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.