Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Premier League Preview: LiverpooL vs. West Ham United

This game should have taken place way back in August, but so hectic has the fixture schedule been that only now can this game-in-hand be played.

Both sides are slightly adrift of their respective season aims – a win would put each of them right back in contention.

Everton keep on getting results, and as such Liverpool need to keep matching them and hope the Toffees stumble along the way. But this game in hand gives the Reds the chance to overhaul their city neighbours and regain fourth spot, albeit only on goal difference.

The calamity against Barnsley apart, Liverpool have shown significant improvement since they last met West Ham at the end of January. With the exception of a (still useful) 0-0 draw at Chelsea – a place where they so regularly lose – Liverpool have notched maximum points in the Premiership, and beaten Inter Milan 2-0 to boot.

It won’t bring them closer to the Premier League title – everyone knows that’s well gone – but it does help boost confidence. Sunday’s stroll at Bolton was particularly encouraging. Benítez has tinkered with his team less than usual in recent weeks (Barnsley aside), which some might say is responsible for the upturn in form. Fan favourites like Gerrard and Torres are now involved in practically every match.

But what was particularly promising at the Reebok – another ground where Liverpool traditionally have a rough time of things – is that the Reds netted three times without having to rely on either Torres or Gerrard for the goals. Great sides are packed with midfielders and defenders who can pop up with goals when the usual suspects are off form.

But either way, the most important thing on Wednesday will be to score, secure all three points and leapfrog Everton.

Sections of the Upton Park faithful have been getting restless with their side’s repeated involvement in low-scoring, unentertaining games. Before Saturday, only one West Ham United match (2-1 against Fulham) had featured more than two goals since New Year’s Day.

But supporters would surely have rather witnessed another drab 1-0 win when Chelsea came to East London rather than the 4-0 reserve they were served up instead. In five first-half minutes the Blues tore the Hammers to shreds, notching three quick goals as Alan Curbishley’s side looked clueless.

They may have beaten both Liverpool and Manchester United at Upton Park this season, but at the weekend West Ham were well and truly put in their place. Even Frank Lampard’s rather harsh dismissal failed to redress the balance as Chelsea extended their lead after the break.

Sure, West Ham fans probably prefer their current predicament to the one that so nearly saw them relegated last season, but there is nevertheless slight disappointment as the dream of European football slips further out of sight. Curbishley cautiously targeted 9th spot in the league this season, while more optimistic supporters envisioned a top six finish.

Injuries have more than played their part in the setback, but a win at Anfield would cap a tremendous league double over Liverpool and bring the likes of Blackburn, Manchester City and Portsmouth within touching distance. The form might not be great but the omens are good: in recent years no side from the rest of the league has proved more adept at winning away to the big four sides.



Bolton - Liverpool 1 - 3 02/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Middlesbrough 3 - 2 23/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Inter Milan 2 - 0 19/02/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Liverpool - Barnsley 1 - 2 16/02/2008 FA CUP
Chelsea - Liverpool 0 - 0 10/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Sunderland 3 - 0 02/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE

West Ham

West Ham - Chelsea 0 - 4 01/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Fulham - West Ham 0 - 1 23/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
West Ham - Birmingham 1 - 1 09/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Wigan Athletic - West Ham 1 - 0 02/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
West Ham - Liverpool 1 - 0 30/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Manchester City - West Ham 1 - 1 20/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE



Steve Finnan's groin problem will keep him out again, but Alvaro Arbeloa may start in place of Skrtel, allowing Carragher to return to his preferred position of centre-back. Peter Crouch and Yossi Benayoun are pushing for recalls - we'll have to see whether Benítez sticks closely to the XI used at Bolton or opts to rotate with Newcastle and Inter in mind. Pennant, Agger and Voronin are still injured.

Likely XI (4-2-3-1): Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurélio - Mascherano, Alonso - Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel - Torres

West Ham

Julien Faubert took a knock at the weekend and it doubtful for the Anfield trip. Nobby Solano may start on the right instead. The Hammers’ injury list remains lengthy: Craig Bellamy misses the return to his former club, while Bowyer, Parker and Etherington are also sidelined. Alan Curbishley refused to criticise his players after the Chelsea game and should keep faith with most, though Dean Ashton may get a recall.

Likely XI (4-4-1-1): Green – Neill, Ferdinand, Upson, McCartney – Solano, Mullins, Noble, Ljungberg – Boa Morte – Ashton


Liverpool – Dirk Kuyt

As is always the way with Liverpool we can’t be totally sure he’ll play, but nobody can deny that Dirk Kuyt has upped his game in recent weeks. The Dutchman could never be accused of laziness – it’s clear he always tries hard – but he appears have become that much more clinical in recent outings.

Goals against Barnsley and then against Inter have boosted his confidence, as has a more regular run in the side, and by hitting the bar at Bolton he indirectly set-up Liverpool’s second goal. If Liverpool struggle to find the net early everybody will be looking to Torres, but Kuyt has a chance to prove he can deliver important goals too.

West Ham – Freddie Ljungberg

The Swede played a prominent role in a few smash-and-grab Anfield victories during his time with Arsenal. His West Ham career hasn’t taken off in the desired manner yet, partly due to injury, but Ljungberg nevertheless bagged his first goal of the season against Birmingham a few weeks back and – after failing to do so on Saturday – will seek to prove he’s still useful against big-name opposition.

Hicks, Gillett Reject DIC Bid To Buy Liverpool

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. rejected Dubai International Capital's bid for the Premier League club Tuesday, The Associated Press has learned.

The 400 million pound (US$800 million) offer for the English club was turned down, a person involved with the negotiations told the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Hicks "turned down their offer immediately upon receipt,'' the person said, adding the Texan is still willing to allow Gillett to sell 49 percent of his stake as long as Hicks gets the other 1 percent.

