Saturday, February 02, 2008

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs. Sunderland

No Liverpool fan with a shred of realism can now say that their club is still in the hunt for the league title. The Reds are locked in a battle for fourth-place, plain and simple. And it is an intense fight, contested between five teams, all of which at this moment could realistically claim the coveted Champions League qualifying spot come May.

Each match is now vital - and a nervous affair. Games such as Sunderland at home were previously seen as three-points banked on Merseyside, but now, considering the team’s present form, Liverpool fans everywhere are running more on hope than expectation as the final score comes through.

The spirit of brotherhood embedded in Liverpool’s mantra, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, will always be conjured up in magnificent fashion to support one another during pressing times like this – but when one considers that the arrival of Fernando Torres was to herald a new successful dawn for the Reds, when-in fact the club could be staring at their worst season in recent years, it leaves one wondering where it all went wrong?

Whilst the club as a whole seems to be reeling, punch-drunk from all the shenanigans off the pitch, the players' performance levels have dipped to steeper lows every week, ultimately a bad cocktail for any club with lofty ambitions.

And while the arguments rage on as to who is too really blame for the club’s misfortune’s - Spaniard or American - an urgent need to arrest the poor form, home and away, needs full attention. Otherwise political struggles and power-play off-the-pitch could rumble on until the Reds are staring at a wreckage of a season in which a Uefa Cup spot is their only reward from 07/08.

That, of course, is the bleakest of views, although one that is perfectly possible. But at the other end of the spectrum lies only slightly more-happier times when one considers the hunger for a title run amongst the red half of Merseyside.

If Rafael Benitez was to get his men motivated again so that they stride onto a pitch full of beans, then the Reds could still secure fourth-place at a canter, and may even bag one of the two prestigious cups on offer. However, such an end needs a beginning, and that beginning needs to be now against Sunderland.

The Reds have, by their high standards, an appalling home record this season, in which of late they have struggled to overcome a part-time side and just about scraped a belated draw against a Villa outfit that they dominated for most of the game.

Nothing less than a win will do against Roy Keane’s men, and not only because of the visiting manager’s deep and heroic association with Liverpool’s bitter Manchester rivals. It's also vital because it seems that not only are certain individuals now playing for their futures at Anfield, they are also playing for the immediate future of the club itself.

Some may scoff that a visit from Sunderland provides the ideal treatment to the illness at Anfield, but in-truth the reverse is more accurate. Roy Keane will no doubt be telling his troops that their scheduled trip to Liverpool has come at the best possible time, and that the Reds are more of a scalded dog rather than a wounded animal, ready to run and hide rather than attack back.

To that extent, the Black Cats may come with their claws especially sharpened and ready to pounce on Liverpool from the opening whistle. If so then this game could be more open and livelier than first thought when the fixture list was complied back in August, and a shrewd punter may just back an in-form Sunderland to cause an upset on Saturday.



30 January v West Ham (A) LOST 1-0

26 January v Havant & Waterlooville (H) WON 5-2 (FA Cup)

21 January v Aston Villa (H) DREW 2-2

15 January v Luton (H) WON 5-0 (FA Cup)

12 January v Middlesbrough (A) DREW 1-1


29 January v Birmingham (H) WON 2-0

19 January v Tottenham (A) LOST 2-0

13 January v Portsmouth (H) WON 2-0

05 January v Wigan (A) LOST 0-3 (FA Cup)

02 January v Blackburn (A) LOST 1-0


The Reds have a strong squad to call on, with relatively few first-team players out injured. Alvaro Arebola will miss out with a muscle strain, meaning Fabio Aurelio will most likely continue at left-back in the Spaniard’s absence. After the laboured win over Havant in the FA Cup last weekend, a disappointed Benitez made seven changes for the midweek West Ham loss.

How the Spaniard will react to that game with his line-up for tomorrow’s match is, as always with Benitez, hard to predict. He may use the extra speed, penetration and athleticism of Ryan Babel and Jermaine Pennant over the more measured and creative Harry Kewell and Yossi Benayoun, while Kuyt may be rotated for the more in-form but under-used Peter Crouch.

