duty had contributed to his side being knocked off the top of the Premier League but the Liverpool boss was bullish as he turned his attention to the start of the Reds' Champions League campaign.

Goalkeeper Jose Reina ensured Benitez's men remain unbeaten in the league by saving Nwankwo Kanu's first-half penalty and a lacklustre Liverpool allowed their hosts several good second-half chances to break the stalemate.

Benitez rested both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard and was unable to pick Javier Mascherano after the Argentinian midfield anchor-man played a friendly in Australia during the week.

In total Benitez had 18 players from his first team squad absent on international duty last week and it showed at times as Pompey really troubled the Reds in the final fifteen minutes as jet-lagged legs began to tire.

Benitez, whose side face FC Porto in the first of their Champions League group fixtures on Tuesday, said: "It is disappointing. I think we controlled the game in the first half but in the last 15 minutes it was very open.

"After an international break it is very difficult to pick the team because you do not have any time to train with the players.

"Mascherano for example was in Australia playing a very important friendly.

When so many players are away you can only really work on fitness because it is pointless talking about tactics.

"I think a point was a fair result but both sides had chances to win the game. It is nice not to have any real injury worries for the game on Tuesday and we go there still unbeaten and full of confidence."

True, Benitez's men looked the most likely to score in the opening half hour as Yossi Benayoun and Peter Crouch might have done better when presented with good opportunities.

But they were dramatically pegged back when Alvaro Arbeloa hauled back Benjani for Mike Riley to award a penalty.

In somewhat predictable fashion, due to his past record, Reina saved the spot-kick from Nigerian playmaker Kanu and Liverpool were able to breathe easy.

The second half, with the exception of Voronin clipping the crossbar, largely belonged to Portsmouth as Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin’s dominance at the back gave them the platform to progress forward.

Kanu's compatriot John Utaka embarrassingly missed from ten yards out when he slashed his effort wide only for Sulley Muntari to produce an even worse finish five minutes later when teed up by Kanu.

Pompey boss Harry Redknapp was delighted with his side’s first clean sheet of the season but reserved special praise for debutant Papa Bouba Diop.

Redknapp said: "He covered every blade of grass. I have always been a fan of his, he is big and has a presence and I think he will do well for us.

"It was an even game and we had a couple of good chances. When you get the chance you have to stick it away against Liverpool. Had we gone in front I am sure we would have gone on to win the game."

Unhappy Crouch Set To Leave LiverpooL


Liverpool face a fight to keep Peter Crouch, with Manchester City and Italian giants Juventus both ready to make a move for the England striker in January.

Crouch is considering his future and is stalling on signing a new three-year contract.

He is unhappy at being fourth-choice striker at Liverpool this season behind new signings Fernando Torres and Andriy Voronin, plus Dutchman Dirk Kuyt.

Crouch, 26, is concerned about his place in the England squad as he feels he isn’t starting enough matches.

Already this season, he has dropped to fourth spot in the England striking ranks after the re-emergence of Wigan’s former Liverpool front man Emile Heskey, who was picked ahead of Crouch for the Russia match. Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are also ahead of him.

City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who gave Crouch his international debut, wants another striker to replace the injured Valeri Bojinov.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ferguson Backs Rafa In Schedule Row


Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has backed Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez's complaints over the Premier League fixture scheduling and claimed clubs like his own are being punished for their success.

Benitez is fuming at the number of Saturday lunchtime away games Liverpool find themselves involved in immediately after international breaks and Champions League weeks.

Manchester United often find themselves in the same situation and head to Everton on Saturday for a noon start at Goodison Park.

Although on this occasion the kick-off time has been determined by Merseyside Police rather than the TV companies, Ferguson does believe there is an issue to be addressed.

And the Red Devils chief is laying the blame squarely at the Premier League's door.

"Rafa is quite right to complain," said Ferguson.

"If there is an unfairness against teams, it should be addressed but I don't know if the authorities would listen.

"Over the last five years, we have had more lunchtime kick-offs than anyone and you would think that deserves some kind of attention.

