Sunday, February 24, 2008

LiverpooL 3 - 2 Middlesbrough

Fernando Torres piled more agony on Middlesbrough as his splendid hat-trick won this game for Liverpool, adding to the stunning 30-yard effort that claimed a point at the Riverside last month for Rafael Benitez's side.

The Spaniard has become the first Liverpool forward to hit 20 goals in a season for five years, his total now being 21 since his £20million move to Merseyside.

But Liverpool were made to fight for the win that takes them back into fourth spot.

Tuncay Sanli's header gave Boro an early lead before Torres struck twice in two minutes before the break.

He completed his hat-trick, the second since he arrived at the club, on the hour.

But Stewart Downing kept his side in the game with a goal in the closing minutes.

However any chance Middlesbrough had of grabbing a point was ruined when Jeremie Aliadiere was sent off after an incident with Javier Mascherano.

Liverpool decided on Alvaro Arbeloa as the stand-in for the suspended Jamie Carragher. Martin Skrtel was only considered fit enough for the bench after an ankle problem.

A ninth minute free-kick from Downing curled into the box for Tuncay to head home, to the dismay of a static Liverpool defence who assumed he was offside. Mascherano's positioning on the back post disproved that theory.

Liverpool's response was scrappy, to say the least. The closest they came was when Dirk Kuyt fired over after a Ryan Babel run and cross.

From a side who had outshone Inter Milan in midweek, Liverpool had reverted to their former self.

Passes were going hopelessly astray, with possession constantly conceded and not a hint of rhythm.

It took Torres to pull Liverpool together. Jose Reina's clearance on 28 minutes was headed by Julio Arca straight to the Spaniard.

He raced away, went round Mark Schwarzer and then found the net with his right foot.

Sixty seconds later Torres struck again. Fabio Aurelio found the striker in midfield and Torres lashed home a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner.

Aliadiere was booked for a foul on Aurelio, before Tuncay thought he had equalised, sending a Downing cross past Reina on 34 minutes.

But referee Lee Mason ruled the Boro man had used his arm and booked the forward.

Boro were still in the game and put Liverpool under pressure early in the second period.

On 53 minutes Reina and David Wheater were booked after an incident at a corner. The Boro defender looked to have flicked his heel at the keeper, who reacted angrily.

Six minutes later Boro sent on an extra striker in Mido, replacing Gary O'Neil.

Liverpool, without Carragher, had not looked comfortable in defence all afternoon.

But again Torres bailed them out when he completed his second hat-trick for the club, the first being at Reading in the Carling Cup in September.

On 60 minutes, Kuyt's hard graft in defence saw him win the ball and launch a 50-yard angled ball towards the Spanish striker.

It looked like Wheater would comfortably tidy up the situation, but with Schwarzer almost alongside him now, there was hesitation between the pair and Torres took advantage to hook the ball home from the edge of the box into an empty net.

Yossi Benayoun came on for Babel before the restart, and Fabio Rochemback was booked for a foul on Torres.

Torres was on a roll by now and took a Steven Gerrard pass before outpacing Emanuel Pogatetz and forcing Schwarzer into a good save to his right.

John Arne Riise came on form Kuyt on 73 minutes, the hard-working Dutchman getting a well-deserved ovation from all sides of the ground.

Middlesbrough got themselves a lifeline on 83 minutes when Downing got in behind Benayoun on the left to run on into the box before beating Reina from a sharp angle.

But three minutes later Aliadiere was sent as he slapped Mascherano after an exchange between the pair on the touchline.

The Liverpool man seemed to have patted the French youngster on the cheek a second earlier.

Two minutes from time Luke Young was booked for tripping Mascherano from behind.

In Defence Of Rafael BenÍtez: Statistics Point Out Why He Should Stay

I love them (the Beatles came from Liverpool), I love them not (so did Militant). I love them (they are admirably sporting and passionate), I love them not (the fans are irritatingly certain that they power their team). I love them (what a club, what a history), I love them not (when I go to watch them play my side, I usually feel that I should take a pillow).

I am, in other words, ambivalent about Liverpool. But about Rafael BenÍtez? About Rafa, I am off the fence. Dr Henry Stott and Dr Ian Graham got up from their sofas after the FA Cup fiasco against Barnsley and started crunching the numbers. Somehow they knew that it would be necessary. And the next day, the papers were, indeed, duly full of stories about the future of Liverpool’s manager.

