Saturday, November 03, 2007

Rafa Benitez Forced To Rely On Steven Gerrard

Rafa Benitez will ignore concerns from the Professional Footballers' Association about the risk of player burn-out by starting Steven Gerrard nine times in 29 days as Liverpool battle to keep their season alive.

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the PFA, has raised concerns at the demands placed on Gerrard and other England internationals.

Yet having lost three key players to injury over the past few days, Benitez ruled out resting his captain as Liverpool face a fight to stay in Europe and play catch-up with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Gerrard, whose busy schedule over the past three weeks has taken him to Moscow with England and Istanbul with his club, starts his seventh game in 22 days at Blackburn today.

Liverpool's influential midfielder is also needed for Tuesday's must-win Champions League game with Besiktas as well as the home league game with Fulham four days later.

Benitez wanted to rest his captain against Cardiff in the Carling Cup on Wednesday but was forced to rethink his plans with Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Jermaine Pennant all suffering injuries.

To play every minute of every game is not the best situation," Benitez said. "But one thing is clear – with Alonso on the pitch Gerrard is important. When we are without Alonso he is even more important. When Gerrard was not playing well, the team was not playing well. He has been playing much better in the last two or three games and hopefully he will continue that run."

Gerrard has scored in each of his last three appearances to take his tally for the season to four, and Benitez believes he can repeat his feat of two seasons ago, when he contributed 22 goals.

"I would like to see him carry on scoring because he clearly has confidence now and is playing at the level that is expected of him," he said.

The visit to Blackburn is another must-win game for Benitez. Mark Hughes' side start one place and one point above the visitors, yet a Liverpool victory will leave them just three points behind the losers of the clash between Arsenal and Manchester United.

"I was talking with some of my players the other day about the situation," Benitez said. "It's really important to be close to the top of the table. Ewood Park is always a difficult place to play. It's more difficult to play against them this time because Blackburn are not only a very physical team, they are also playing well.

"Mark Hughes is doing a very good job and the understanding between the players and the strikers is very good. As well as winning games they are playing good football. It will be a very tough game for us."

Sissoko: I Must Improve

Many Reds' fans have been getting on the back of defensive midfielder Mohamed Sissoko in recent weeks. But in an interview with LFC Magazine, the Mali international made clear that nobody is more disappointed with his recent performances than him.

"At the beginning of this season I felt I was doing well but since then I haven't been happy with my performances," said Sissoko, who scored his first goal for the Reds in August's 2-0 win away to Sunderland.

One moment that particularly upset Sissoko was the Champions League defeat at home to struggling Ligue 1 side Olympique de Marseille.

"I have gone over it in my head. It was a really bad moment for me. The manager put me in the team and I played very, very ****," said the midfielder, displaying an honesty that one can only admire. "I know we didn't play well as a team but it was my mistake that led to the goal.

"I also know that this happens in football. I look at that situation and realise I have learned something new about the game. The manager told me not to worry too much. He reminded me that every player makes mistakes, and that I am still young and I will learn from it."

Taking Benítez' words on board, the 22-year-old is determined to plough on and work on a return to the sterling performances fans know he is capable of. "I had some good moments at the start of my Liverpool career," remembers Sissoko fondly.

Few can forget his tireless efforts in the FA Cup Final of 2006, or the way in which he destroyed Barcelona's creative midfielders as the Reds earned a famous 2-1 victory at Camp Nou.

Javier Mascherano Attracts Barcelona

Liverpool face a serious battle to retain the services of Javier Mascherano after it emerged that Barcelona are determined to take the Argentina midfield player to the Nou Camp at the end of the season.

Mascherano joined Liverpool in January in an unusual lease arrangement, with the Merseyside club paying a loan fee not to West Ham United, his previous club, but to Media Sports Investment, the company that holds his “economic rights”. Under the terms of the midfield player’s 18-month loan, Liverpool can make the deal permanent by buying him outright from MSI for £17 million before June 30 next year, but their hopes of securing his services in the long term seem certain to come under threat from Barcelona.

Liverpool remain confident of their prospects of holding on to Mascherano, who has revived his career on Merseyside after a miserable spell at West Ham and who recently stated his desire to “stay for a long time”. But Barcelona could complicate the situation, having made their interest in the Argentina player known via a third party. A transfer to Spain was initially Mascherano’s preference before he made his ill-fated move to West Ham in August 2006.

Having recovered from the bruised foot he suffered in the closing stages of the 1-1 Premier League draw with Arsenal last weekend, Mascherano has an important role to play in the coming weeks - starting away to Blackburn Rovers this evening - particularly given the absence of Xabi Alonso. The Spain midfield player faces at least three weeks on the side-lines after breaking a metatarsal in his left foot, for the second time this season, against Arsenal.

But Rafael BenÍtez, the manager, can also call on Steven Gerrard, even though Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, has expressed concerns about the workload, with club and country, of England’s players. “With Xabi on the pitch, Gerrard is important,” BenÍtez said. “Without Xabi, he is even more important.”

Fernando Torres hopes to be back in action earlier than was first thought after making encouraging progress in his recovery from a groin injury.