Whispers emanating from the club suggest new signing Martin Skrtel may get his league debut to counter the aerial threat of Kenweyne Jones, Daryl Murphy and Radu Prica. Meanwhile, long-term absentees Daniel Agger (foot) and Andriy Voronin (ankle) will continue with their recuperation away from Anfield.

Keane will be hoping winger Kieran Richardson will be fit enough to return to the fold after recovering from a hamstring strain. The manager will need the pacey wide-man available as without Dwight Yorke (calf) and new signing Andy Reid (knee) he is lacking in creative players. Otherwise, Michael Chopra returns from suspension to bolster the attack. The £5 signing joins £2.5 Radu Prica and Murphy in a fight for a starting place alongside £6m-man Jones.


Liverpool – Fernando Torres

They say that if Torres or Steven Gerrard don’t score then Liverpool are in trouble. Well, there is much to support that view, as the duo are way out in front in the goal-scoring charts, but recently Gerrard has struggled to bring his awesome match-winning form to the boil, making Torres the man fans will look too to make the difference against the visitors.

Sunderland – Kenweyne Jones

The striker has surprised nearly everyone since signing for a hefty £6m last summer. Whilst he isn’t quite in the “Thierry Henry” category as a delighted Keane once exclaimed he was after watching one of the forward’s match-winning displays, he nonetheless he has been under-estimated this season. He definitely is the spearhead of Sunderland’s attack and poses problems for any opponent.

Torres Backs Benítez To Succeed

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres believes boss Rafael Benítez can bring the league title to Anfield. Even if it's not this season. Asked to choose between the club's manager and owners, there's no question who Torres would opt for.

For those who refused to accept that Liverpool were out of this season's title race, Wednesday's 1-0 defeat at West Ham United definitely spelled the end.

A last minute penalty ensured the Reds left Upton Park empty handed while yet again all of the front three sides won.

Liverpool must face the prospect of another season without the league title on Merseyside, but nevertheless fans remain overwhelmingly in support of manager Rafa Benítez.

And another man who is giving the Spaniard his support is compatriot and Anfield striker Fernando Torres, who insists he owes the former Valencia coach a lot for the way he's helped him settled in to English football following his big money move from Atlético Madrid.

“Rafa has done so much for me as a player and also brought me DVDs, videos and books to teach me the history of this great club," said Torres, who has scored 17 times already this season.

"He taught me about the successes of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley - I really didn’t know how fantastic the achievements of Liverpool had been.

"And it was Rafa who told me to lay my hand on the Liverpool badge as you go down the tunnel and on to the pitch. He taught me that Bill Shankly put the ‘This is Anfield’ sign there and why.

"Rafa lives and breathes Liverpool. It’s impossible for me to imagine this club without Rafa Benítez in charge," Torres added. "It’s just unthinkable what would happen if he should decide to leave. They have to let the boss just get on with it. It has been a difficult season for the club because, frankly, people expected us to win the title," he admitted. "It takes time for a squad to gel. Winning the Premier League is not easy, it’s a process of growing into it."

And what fans and journalists don't see is the manner in which Benítez runs the club on a day-to-day basis, insists Torres. "I’ve been surprised by just how good a coach Rafa is," he said. "What he manages to do in every training session is draw the very best out of each player. He’s right on top of every single detail and picks up on little things even you had no idea you might benefit from paying attention to.

"Then, suddenly, he’s shown you three or four things which you had no idea needed work. Rafa massively improves every player he works with. I’ve experienced many different coaches and managed to learn a bit from each one. But every day at training you see the benefit of the fact Rafa has been in charge of so many different teams, has won trophies everywhere he’s been and dealt with dressing rooms which are known to be problematic.”

And Torres has revealed he's not alone in backing the manager ahead of the owners in the public spat that developed between the two parties towards the end of last year. "It’s not just the Spanish players who feel caught in the middle of what happens between the boss and the owners," said Liverpool's record transfer signing.

