Saturday, August 11, 2007

Preview: Aston Villa vs LiverpooL

With no major injury problems, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has plenty of selection dilemmas ahead of the opening day's trip to Aston Villa.

He further claimed that big transfer fees do not guarantee a player his place in the side, but £20million signing Fernando Torres looks certain to make his league debut up front, most probably partnered by the hard-working Dutchman Dirk Kuyt.

Yossi Benayoun's impressive pre-season form could see him claim the right-wing role ahead of Jermaine Pennant, while Steven Gerrard will start the season in his favored central midfield role.

Meanwhile, Martin O'Neill's short of goalkeeping alternatives for the opening day of the campaign means academy prospect David Bevan will be on the bench.

Stuart Taylor will be between the posts as previous season's number one Thomas Sorensen is sidelined with a hamstring injury.

England Under-21 skipper Nigel Reo-Coker is set to make his competitive debut following his £8.5million move from West Ham but the other summer capture from Upton Park, striker Marlon Harewood, is expected to be among the substitutes.

However, John Carew should recover from a groin injury and is likely to partner Gabriel Agbonlahor in attack.


Aston Villa (from): Taylor, Bevan, Gardner, Cahill, Mellberg, Laursen, Bouma, Reo-Coker, Young, Petrov, Barry, Berger, Maloney, Osbourne, Carew, Agbonlahor, Moore, Harewood.

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

Benitez Not Pressured At Liverpool Yet

Rafael Benitez has played down suggestions he is a manager under intense pressure after a summer of lavish spending at Liverpool by insisting Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are starting the season under just as much scrutiny as him.

Benitez says the near-£40 million he has invested in players, including a club record amount on Fernando Torres, since watching Liverpool lose the Champions League final in Athens 80 days ago is money well spent.

He accepts he starts his fourth season in charge at Anfield under the microscope but believes he is under no more pressure than the managers of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, even though Ferguson, Mourinho and Wenger have delivered the title to their clubs.

"Who is under more pressure? Ferguson for winning the league and spending big money, Mourinho for finishing second and spending big money over three years or Wenger for losing Thierry Henry and not winning the title for some years?

"We are all under pressure," Benitez said ahead of today's opening game at Aston Villa.

Liverpool have finished each of the last two seasons in third spot ahead of Arsenal, although they ended last term 21 points adrift of the summit after winning just six times away from Anfield.

Benitez insists his squad are better equipped to mount a more serious challenge, although the Spaniard stopped short of promising to deliver the league after 17 title-free years at Liverpool.

"I don't want to seem arrogant, but when I was at Valencia they had gone 31 years without winning the league, and then we won it and won it again," Benitez said. "Why? Because I have very good staff and good players. Now, I continue having a good staff and better players.

"Hopefully we can now win the league. I don't want to say it's this season because I don't want to make any promises. But I can say we have a better squad, a better team and are working hard. I have confidence and if the new players can settle in quickly, we'll have more of a chance."

Liverpool have not won their opening fixture since John Arne Riise hit the only goal of the game at Aston Villa five years ago.

Benitez knows a repeat scoreline today would help confidence after last season's limp 1-1 opener at Sheffield United set the tone for a season of domestic disappointment.

He has tried to ease the pressure on Torres, who is expected to start at Villa Park, by insisting he expects to see all his forwards hit double figures over the course of the next nine months.

Yet the Liverpool manager admits his side's season could hinge on how long it takes the Spanish striker, who is expected to feature at Villa Park, to adapt to life in the Premiership after arriving from La Liga.

He said: "A lot will depend on how the new players settle in, if they take three months then we might end up in a bad situation."

Itandje Arrives As Carson Leaves On Loan

Liverpool have signed French goalkeeper Charles Itandje from Lens on a four year contract in a move which has allowed Scott Carson to complete a loan deal with Aston Villa.

Itandje, 24, is a former French under-21 international, though his parents are from Cameroon.

The stopper began his career with Red Star 93. His single season with the capital's second side was enough to alert clubs across Europe, but it was Lens who eventually secured the teenager's signature.

He arrives at Anfield as back-up to established number one Pepe Reina and, having received the necessary international clearance, is likely to be on the bench for this weekend's big kick-off at Aston Villa.

Itandje will wear the number 30 shirt at Anfield.

Carson, meanwhile, has agreed a deal to spend this season on loan with Aston Villa in a deal which runs until May 31.

Villa beat off competition from Manchester City for Carson's signature, although the England under-21 international will not be allowed to make his debut against the Reds this weekend.

Carson, 21, has made nine first team appearances for Liverpool.

"I could tell Scott to stay here, but he could be the future keeper of the national team and we don't really want to stop his progress," said Benitez.

"I am happy with the situation and for Scott to play somewhere else. We do not want to lose him, certainly not sell him because we are very happy with him.

"He is a good lad and a very promising goalkeeper. But I can understand his need to maintain his place in the England squad. It will benefit him to be out on loan and for us to sign a new goalkeeper. Then we will have three keepers all in action."