"The Premier League are to blame. I accept, given when the fixture lists come out, it is just unfortunate if you find yourself away from home after a European tie but Rafa is talking about the lunchtime kick-offs."

Ferguson does accept pleasing every interested party is an impossible job for anyone.

And, in accepting an enormous £1.7billion cheque from Sky and Setanta for the domestic TV rights, the United manager also acknowledges the Premier League has given up any realistic control over kick-off times.

But he feels there are elements of unfairness about the way the Premier League handle certain situations, citing the differing examples of his own club and major title rivals Chelsea last year.

"Chelsea had a Sunday game against Tottenham and the Premier League changed it at their behest because they had a European tie the following Tuesday," he said.

"That decision gave Chelsea three days to prepare, which is fine, except Tottenham had played their own European game on the previous Thursday, which left them with one-and-a-half days to prepare.

"There was no fairness there whatsoever.

"Then, when we asked for a Saturday lunchtime fixture at Manchester City to be changed because we had a Champions League semi-final the previous Wednesday, the Premier League said no, even though City had not played at all. That was wonderful."

Ferguson continued: "I do think the successful teams are punished.

"The top teams are always going to be televised at a time that suits the public demand. Sky and Setanta are always going to pick the successful teams for the prime-time games, you can't blame them for that given the amount of money they have put it.

"Money is important to every club now, so they do a deal. But once you shake hands with the devil, you have to accept they are in control."

Match Preview: Portsmouth vs LiverpooL


With the international fixtures out of sight and out of mind, its business as usual in the Premiership, and in case you have forgotten, Liverpool are going great guns.

The Reds have looked good value for their ten points, meanwhile Portsmouth have been a bit indifferent for their high standards, but having played Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in their opening five matches, they’d be happy with an even return.

It’s a tale of two clubs coming into this fixture, and they’re at polar opposites. Liverpool are looking to achieve their third consecutive victory for the first time in 17 outings, whereas Pompey will be hoping to avoid a third consecutive league defeat, something that has not happened for 53 games.

The contradictions keep on coming, Liverpool are they only club to have scored first in all of their Premiership games this season, Portsmouth are the only club to have conceded first in all of their games, so if you’ve got to have a bet this weekend, I think you’ll know where to put your money.

Normally this early in the season when Pompey draw Liverpool at home, you’d be tempted to say ‘this is their toughest test so far’. Well not this season, as Harry’s men have already faced Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.

Not the most fortuitous of starts then, but once the Liverpool game is out of the way, Harry can truly believe that things couldn’t get any worse until Christmas at least. Considering the start they’ve had, Pompey have done well, holding United to a draw at Fratton Park and deserving at least a draw against Chelsea after lording it over The Blues for most of the game at Stamford Bridge.

Their last result brought into focus that Portsmouth still have a long way to go to be considered a top six club, a 3-1 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates proof that the south coast side can’t fight toe-to-toe with the big boys all the time.

But Pompey should be encouraged by the stat that against Liverpool at Fratton Park in the league, they have won 15 times in 27 meetings, only losing to them on 8 occasions. Indeed last season Pompey emerged victorious 2-1.

Portsmouth are undefeated at home in six matches since losing 2-0 to Chelsea in March, their only loss in nine games at Fratton Park. But Liverpool are storming at the minute and will really be ‘their toughest test so far’.

The Reds have started extremely well this season, topping the table after four games and with a match in hand over Chelsea, but more importantly they sit two points and a game ahead of bitter rivals and reigning champions Manchester United.

The 2007-08 campaign has already brought the best start from a Liverpool team since the 1998-99 season. A win against Portsmouth would ensure that it would be the best ever start to a Premiership season for the Merseysiders.

Perhaps the key to Liverpool’s success so far is their attacking prowess, proof that Rafa Benitez’s transfer decisions were made in good thought. Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and Andriy Voronin have already played their part to make sure that after four games the side has a goal difference of +12, the best in the league.

But the defence are also contributing, despite the absence of several back-liners over recent week. Liverpool are yet to concede in open play, both goals let in this season have come from the penalty spot.

Combining attacking prowess and defence solidity is the key to success and so far Liverpool have done a great job, a run that Portsmouth will be hoping to end to end tomorrow lunch time.