It is worth, therefore, starting with this. There was a 91 per cent chance of Liverpool defeating Barnsley at home. That they lost did not alter their 50 per cent chance of beating Inter Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game they proceeded to win. You simply cannot make judgments based on one result, or even a small clutch of results. You have to take a longer view.

What happens when you do? Using a weighted measure of goals and shots on goal (the weighting is the one we use to beat the bookies season after season), we can compare Liverpool’s attacking and defensive strength with the best in the Barclays Premier League. This allows us to see whether they are getting closer or farther away from the top side and whether there has been a dip this season.

The results are clear. In May 2005, Liverpool’s attack was 71 per cent as strong as Manchester United, now it is 82 per cent. And over the same period their defence has improved from 79 per cent of Chelsea to 89 per cent. This season? Defence shot up, then fell back, but is still higher than it was at the beginning (83 per cent of Chelsea). Attack has remained pretty constant.

The graphic is another way of looking at things. Liverpool’s ranking has been remarkably constant over three seasons. So what, if anything, is going wrong this season? (And they have gone wrong. The chance of a top-four finish is now only 58 per cent). Three things come out of the data. The first is that Liverpool are scoring a smaller proportion of their shots on target than they were. The second is that they are letting in a larger proportion. And the final point is that they are accumulating disappointingly few points for the goals they do score.

Here’s a remarkable set of statistics. This season Liverpool have scored two more goals than Chelsea and conceded the same number. Yet Chelsea have 11 more points.

If all this stuff sounds sort of familiar to you, that’s because it is broadly what happened to Arsenal last season. They had some bad luck and this year they are having good luck. That’s just the way it goes.

There are two more points worth touching on briefly. It may be that in the mix of bad luck, José Manuel Reina has added some pretty poor play. He is having a very bad season, whereas last year he was one of Liverpool’s best players. This year the star is Steven Gerrard - a player the Fink Tank hasn’t always raved about.

One thing I do want you to forget about is rotation. Our new rotation measure (of which more soon) does not show BenÍtez as the biggest rotator.

Rafa must stay.

Article courtesy of Daniel Finkelstein, Times Online.

Jose Reina Rallies Around Rafael Benitez

Jose Reina has reacted angrily to suggestions that the Liverpool squad has become split on nationality lines but admitted members are divided in terms of their fondness of Rafael Benitez.

The goalkeeper, one of Benitez's strongest advocates, made his remarks while issuing a strong defence of his much-criticised manager following Liverpool's Champions League victory over Inter Milan on Tuesday.

"He is the boss and he has been quite successful in his four seasons, and there is no doubt about him," Reina said, while conceding that while some players, such as Fernando Torres, have spoken up for Benitez, others have been less willing.

"There is a dressing room and there are different opinions," Reina said. "Rafa brought Fernando to English football and with him he has become an even better player, and its normal he can speak really well about him. I have the same feelings. He brought me here three years ago and all I have done has been improvement."

Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are among senior players who have declined to make pronouncements backing Benitez during a period in which the Spaniard has been under fire because of Liverpool's poor domestic form, and the revelation the club's owners held talks with Jurgen Klinsmann about replacing him as manager.

Reina insisted, however, that nothing should be read into this. "To be a good manager you cannot be the friend of the players, because they have to respect you and know who is boss," he said.

He heaped scorn on theories that the Anfield dressing room is divided, with Spanish and English players at odds: "That is being said in a few newspapers that are lying. The dressing room has been absolutely together and quite strong in the bad moments."

Benitez Warns Hat-trick Hero Torres To Expect More Rotation

Rafa Benitez admitted that he is still prepared to rest Fernando Torres despite seeing the Spanish striker rescue Liverpool with a hat-trick in Saturday's 3-2 win against Middlesbrough.

Torres, a 26.5million pounds signing from Atletico Madrid, took his tally for this campaign to 21 goals as Liverpool moved back into fourth place in the Premier League.

Middlesbrough, who had French forward Jeremie Aliadiere sent off on 85 minutes for hitting out Javier Mascherano, had made life difficult for the home side, even taking the lead at Anfield through Tuncay Sanli in the first-half.

Torres, 23, proved to be the difference. Yet despite his increasing value to Liverpool, Benitez insisted that he will not burden the striker with too great a workload in the closing weeks of the season.

Benitez said: "Will he play every week? Well, with one game a week it would be easier for me, but I have explained 100 times that I need everybody fit.