“People were talking about three to four weeks, but it just depends on how the adductor evolves, so I’ve just got to hope it will be sooner than that,” the Spain forward said. “I’m getting better and working really hard with the physios. Let’s just hope I’ll be in perfect condition to play soon and that that will be an end to the injuries this season.”

EPL Preview: Blackburn Rovers vs. Liverpool

Quite recently Blackburn Rovers player Christopher Samba mildly chastised the media for not adequately highlighting his club’s awesome league form, something he regards as a dereliction of duty on the part of columnists.

Being 6'5" and nicknamed “King Kong” by his team-mates leads one to suggest that not many journalists will want to add their names to the giant defender’s offenders list; however, all politeness aside, the Congolese international does have a point.

For the size and resources of such a club, Rovers are riding an impressive streak of form. Currently lying 5th, one point more it should be mentioned than Saturday’s opponents Liverpool after the same amount of games, Rovers certainly have climbed the league largely unnoticed.

In fact you have to go back more than a month to September 23rd to find Blackburn’s last loss, a 0-1 home reverse against Portsmouth which remains their only defeat in 12 games.

Since then they have embarked on a seven-match winning run in all competitions. Throw in the little detail that they have held Arsenal and Chelsea to draws and you might be forgiven for thinking Blackburn’s run bears hallmarks of title-winning form.

Which is why manager Mark Hughes deserves plaudits for the manner in which he has combined Rover’s past robust nature with a proficiency in the last third, to lead his side to only a margin of goal-difference away from a Champions League spot.

In contrast Liverpool have paraded rather patchy form in all competitions, with routine wins coming after unexpected draws followed by the occasional shock defeat, all of which reveals a telling tale, one the Reds admit to themselves, in that they have yet to find their real rhythm.

Injuries, of course, haven’t helped, resulting in the crucial pairings down the spine of the team becoming unbalanced due to the continued absence of messrs Alonso, Agger, Mascherano and Torres.

Nonetheless, as much as Rafael Benitez concluded another week by dodging yet more arrows of criticism for his selections, rotations and tactics, it has gone rather overlooked in some quarters that the Reds officially have the best away record in the league. The home form may raise some eyebrows on Merseyside, but the travelling contingent can have no complaints from four wins and a draw on the road.

All of which leads quite nicely to suggest that Blackburn Rovers versus Liverpool at Ewood Park might just sneak in under the radar to become the fixture of the week.

Although Liverpool can be proud of their away form this season, they still will not look forward to entering Ewood Park with the home side in such buoyant mood, as Mark Hughes all too clearly outlines:

“We are in great heart at the moment. We’ve good players who believe no matter which team we play we can give teams a game. We play good football”

One crucial piece of the ‘final’ Liverpool jigsaw was believed to be found with the £23m summer purchase of Fernando Torres, who came with the promise of curing the Reds' lack of dexterity in front of goal.

Speak to Scousers and they will tell you a mixture of international call-ups, injuries, form and fitness have all curtailed his settling-in period. Fortunately for the men of Lancashire, goal-scoring worries rarely arise when South African Benni McCarthy is on the scene, and even former expert goal-scorer Alan Shearer has become a fan of last year’s £3m purchase:

“He is great coup for Mark Hughes, I am surprised other teams did not have a pop at McCarthy” – who could you possibly mean Shearer…maybe Chelsea, United or even Liverpool?

It is always entertaining to hear Plymouth’s outspoken manager Ian Holloway deliver his take on life’s proceedings, but this time he has touched on a contentious issue that arose in mid-week and one that shall be closely followed in the Premiership fixtures this weekend. The Bristolian was commenting on PFA chief Gordon Taylor’s warning, echoed by Phil Neville, that top England stars such as Steven Gerrard are already suffering burn-out from playing too much football:

“Personally I think that's absolute codswallop. I used to play Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon and Sunday from the ages of 10-14.

“My heart bleeds for them - the richest burnt-out people I've ever met in my life. Your career's short - you've got to play as many games as you can.”



31 Oct v Portsmouth (A) WON 1-2 (Carling Cup)
28 Oct v Tottenham (A) WON 1-2 (Prem)
20 Oct v Reading (H) WON 4-2 (Prem)
07 Oct v Birmingham (H) WON 2-1 (Prem)
04 Oct v Larissa (H) WON 2-1 (Uefa Cup)
29 Sept v Sunderland (A) WON 1-2 (Prem)


31 Oct v Cardiff (H) WON 2-1 (Carling Cup)
28 Oct v Arsenal (H) DREW 1-1 (Prem)
24 Oct v Besiktas (A) LOST 2-1 (CL)
20 Oct v Everton (A) WON 1-2 (Prem)
07 Oct v Tottenham (H) DREW 2-2 (Prem)
03 Oct v Marseille (H) LOST 0-1 (CL)



Hughes lauded his battling midfielder, Aaron Mokoena, who although injured, continues to cover admirably in the absence of regular ‘defensive shield’ Robbie Savage.