FORM GUIDE


Portsmouth

2 September v Arsenal (A) LOST 3-1
28 August v Leeds United (League Cup) (H) WON 3-0
25 August v Chelsea (A) LOST 1-0
18 August v Bolton Wanderers (H) WON 3-1
15 August v Manchester United (H) DREW 1-1

Liverpool

1 September v Derby County (H) WON 6-0
28 August v Toulouse (CLQR3) (H) WON 4-0
25 August v Sunderland (A) WON 2-0
19 August v Chelsea (H) DREW 1-1
15 August v Toulouse (CLQR3) (A) WON 1-0



TEAM NEWS

Portsmouth

Portsmouth can take encouragement from the fact that they have pretty much a fully-fit squad.

Sol Campbell, after suffering a double whammy of hamstring and groin trouble, is back in the reckoning, although the veteran defender may still lack a bit of match fitness.

Also coming back is Benjani, having recovered from a neck injury and Papa Bouba Diop comes into the squad hoping to make his first appearance after his arrival from Fulham on deadline day.

Squad: James, Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson, Utaka, Muntari, Davis, Taylor, Kanu, Benjani, Lauren, Kranjcar, Mendes, Diop, Nugent, Pamarot, Traore, Hughes, Ashdown.



Liverpool

Things are also looking good for Liverpool, who continue to go from strength to strength.

After breaking a rib against Sunderland just three weeks ago, Jamie Carragher is back in the side but he, like Campbell, could be lacking a bit of an edge. Steve Finnan is still a doubt with a knee injury.

Steven Gerrard looks well and truly over his toe injury after playing excellently for England over the past week. Harry Kewell and Fabio Aurelio are well on the road to recovery but are a few weeks off yet.

Squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Hyypia, Riise, Pennant, Benayoun, Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Sissoko, Babel, Kuyt, Crouch, Torres, Voronin, Finnan, Itandje.



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Portsmouth: – Nwankwo Kanu - After a summer of indecision from the big Nigerian, he must be glad to have stuck around Fratton Park, scoring two in four and looking quality. Harry Redknapp showed faith in the former Arsenal man and he is repaying it with his usual, inconspicuous work ethic that more often than not reaps the rewards. To say he was lucky to score the goal against Arsenal was an understatement, but they all count.

Liverpool: – Fernando Torres – All the superlatives have been used up when describing this man’s game. Managers the world over have been aware of his talents for years, but in his first season away from Atletico Madrid the hype has been well and truly justified. In Spain he was a bit of a ‘go and fetch it’ forward, working hard to get into scoring positions, therefore his tallies at the end of each season have been misleading. At Liverpool he has the support from midfield to be a bona fide striker, and an effective one at that, netting three in four.


PREDICTION

Portsmouth 1–2 Liverpool

Although the statistics suggest that Pompey are slight favourites for this match, form this season shows that it will take an almighty effort from the home side to get a result. With further depth to their team, Liverpool can chop and change and still have a side capable of overturning Portsmouth. But Redknapp has also brought in some talented individuals, notably John Utaka and Sulley Muntari, so, with the chimes in full swing, Portsmouth will be spirited in what will be a close affair, But The Reds should just edge it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Carragher Fit For Pompey Match


Jamie Carragher has won his battle to be fit for Liverpool's clash at Portsmouth at the weekend.

The Liverpool defender has overcome his broken rib injury and has trained normally with his team-mates at Melwood this week.

He is expected to go straight back into the side for Saturday lunchtime's game at Fratton Park when the Reds will be looking to consolidate their position at the top of the table.

"Carragher has been training normally with the rest of the players who’ve been here all week," said Benitez. "He is okay and I think he will be available this weekend, which is good news for us.

"Fabio Aurelio is now getting closer to the squad after playing 45 minutes for the reserves. Harry Kewell is also running again and is nearer to fitness.

"Today, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the safe return of all our internationals. It's not going to be easy for us to travel to Portsmouth tomorrow to play without one training session.

"All you can ask the players to do when they return is some running, so it's always a difficult time."