"If you think about it, Rafa has brought a lot of the squad here and put his faith firmly in them. That’s why I’m not alone in the squad in hoping all the fuss can be solved as quickly and harmoniously as possible. That is when Liverpool will get the best out of everyone.”
And while the Spanish international admits off-the-pitch matters have been a downer in his first season at Anfield, he stressed that on a personal note his progress on the pitch has been excellent. "Even I didn’t expect to score as many goals as quickly as I have," he commented of his 17 strikes. "I thought it was going to take me some time to settle in. I knew I had sufficient quality and I knew I’d get there but for things to happen so smoothly and quickly has been a real thrill.

"Maybe the style of play here in England (has helped me)," he continued. "The power and pace is perfect for me. There seems to be a bit more space here. The big teams have so much extra individual quality it’s no wonder they win all the trophies. Perhaps the tackling is fiercer here - but it’s also more honest," he expressed in comparison to Spain. You’ll see a horror tackle when there’s a loose ball but generally, I find the football more honest here than in La Liga.”

Torres says his immediate aims are now to hit top form as the Reds trying to lift silverware in the FA Cup and Champions League. And top form will only come by sticking away more goals. "I need to give credit to players like Gerrard, Kewell and Pennant, who are always looking for me with passes," he said.

"If I don’t get as many chances as I did in Spain, I certainly get better-quality openings. I’m at the age when strikers start to blossom and marry their talent to their experience. I only pray that comes at the right time for the team and Liverpool start to punch their weight because winning the FA Cup or the Champions League is within our reach this season.”

Liverpool face Sunderland today in the Premiership's late kick-off.

Benitez Wants To Reward Fans

Rafael Benitez reckons Liverpool fans are not getting value for money as their team flounder in the Barclays Premier League title race.

The Liverpool boss, and senior star Jamie Carragher, have finally conceded this week that the league title is beyond an Anfield side who have not won a league game since Boxing Day.

Four points from the last 15 on offer - form that came to a head with the shattering 1-0 defeat at West Ham on Wednesday - has finished Liverpool's championship challenge.

It has left Benitez calling for pride from his players and a desire to improve on all fronts when they face Sunderland at Anfield.

Benitez will have Javier Mascherano back from suspension but is still without Alvaro Arbeloa - called into the Spain squad on Friday for the first time - Andriy Voronin and Daniel Agger, although the Danish defender is back in full training and near to a first-team return.

But Benitez concedes that the fans are being short-changed at the moment.

He said: "The confidence is low, but I do not like to criticise the players. If they work hard, that's OK. If you have to say anything to them it must be done in the dressing room.

"We know we need to improve and take our chances. We must be strong in defence and score more.

"The way to do this is for the staff, the players, everyone, to do our best every day and in every training session. Our supporters deserve more than they are seeing."

With the pressures increasing on Benitez and the club, he also accepts that the side's poor form must be addressed, and quickly, to avoid a disastrous season.

He added: "When you are not winning, especially a few league games on the trot, people talk about managers, the staff or individual players. So in this situation you must work together, work harder and improve.

"We have two cups we can still win, and in the Premier League we must concentrate on improving.

"We were thinking we were contenders and maybe we cannot be now, so we need to concentrate on each game and make sure we take three points, and then see where we are.

"The team has quality and now we need to show our supporters that the commitment is there and we want to progress. We will do it.

"We know we must beat Sunderland, it is clearly a must-win match for us."

He added: "We cannot talk about the title, only the next three points getting close to the top four.

"They are not the results we want and we are drawing games we should be able to win.

"But everything will change when we win two or three games. At the beginning of the season we won a lot of games, scored a lot of goals and everyone was happy.

"We have had some problems, but won against Besiktas, Porto and Marseille (in the Champions League group phase) and played some very good games and scored a lot of goals so we know what we are capable of."

Dubai Bid To Divide Liverpool FC’s American Owners

Dubai-based consortium DIC was last night set to join forces with Liverpool FC co-owner George Gillett in a bid to buy out his partner Tom Hicks.

Events could move forward within a matter of days, with figures close to the club anxious to see a rapid conclusion to what is seen as a damaging distraction at a crucial time in the season.

Relations between Gillett and Hicks are at an all time low, with Gillett remaining silent, but understood to be privately furious with his partner’s unsanctioned public statements over club affairs.

