Saturday, March 15, 2008

Premier League Preview: LiverpooL vs. Reading

What an important few weeks this has been for Rafa Benitez and his side’s hopes for the remaining months of the season.

Indeed, the early days of March have been kind to the Spanish manager, with the mid week victory against Inter Milan sealing the Reds’ place in the closing stages of the Champions League, and the recent upsurge in Premiership form seeing his side claim pole position in the race with Everton to 4th place.

This upsurge in form also sees Liverpool as the Premiership’s in-form team, with the side boasting a record since the humiliating F.A. Cup defeat to Barnsley of played 4, won 4, with 13 goals scored, and only 3 goals conceded.

That this is a thoroughly impressive run of results is unquestionable, and will no doubt be helping to ease Benitez back in to the affections of his American paymasters.

The last few weeks have also seen Benitez begin to utilise a new 4-5-1 formation, which seems to have unleashed Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres on to the defences of fellow Premiership and Champions League teams with devastating effect.

Now it is Reading’s turn to find themselves in the firing line against this fearsome duo, a fact that will no doubt please all those affiliated with Liverpool, who will be seeking revenge for the Reds 3-1 defeat at the Madejski Stadium in the early months of the season.

However, a cautionary note would have to be shown by the poor results that Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal recorded after their mid week Champions League exertions. Liverpool must avoid these kinds of laboured performances if they are to continue to be ahead of Everton in the fight for the final Champions League qualifying place.

There can be little doubt that Reading manager Steve Coppell will be allowing himself any time to dream of an unlikely repeat performance of his side’s early season Premiership victory against their illustrious hosts on Saturday.

For Coppell much more important things will be dominating his mind, such as his Reading side’s position in a Premiership table that sees the Royals sitting in 14th place, three points ahead of 18th placed Bolton.
However, a small degree of hope has been generated by his side’s victories in their last two games against Middlesbrough and Manchester City.

These results came at a very important time for Reading, and arrested an alarming slide down the table which had seen the team lose for nine consecutive Premiership games.

When one considers the current form being exhibited by Liverpool however, it will be a minor miracle if Reading can avoid falling back in to these losing habits come Saturday.

In the unlikely event that Reading manage to take some points back home with them, it'll be thanks to the defence reaching a level that they have been largely unable to so far this season to deny a repeat of Fernando Torres’ hat trick against the Royals in the September meeting of the sides in the Carling Cup.

However, the last two games has seen the Royals not only claim two victories, but the much-derided Reading back line has also managed to keep two invaluable clean sheets.

Reading must take as much heart as possible from these results, and attempt to use these as a platform to launch a staunch resistance against the red hot Liverpool forward line. If this is to happen, then maybe an unlikely haul of points could be claimed by a Reading team desperate to avoid the dreaded fall back in to the Championship.



11th March vs. Inter Milan (A) won 1-0 (CHAMP LG)

8th March vs. Newcastle United (H) won 3-0 (PREM)

5th March vs. West Ham United (H) won 4-0 (PREM)

2nd March vs. Bolton Wanderers (A) won 3-1 (PREM)

23rd February vs. Middlesbrough (H) won 3-2 (PREM)


8th March vs. Manchester City (H) won 2-0 (PREM)

1st March vs. Middlesbrough (A) won 1-0 (PREM)

24th February vs. Aston Villa (H) lost 2-1 (PREM)

9th February vs. Everton (A) lost 1-0 (PREM)

2nd February vs. Bolton Wanderers (H) lost 2-0 (PREM)



Rafa Benitez has no new injury scares to report from his side’s mid-week Champions League tie against Inter Milan, and as such only Steve Finnan (hamstring) and Andrei Voronin (knee) remain unavailable for selection for this home game against Reading.

Squad: Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio, Babel, Benayoun, Mascherano, Pennant, Gerrard, Lucas, Kuyt, Riise, Torres, Itandje, Voronin, Crouch, Arbeloa, Kewell, Leto.


Reading will travel to Anfield with question marks existing around the possible participation of Ivory Coast international Emerse Fae due to a bout of malaria. Otherwise, club captain Graham Murty (knee) and Brynjar Gunnarsson (groin) remain a week away from being available for selection, whilst long term injury absentee Glen Little (achilles) will not be able to be considered for Premiership action for around another month.

Squad: Hahnemann, Rosenior, Bikey, Ingimarsson, Shorey, Oster, Harper, Matejovsky, Cisse, Hunt, Doyle, Long, Kitson, Federici, Sonko, Kebe, Fae, De La Cruz, Duberry, Convey


Liverpool: Whilst Spanish sensation Fernando Torres has been stealing the headlines in recent weeks, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has been excelling in Rafa Benitez’s new 4-5-1 formation. With this system, Benitez seems to have finally found a way to accentuate all the positive attributes of Gerrard’s play, such as his drive, determination, and willingness to attempt ambitious through balls, whilst at the same time removing his skipper from the dogmatic realm of central midfield.