Benitez suffered a scare when Daniel Agger was substituted after 28 minutes of Denmark's international against Liechtenstein last night.

However, the Dane was only subbed because he is one yellow card away from a suspension and his country's next fixture is against Spain.

Rafa Rues Fixture List


Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has again vented his frustration at the fixture list in England.

Benitez is trying to prepare his squad for Saturday's lunchtime kick-off at Portsmouth on the back of the international break.

But the Spaniard claims it is 'impossible' to formulate his plans properly due to the limited time he will spend with his players in the build-up to the game.

"I am really disappointed with the fixtures that we have because it is more difficult here in England," Benitez told the League Mangers' Association's official website.

"You play early kick-offs on the Saturday (after internationals) and it is impossible to prepare the team properly.

"The players arrive back on Thursday evening and the only thing you can do with some of them is just to run a little bit and send them home.

"Friday morning you will have a light training session and you will travel to Portsmouth in this case and you cannot prepare the team.

"Normally the players that are going away are internationals because they are good players and you need these players for winning every game.

"For me it's impossible to prepare the team properly, you can prepare small details, but to prepare the team physically and mentally for the game will be difficult."

Liverpool Star Faces Axe After Bust-up With Coach


Furious Ukraine boss Oleg Blokhin has threatened to axe Andriy Voronin for the match against Scotland after a touchline bust-up.

The Liverpool hitman, a substitute in his country's 2-1 defeat to Italy, reacted angrily to comments made by his coach late in the game.

A toe-to-toe argument then broke out between the pair on the sidelines and no-nonsense Blokhin revealed he may now drop Voronin for the match against Alex McLeish's men next month.

When asked why the Anfield star was benched at the start, Blokhin fumed: "It's obvious. Voronin hardly strengthened us when he came on.

"In fact, he was one of the reasons Italy got the second goal. He looks to me like he has put on an extra three kilos of weight.

"We created 10 chances in the match and only took one. It's no wonder there was frustration.

"But no footballer has any right to speak the way he did to his coach. If he wishes to shout like that, let him go to Liverpool and say it to Rafa Benitez!

"After the match, I apologised to the team. I know that it was partly my fault, too.

"However, Andriy obviously doesn't consider it necessary to apologise and, if he continues like that, then I won't think it necessary to include him in the national team!"

But Voronin last night refused to back down in the war of words with Blokhin that could result in him being dropped.

The 28-year-old ace, capped 48 times for his country, said: "You must understand that I do not welcome this situation, but I am no longer a child. I won't allow anyone to patronise me the way Blokhin did."

Ukraine got their only goal through Chelsea superstar Andriy Shevchenko before Italy's Antonio Di Natale struck his second of the match to secure the win.

However, the former AC Milan striker has now given up hope of qualification and admitted his country are playing for honour in their four remaining group games.

Shevchenko said: "Italy made the most of the few chances they had and that's what separates them from the rest.

"The games ahead of us are a great chance for our young players to show what they can do.

"But our main motivation in these fixtures is to defend our country's honour."

Scotland face Ukraine in their next Euro 2008 qualifying match at Hampden on October 13.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Aurelio On Reds Comeback Trail


Liverpool's Brazilian defender Fabio Aurelio has come through his first run-out since April following a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Aurelio played the first-half of a reserve match against Crewe, which Liverpool won 2-1.

Aurelio, who sustained the injury in the first leg of last season's Champions League quarter-final at PSV Eindhoven, came through 45 minutes to suggest his return to the fold is imminent.

Saturday's Premier League trip to Portsmouth is likely to come too soon but boss Rafael Benitez will be keen to have Aurelio back to full fitness to provide cover, especially after he missed out on signing Gabriel Heinze from Manchester United at the end of the transfer window.


Liverpool To Retain Pako On Gardening Leave

Liverpool are in the process of thrashing out a release deal for Rafa Benitez's assistant coach Pako Ayesteran. However, with other Premier League sides set to offer a deal to the Spaniard, Liverpool are set to hold onto him as long as they can - even to the extent of offering him 'gardening leave'...

Liverpool are retaining assistant manager Pako Ayesteran on gardening leave as club and coach alike thrash out a resignation process for the coach.