Hicks and Gillett have the power to block the other from selling.

"They (DIC) want control but they can't get it,'' the person said.

Gillett, whose relationship with Hicks has reportedly broken down, believes the private-equity investment arm of the Dubai government underestimated the value of his 50 percent stake. He was "low balled,'' the person said.

DIC has given the Americans 24 hours to accept its offer, an executive working on the bid told the AP.

Gillett has been in close contact with DIC in recent weeks after deciding to end his troubled spell at Anfield.

Hicks, however, has said he is committed to retaining his share of Liverpool and can block Gillett from selling his stake. The Texan is also looking into buying all or part of Gillett's equal stake by raising private equity.

The DIC bid was made a day after chief executive Sameer al-Ansari said Hicks and Gillett had "come out of dreamland'' over the worth of the Premier League club.

Hicks and Gillett bought Liverpool for 218.9 million pounds (then US$431 million; ₤333 million) in March 2007. This included an agreement to pay off about 45 million pounds (then US$89 million; ₤68 million) of debt and a pledge to build and finance a new stadium.

Gillett and Hicks refinanced their Liverpool deal with a 350 million pound (then US$682 million; ₤470 million) package from two banks on Jan. 25. But the package left the 18-time English champions with debt of 105 million pounds (then US$205 million; ₤141 million).

Rotation's Back As Rafa Benitez Shuffles Pack For West Ham Game

With three key matches in seven days, Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez could shuffle his pack for tomorrow’s home Barclays Premier League game with West Ham, where a win will send the Merseysiders back into fourth place.

Liverpool have Newcastle at home on Saturday and then Inter Milan away in the Champions League next Tuesday. Although the Spaniard has intimated that he will not be rotating as much now as the season draws to a climax, he could well change the side that won at Bolton on Sunday.

Steve Finnan is definitely out with a groin strain, but it unlikely that he will continue with Jamie Carragher at full-back, so Alvaro Arbeloa is a likely replacement.

Youngster Martin Skrtel could step down to allow Carragher back into central defence, while Peter Crouch and Yossi Benayoun - both unused substitutes at the Reebok Stadium - could come into contention.

Defender Daniel Agger continues his comeback from injury in tonight’s home reserve game against Bolton’s second string.

Provisional squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio, Riise, Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Alonso, Babel, Kuyt, Torres, Crouch, Skrtel, Lucas, Martin.

Rafa: We Must Keep Eye On The Ball

Rafael Benitez has stressed Liverpool's players must lift themselves above the club's current off-the-pitch turmoil to secure success on it.

The current intrigue over the future ownership of the club could easily distract the team for Wednesday night's Premier League home match against West Ham.

If Liverpool win they will reclaim fourth place in the table, and be in pole position to ensure qualification for the Champions League next term.

"This is now a really important for us," their manager said.

"That fourth spot is always important; if we win this game we are there, and from then on everything will depend on us and what we do."

Liverpool would be fourth only on goal difference from Everton if they are successful against the Hammers, but Benitez would know that if they match their Merseyside rivals' results for the rest of the campaign they will almost certainly hold on.

He added: "I have confidence. It's not easy at this stage when you play in the Champions League as well, but we have some experience.

"We know we have to concentrate and be focused on every game, and see if we can progress in both competitions."

Benitez is still smarting from the 1-0 defeat at West Ham last month, following an injury-time penalty.

He said: "I can promise you I was very disappointed. We controlled the last 20 minutes; we attacked and attacked but then conceded after one of our own corners when they broke quickly to the other end. It was very frustrating for me.

"The lesson is that sometimes, if you cannot win the game in 90 minutes, you must not lose the game in the last minute."

Benitez, who will be without Steve Finnan for the match because of a groin problem, is unsure how West Ham will react to their 4-0 home drubbing by Chelsea at the weekend.

He said: "Maybe they will be low on confidence, but maybe they will say to themselves 'We need to show character and quality'.

"I prefer to say they will be positive but really I don't know."

Benitez is aware of the potential dangers from a side who have won more away league games than they have at home this term.

He said: "They have some good players. Carlton Cole is a decent target man, as is Dean Ashton when he plays.

"They also have good wingers. Freddie Ljungberg can get into the box and be dangerous, while they have some key players who can also be dangerous.

"They are also good on the counter-attack, because they have pace and energy.

"It has been a difficult season for their manager Alan Curbishley, because he has had a lot of injuries to contend with, but I think he is doing a good job now."

Liverpool Fans Unsure Over Bid

Liverpool fans have given a cautious welcome to Dubai International Capital's takeover bid, urging their American owners to accept the offer.

Not for the first time in recent weeks, supporters are expected to express their dissent towards the regime of George Gillett and Tom Hicks during tonight's Barclays Premier League match with West Ham.

Neil Atkinson, spokesperson for the Liverpool Supporters Union 'Spirit of Shankly', told the Daily Telegraph: "Should DIC make their way into the club, they should be welcomed with caution - they may or may not have the best interests of the club at heart."

Atkinson listed a number of perceived injustices by the current Liverpool owners - including delays in the construction of a new stadium and holding talks with Jurgen Klinsmann - before adding: "(DIC chief executive Sameer) al-Ansari talks about Tom Hicks' valuation of the club being 'in dreamland'. Mr Hicks is further in dreamland if he thinks he will ever be accepted at LFC.

"If he tries to grin and bear it then it emphasises what we already know - he's only in it for one reason: the money and the money alone.

"I'm sure Liverpool supporters will make their feelings known at the West Ham game - let Mr Hicks and Mr Gillett go now with their profit.

"Let us start again with new owners, keep our eyes open and work with them within our heritage and tradition."