Gillett originally brokered the deal to buy Liverpool, but was forced to bring the significantly wealthier Hicks on board to be able to afford the buy-out.

Now, with the first anniversary of the takeover looming next week, relations have soured between the two men to such a degree that Gillett’s son Foster, who moved to Liverpool to represent the Americans and work alongside club chief executive Rick Parry, returned to the US 3½ weeks ago, and has not been seen at the club since.

The Daily Post understands that Foster Gillett and his wife have no plans to return to the city, despite having recently bought a £1m home in Woolton. The final twist of the knife for George Gillett came when Hicks went public last month with their approach in November to Jurgen Klinsmann as a possible replacement for beleaguered manager Rafael Benitez.

DIC (Dubai International Capital), led by Sameer Al Ansari whose £4,500 a share offer for Liverpool last year was trumped when Hicks helped Gillett to bankroll a successful £5,000 a share offer, are known to be keen to test the resolution of the Americans with a new offer.

Hicks has stated repeatedly that he has no intention of selling in the short term. It is believed he sees the potential to sell the club for well over £1bn in 2012, if the 70,000 seater stadium plan is delivered.

But Gillett is equally determined to hang on to his interest in the club, seeing the whole takeover as his deal, with Hicks merely providing the financial clout to make it happen.

With relations between the pair at such a low ebb, insiders doubt whether both of them can remain as co-owners. The Dubai proposal would allow Gillett to carry forward his plans, while allowing Hicks an exit-strategy with a healthy profit on his 12 months investment.

One source close to the negotiations told the Daily Post last night: “Discussions are still ongoing with DIC. They would be happy to take Hicks out and work with Gillett, or they would be happy to take both of them out.

“But DIC doesn’t want to pay Hicks a huge premium. The key is to get a deal done within days rather than weeks.

“All this has been a huge distraction at the club. Hicks insists on valuing the club at £1bn because he includes the valuation after the stadium is in place, yet it is not even built and doesn’t even have planning permission for the 70,000 seats.”

Hicks has matched Gillett’s £20m personal investment in the club following last week’s £350m refinancing deal, and is likely to be offered double that sum by the Dubai consortium to walk away.

No-one for DIC was available to comment last night while Mr Gillett’s office declined to discuss the matter.

Liverpool FC had no comment to make on the issue.

But a spokesman for Tom Hicks told the Daily Post he remained determined to stay at Liverpool FC.

He said: “As we have said previously and repeatedly, Liverpool Football Club is not for sale.

“Mr Hicks has been very clear in terms of the club not being for sale and that has not changed in any way, shape or form.”

Momo Sissoko Sends Letter Of Thanks To Liverpool Fans

Momo Sissoko, who quit Liverpool to sign for Juventus this week, has sent the club a letter for supporters thanking them for making his time on Merseyside enjoyable.

The letter, released by the club today, says:

Dear Liverpool fans,

As soon as I arrived in Liverpool I realised how much this team meant.

Now, after two and a half years I have to say goodbye and I can't hide the great sorrow I feel in leaving one of the best clubs in Europe.

Liverpool FC as a club, its fans, its coaches and my team-mates have together helped me to become a better player and, above all, a better person.

Liverpool FC is one of the greatest. The Liverpool fans never desert their team.

Even in the worst moments you have a strong sense that the fans are with you, supporting you as much as they can, never giving up, those fans make Liverpool even stronger. I really want to thank them for helping me to feel and to understand what football means in its purest form.

I also think Liverpool FC functions this way because of its leaders; Rafael Benitez works from dawn to dusk, and the players know they must fight for the red shirt in every second of every match.

Now I am beginning a new adventure in another big European Club in Juventus. They have also now put their faith in me.

I shall play to my best in every single match, I shall fight hard for my new shirt to the end, but when every match is finished, I know what I'll do first - I shall ask about the results of Liverpool FC.

Everybody knows the legend "You'll Never Walk Alone" and I shall never ever forget the experience and the team.

I want to thank everyone for the opportunity and wish everyone all the best for the future.

With my best regards,

Mohammed Sissoko