'Gardening leave' is generally used by employers seeking to fulfil their contractual notice period to their employees but also instructing them to stay away from the premises.

This can have the effect of giving the outgoing employee some time off, or some time to look for a new job. In this instance, though, it is to prevent Pako from signing on with another club.

Liverpool are reportedly concerned that Chelsea and Manchester United are interested in landing the 44 year old, renowned for his physical coaching expertise, and are set to make it difficult for them to do so.

It was announced at the end of August that Pako, long-standing confidant and assistant to Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez would leave to forge his own path, the English tabloids speculating over a breakdown in communication between the two.

Benitez would not elaborate on why Pako, who had followed him from Tenerife to Valencia and finally to Anfield, had opted to leave his post.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Barcelona Wonderkid Has Liverpool On Alert


Barcelona fear that Mexican Giovani dos Santos will join Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea in the New Year because the 18-year-old has hired Pini Zahavi as his new agent.

United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are all keeping close tabs on the skilful attacking midfielder — touted as a successor to Ronaldinho at the Nou Camp — who made his debut for Mexico against Panama recently.

Giovani, who starred in Mexico's Under-17 World Cup win in 2005, is under contract at Barca until 2008 and has a buy-out clause of around £10 million. But because he signed his contract before he turned 18 and was not officially an adult, his deal may not be legally enforceable.

Zahavi, who fixed Roman Abramovich's deal to buy Chelsea and who has negotiated many transfers for United, will act for Giovani in November.

Zahavi said: "Until then I will not speak to anyone about him. There has been no contact with English clubs. But obviously Giovani is a diamond of world football. He has a contract until 2008 but he signed when he was under 18, so you can look at that how you wish."

Barca fear that Zahavi's links with Abramovich and Sir Alex Ferguson mean they may have to break their budget to keep him.

Dos Santos, son of former Brazilian player Zizinho, has a European Union passport and will not require a work permit.

Liverpool Target Cagliari's Foggia


According to the 'News of the World', the Reds want to sign the talented Rossoblu midfielder for a sum of around 18 million Euros.

Pasquale Foggia has caught the eye of various clubs, both in Italy and abroad, thanks to some excellent performances and his prolific goal scoring record which saw him already net three goals in Serie A from two matches played.

Liverpool are ready to pay 18 million Euros to buy the 24-year-old Italian midfielder who just received his first call-up for the Azzurri's squad following the first two positive matchdays in Serie A.

The main problem for the Reds is that the player is currently on loan at Cagliari from Lazio, and neither club has any intention of losing the midfielder in January.

The Sardinian side have the option of buying the player at the end of the season, whereas the Biancocelesti see him as the ideal player for the future, therefore a January transfer to Liverpool seems highly unlikely.

However, the 18 million Euro price tag might convince both President Cellino (Cagliari) and President Lotito (Lazio) that selling Foggia in summer would be the best choice.


Atletico Linked With Reina


Atletico Madrid are reported to have set their sights on luring Jose Reina away from Liverpool and back to La Liga.

Spanish daily AS claims Atletico have made the former Villarreal goalkeeper one of their top transfer targets.

Atletico are searching for a new goalkeeper with Leo Franco failing to perform on a consistent basis and Christian Abbiati only being on loan until the end of the season.

The capital club are believed to have sounded out Reina's representatives to find out if the keeper would be interested in a move back to Spain.

However, Liverpool are unlikely to entertain any move for Reina who is firmly established as the No 1 at Anfield.

Reina has previously expressed his happiness at Anfield and he signed a new deal earlier in the summer to keep him at the club until 2012.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Riise: We've Got The Best


John Arne Riise has hailed Liverpool's new owners for bringing 'the best of the best' to the club.

Riise believes the Reds are in the most exciting period in their recent history – something he puts largely down to co-chairman Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

"This is the most exciting period during my time with Liverpool," the Norwegian told LFC Magazine. "Not just because of the players but also the plans for the new stadium and the new owners, too.

"We've got the best of the best here. We have one of the best managers in the world, one of the best stadiums on the way, great new owners and fantastic players.