"If you are playing three or four games every ten days, and we have West Ham, Newcastle and Inter Milan all coming soon, you need to see how players are and make sure that they are fit.

"It is not easy for foreign players in their first season, but Fernando is a player with power and pace and I felt that, in England, those qualities are suited to the league.

"We had two or three targets when we were looking for a striker last summer, some good options, but we decided on Torres because he is young, hungry and his ambition was to play in the Premier League. We also knew that he could be good for us.

"It is really difficult for players to score 20 goals in any season, never mind their first season in the Premiership, but Fernando has done that. His work-rate is good as well, so everything is positive for us.

"There has never been a target for him, other than for him to score goals. I want my strikers to score goals, but they also have to make space for the other strikers and play well."

Liverpool, who beat Inter Milan 2-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday, have struggled to repeat their European heroics in the Premier League this term, so Benitez admitted that this victory was crucial.

He said: "After a Champions League game, the most important thing is always to win.

"After we scored the third goal on the counter-attack, we could have scored more, but the key was to win and we did that."

Boro had been impressive and Stewart Downing's late goal gave them hope of a draw before Aliadiere was dismissed by referee Lee Mason following his clash with Mascherano.

And boss Gareth Southgate admitted that the former Arsenal youngster may now pay a heavy price for his moment of madness.

Southgate said: "Jeremie raised his hands and, although he didn't exactly floor his opponent, you must accept that if you raise your hands, particularly in front of an inexperienced referee, then you are going to get punished.

"It is something that Jeremie will have to learn from. He has done well for us this year, but he will obviously now miss three games through suspension.

"With the great competition that we now have for places up-front, it could be difficult for him to win his place back."

Southgate added: "After a tough game against Inter on Tuesday, I just felt that this game could be an anti-climax for both the Liverpool supporters and players.

"We were very solid and defended well, but we just had a two or three minute spell when the game was turned on its head when Torres scored twice in the first-half."

Fabulous Fernando

Matt Le Tissier hailed Fernando Torres as the difference he fired Liverpool back into fourth place.

The Spaniard's first Premier League hat-trick secured a vital win over Middlesbrough and with Everton playing on Monday night, took Rafa Benitez's side back into the Champions League places.

And last weekend's disastrous FA Cup defeat by Barnsley and indeed, Tuncay's ninth-minute opener for Boro, Torres' treble on 28, 29 and 61 minutes, could not have come at a better time.

It took his tally to 15 in 23 Premier League appearances so far and says Le Tissier, proved just how important he is to Liverpool's chances of salvaging something from what has been a disappointing season at Anfield.

"We all know about his quality," he told Soccer Saturday. "When he's on the pitch Liverpool have a chance of winning games, it's as simple as that. Today he was the difference.

"Today he was fantastic. They were probably the only three chances he had all game and he's walked away with a hat-trick - and that's what you want from a top-class centre-forward.

"The first was a horrendous mistake from Julio Arca. He tried to head it back to Mark Schwarzer and there was no chance of him getting enough power on the header to reach him and Torres just ran on to it, rounded the keeper and tucked it in.

"The second goal a minute later was fantastic, 25 yards out, right foot, he just arrowed it into the far corner. And from that point on Liverpool were a different side and deserved to go 3-1 up when Torres took his hat-trick goal - although again there was another bit of a mix-up."

Le Tissier did have some sympathy for Middlesbrough though and suggested that on this showing, Gareth Southgate's men will not get dragged into a relegation struggle.

He felt they deserved their early lead and hauled it back to 3-2 through Stewart Downing, before the comeback was stopped in its tracks by the sending off of Jeremie Aliadiere.

Which says Le Tissier, was referee Lee Mason's only mistake of the day.

"I've got to say the ref had a very good game the major decisions he made he got right, but I think he was a little bit harsh with this one," he said.

"Javier Mascherano had a little bit of a set-to with Luke Young and Aliadiere didn't have to get involved, but there was a little bit of chat between them and Mascherano put his hand up to his face and just gripped his jaw.

"In response Aliadiere gave him a little slap around the face and that was obviously the moment Lee Mason turned round and saw him raising his hands.

"Once you raise your hands you get sent off, but I think this makes a mockery of that rule because he barely touched him.

"Also Mascherano had raised his hand to Aliadiere's face so if you are going to apply this rule, they've both got to be sent off."