Mokoena picked up his leg injury in the midweek Carling Cup victory over Portsmouth, as did David Bentley with his shin bruising. But both are expected to make the starting line-up.

Otherwise long-term injured Steven Reid and Jason Roberts join Savage as Rovers only absentees..

Squad: Friedel, Brown, Emerton, Nelsen, Samba, Ooijer, Warnock, Berner, Bentley, Dunn, Pedersen, Santa Cruz, McCarthy, Derbyshire, Tugay, Mokoena, Rigters, Khizanishvili, Treacy.


Liverpool welcomes Fabio Aurelio, Alvaro Arbeloa and Javier Mascherano back from niggling injuries for the trip to Ewood Park.

The returning trio will provide much-needed steel for a tough away trip, whilst another in a long-line of ‘returns’ for much-maligned winger Harry Kewell is scheduled for tomorrow.

The rarely seen Australian did make an injury reoccurrence-free appearance in the midweek Carling Cup win, and his availability will at least give Benitez a further option in a depleted attack as Torres joins Agger and Alonso in the long-term treatment room.

Squad: Reina, Finnan, Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Aurelio, Benayoun, Babel, Gerrard, Sissoko, Mascherano, Lucas, Crouch, Kuyt, Voronin, Itandje, Kewell, Hobbs.



Benni McCarthy. Compared against his blistering debut season for Rovers in which he scored 19 goals, McCarthy made a somewhat slow start second-time round. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the mooted big-money transfer to a ‘big-four’ club didn’t materialise.

Not that Hughes cares, for the player’s all-round ability and predatory instincts were back with a bang in midweek, leading his manager to officially announce the striker’s return to golden form just in time for the Liverpool showdown.

"I thought Benni McCarthy was absolutely magnificent.

"I took a lot of pleasure watching him. His retention of the ball and his work in tight areas was a joy to watch.

"He was always in there looking for scoring chances. He's back where he should be at."


Steven Gerrard. Although the midweek opposition was Championship side Cardiff, Gerrard, much like McCarthy, did display telling signs that he is somewhere near returning to his highest level of performance. Against Arsenal last week he was stood alongside Jamie Carragher as probably Liverpool’s best player. With a goal and an assist from midweek added to the “sweetly struck” blasted goal against the Gunners, perhaps Gerrard really is only a game away from exploding into the world-class star we know he is.

However, with the PFA chief stirring a hornet’s nest with comments about players suffering “burn-out”, and specifically pointing at Gerrard, then maybe a few more eyes may be on the England international looking intently for signs of wear and tear rather than a match-winning spectacle.

Rafa And Gerrard Back Leiva To Shine

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard and manager Rafa Benitez have backed midfielder Lucas Leiva to shine at Anfield.

The 20-year-old arrived at Liverpool in the summer and has been slowly accruing pitch time since, most recently against Cardiff City in the Carling Cup on Wednesday.

His midfield partner for the game, Steven Gerrard, has been impressed with how quickly the Brazilian has settled in England.

"He could have had the winner in the derby on his league debut and there aren't many players who can say that," he told the club’s official website.

"It is always difficult for new players to come on in the derby, especially when they're used to playing a different style of football in a different country. But Lucas came on and acquitted himself well.

"I've seen enough of him in training and in games to know that he has got a great future.

"He is only a young lad but once he picks up more experience and if he keeps on doing the right things in training and listening to the right people, then I'm sure he will go on to be a great player."

Lucas' appearances from the bench so far this season have also impressed boss Rafa Benitez, who revealed that fans can expect to see more and more of the Brazil international as the campaign progresses.

Benitez said: "He is the captain of the Brazilian under-21 team and he has already won a cap for the first team, so we knew all about his quality.

"It is not as if he was playing for one of the smaller countries. It is Brazil and it is really difficult for a player to play for such a big team at such a young age.

"So we were happy to sign him, and I am sure we will see more and more of him as the season goes on."

Benitez Expects Xabi Boost

Rafa Benitez is hoping Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso can return to action within two weeks.

Alonso made his comeback from six weeks out with a broken metatarsal against Arsenal on Sunday, only to suffer a new foot injury.

Liverpool confirmed earlier in the week that X-rays had shown a fracture to the Spaniard's fourth metatarsal and were unsure how long the player would be sidelined.

But, speaking after The Reds' 2-1 win over Cardiff City in the Carling Cup, Benitez revealed his expectation that Alonso would be available again in a fortnight.

"That's the idea we have," Benitez told Sky Sports News.

"So (Fernando) Torres and him, maybe (Daniel) Agger, can be fit in two weeks."

Steven Gerrard scored the winning goal against Cardiff, but Benitez admits his captain was not originally scheduled to play in the fourth-round tie.

The Liverpool boss said: "I would have wanted really to leave Steven out of the match, but we have too many injuries and Momo (Sissoko) was sick again, so he had to play.

"And in the end he was the one who scored the vital goal. Cardiff worked very hard and were always dangerous from set-pieces, and that is where their equaliser came from.

"But then Gerrard got through to score a typical goal. His form is coming back, as are his goals. That is three now in successive games."