"We've been able to go out and buy more expensive players than ever before thanks to the new owners. Players like Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun; those are the kind of players we need to take this club forward."

Riise, who has made 309 appearances since arriving on Merseyside in 2001, also admits to being impressed with his American bosses on a personal level.

He said: "I totally respect our new owners and what they are trying to do here. It seems like they care about the people and the club, and us players.

"Following the Barcelona game last season, they were giving us all a hug and a pat on the back. It was the same in Athens when we lost. That is great and tells us we have some great people around us."

Riise is currently with the Norway squad ahead of Euro qualifiers against Greece and Moldova.

Voronin: Rafa Is Right To Rotate


Andriy Voronin has insisted that Liverpool's excellent start to the season justifies Rafael Benitez's squad rotation policy.

The Reds are currently top of the Premier League, following their 6-0 thrashing of Derby County.

The Spanish tactician is famous for tinkering, but after a summer of several transfers, Benitez now seems content with the options available to him.

The Ukrainian has made four appearances so far this season, two of those off the bench, but Voronin believes their unbeaten start to the campaign is down to the astuteness of Benitez.

"When I signed, Rafa told me that I should be prepared to be rotated," Voronin told the club's official website.

"Liverpool have a 23-player squad, and 20 of them are national-team players.

"Everyone wants to play and everyone knows how to play. But the coach is doing the right thing by giving us rests.

"He wants us to play 50 or 60 games at the highest level per season, not 20.

"This is why over the last five games our squad has been changed four times. The results show that Benitez is right."

Rafa Alerted To Taylor's New Contract Rejection


LIVERPOOL boss Rafael Benitez has been placed on red alert after Newcastle centre-half Steven Taylor turned down the offer of a new five-year contract at St James' Park.

Taylor, who is the most successful player to have emerged from Newcastle's Academy in the best part of a decade, was in Montenegro last night captaining England Under-21s.

But, in his absence, his father and representative, Alf, confirmed the defender had rejected an offer that was described as "disappointing".

That news has been greeted with interest at Anfield, where Benitez has long coveted arguably the most promising young centre-half in the English game.

And while the Liverpool manager opted not to make a formal offer for Taylor's services during the summer transfer window, sources on Merseyside suggest he will attempt to sign the North-Easterner if the current impasse is not resolved by January 1.

With Sami Hyypia approaching retirement, Benitez is understood to regard Taylor as an ideal back-up to his preferred defensive partnership of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger.

Taylor's current Magpies contract runs to 2009 but, after making 44 senior starts last season, the 21-year-old is looking to secure an improved deal.

James Milner and Charles N'Zogbia have both re-negotiated pre-existing deals recently, and Taylor had been hoping to follow suit.

But while he insists he has no intention of leaving Newcastle, he is clearly frustrated at the club's unwillingness to meet his demands.

"I only hope they are not trying to force Steven out," said his father, Alf.

"He loves Newcastle United and it is the only club he wants to play for, but he is most disappointed at what they are offering."

Taylor is currently one of the lowest-paid first-team players on Newcastle's books.

While summer signing Abdoulaye Faye is understood to be earning around £30,000-a-week after completing a summer move from Bolton, Taylor is believed to be commanding less than a third of that figure despite earning a call-up to Steve McClaren's senior England squad last month.

"Fans seeing the likes of Albert Luque and Jean-Alain Boumsong coming into the club with massive wages must think Steven is on big bucks, but that is not the case," added Taylor senior.

"He is not playing for Newcastle for the money, but because he loves football and the club.

"But having said that, it is a short career and the financial aspect is still important.

"Fortunately, while he is disappointed, Steven has never - nor ever will - let it affect his performance on the field.

"He is a local lad who only wants to play for his local team.

"But perhaps that is why his contract offer is not in the same category as those players who are coming in from all over the place.

"Yet I do not see this being a problem at Liverpool with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher."

Taylor was not the only Newcastle player on Under-21 duty last night, as Charles N'Zogbia was making his bow for France's junior side against Wales in Grenoble.

The versatile left-footer has been rewarded with a lucrative deal after his impressive start to the new season and, while France are hardly short of talent on the international stage, he is already eyeing a promotion to Raymond Domenech's senior squad.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Gerrard Declares Himself Fit For England

Steven Gerrard is winning his battle to be fit for Saturday’s crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel and has told Steve McClaren to count him in when he announces his team to the players today. The Liverpool captain is also more confident he will be able to figure against Russia on Wednesday as well.

The question of whether Gerrard will need a painkilling injection to play against Israel remains open, although it is more likely that he will need something to get him through the game. Nevertheless, he is still hopeful that the hairline fracture to a toe on his right foot will not prevent him playing in the second vital game against Guus Hiddink's Russia on Wednesday. It had been previously thought that playing him tomorrow would preclude him from the second game.

The news about Gerrard is a significant boost for McClaren who has already lost Frank Lampard for the Israel game and moved yesterday to allay the doubts over Owen Hargreaves' fitness. The Manchester United midfielder missed training on Tuesday and was, like the rest of the squad, given Thursday off. The Football Association said that it was common practice for the squad to have one day of rest in the build-up to an international double-header.

Gerrard's inclusion will not please Rafael Benitez, but McClaren has said right from the start of the week that it is a decision that will ultimately rest with the player himself. The 27-year-old has always been philosophical about the decision himself and would never play if he thought he was putting himself in danger of serious long-term damage. Having done some light training on Wednesday he now believes he is in a position to play his first match since Liverpool faced Chelsea on 19 August.

While the players took the day off yesterday, McClaren convened a meeting of his coaches to discuss the team that will play tomorrow. As has been his practice as England manager, he will leave it until today to make the final decision – the most crucial of which being his choice of goalkeeper. McClaren sees it as a straight choice between Paul Robinson and David James despite Scott Carson's recent impressive form for Aston Villa.

On the right side of midfield Shaun Wright-Phillips is expected to be selected ahead of David Bentley. The Chelsea man's recent form would give him the edge over Bentley who, while impressing in training, has not played for the senior England team and, as such, is viewed as something of a risk in such an important match.

McClaren played down the significance of Hargreaves missing training on Wednesday and said that a scan had revealed only a "small problem" with his thigh that he was hopeful would clear. "The thigh problem is not related to the tendonitis Owen has been suffering with in his knee," he said. "We're still hoping he will be available for Saturday, and he is definitely not ruled out.

"We'll give Owen as much time as we can before making a decision. He's a determined character and we know that he really wants to play. Naturally, we won't take any unnecessary risks with him though."

As for his strikers, McClaren is leaning towards the inclusion of Andy Johnson – who has figured more prominently alongside Michael Owen in recent training sessions – than Emile Heskey. Once again that is a decision that McClaren will finalise this morning although he has not ruled out a late change to a different system. Heskey said yesterday that he had enjoyed his return to the England squad. "It's good, I'm enjoying every minute of it," he said. "The lads have taken me in well again, so I'm enjoying it. I wasn't expecting it to be honest. I was on my way home from the [Newcastle v Wigan] game and I got the call. I was a bit surprised, but delighted as well.

"We've got a new manager, he was No 2 at the time, and we've got a lot of younger players. I'd never given up hope, but you know the situation with the national team, we've got so many good players coming through at the minute so he's got to pick from a lot.

"I'm that sort of player, unselfish who'll try my hardest and I think a lot of people see that in me. It's always been a joy playing alongside Michael. I've played with Michael since England under-18s so we kind of gelled then and it's taken itself through most of my career. It's been a joy to play with him, he's a brilliant player."

In contrast to England's long injury list, Israel have only one seriously doubt, although he is a significant one. Argentinian-born striker Roberto Colautti, Israel's top scorer with six goals in the campaign, looks like being replaced by Yaniv Katan. With an experienced back line, Israel will rely mainly on a solid defensive performance with Dudu Aouate of Deportivo Coruna in goal behind Tal Ben Haim of Chelsea and Beitar Jerusalem's Shimon Gershon in central defence. Arik Benado, who normally plays in central defence, will move up to a defensive midfield position, a role he played against England in March.