This tactical switch has also seen a destructive partnership develop between Gerrard and Torres, and if this continues to bloom on the pitch against Reading then the Liverpool fans can expect another goal filled afternoon for the men in red.

Reading: With Liverpool’s current winning streak seeing them score 13 goals in 4 matches, Reading goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann should be expecting anything but a quiet game come Saturday. That the United States international has managed two clean sheets on the trot in the victories against Manchester City and Middlesbrough is also no mean feat when one considers the fallibility of the Reading defence. However, the searing pace and clinical finishing of Fernando Torres should push the questionable Reading backline to their limit.

With this is mind, it is clear for all to see that for Reading to hold any hopes of taking any points back home to Berkshire their American goalkeeper needs to be at his obstinate best.

Champions League: Rafa Benitez Calls On LFC Fans To Help Beat Arsenal

Rafael Benitez hopes the Anfield factor can again prove decisive in the Champions League after Liverpool were handed a blockbusting quarter-final tie with Arsenal.

And Benitez’s side may have to beat all three of their “big four” rivals if they are to lift a sixth European Cup in Moscow in May.

Yesterday’s draw at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland ensured Liverpool face Arsenal three times during a pivotal seven days at the beginning of next month.

The first leg of the Champions League tie will be held at the Emirates on Wednesday, April 2 with the return at Anfield the following Tuesday, sandwiching a crucial Premier League clash at the Gunners on Saturday, April 5.

It’s the fourth successive season that Liverpool will face Premier League opposition in the Champions League, having faced Chelsea in the last three campaigns.

The Londoners were vanquished at the semi-final stage in 2005 and 2007 after being beaten in the second leg at Anfield.

And despite his indifferent record against Arsenal – Liverpool have won only three of seven league meetings and none away from Anfield, where they were dumped out of the Carling Cup and FA Cup by Arsene Wenger’s side last season – Benitez is heartened by the fact the second leg is at home.

“It’s two legs, it’s not the same as one game and three points,” said the Anfield manager. “In that respect, we will have to prepare differently to a league game.

“Playing the second leg at home might not have the same effect because Arsenal are an English team and play at Anfield every season. But then, we play at Arsenal every season so it’s the same for both teams. It won’t be the same as if we were playing a foreign club.

“The first game will be important, though. If you play away, it’s important to score. A 1-1 draw could be a good result. And if we have a good result, it will be easier for our supporters to be on top of them. I’m sure the atmosphere will be fantastic at Anfield for the second leg.”

Should Liverpool prevail against the Gunners, they will could conceivably face another semi-final tie against Chelsea, who have been drawn against Turkish team Fenerbahce.

And with Manchester United clear favourites to progress from their half of the draw, having been paired with Roma and to then face the winners of the tie between Barcelona and Schalke, an all-English final appears a definite possibility.

“The way the draw has gone, we might have to play three English teams to win the Champions League, but it will be difficult for all of us,” said Benitez, whose team entertain Reading this afternoon.

“I’d be happy to play an English team in the final, because that would mean we were in the final.

“Arsenal are a very good team and I don’t think our European experience will be an advantage. They have players who have played a lot of games for their national teams and in Europe.

“Arsenal will know we are a tough team to play against, and they will respect us in the same way we will respect them.”

While Arsenal were lauded for their win over AC Milan at the San Siro last week, similar praise has been slow to materialise after Liverpool’s defeat of Inter in the same stadium on Tuesday.

But Benitez insists: “Inter Milan are top of the Italian league and have won it the last two seasons. To beat them was a great achievement for the club.”

Kuyt: We Expect Torres To Score In Every Game

Dirk Kuyt says Liverpool have come to expect Fernando Torres to score in every game as the striker looks to continue his goal-spree against Reading this weekend.

The Reds reached the last eight of the Champions League after Torres’s 26th goal of the season secured a 1-0 midweek away-win against Inter Milan.

And Kuyt for one wants more of the same from the Spanish forward as Liverpool continue their battle with city rivals Everton for fourth place in the Premier League and the Champions League spot that goes with it.

But this weekend they face a Reading side that has started to climb away from the relegation zone with two successive wins.

Such has been Torres’s form that Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez may well abandon his longstanding rotation policy and play Torres against the Royals here at Anfield today.

“Fernando is just special,” Dutch forward Kuyt said. “It is amazing to score this many goals in his first season in England.

“He is getting them in the league and in Europe, he is doing a great job for the team. He will only get better and better.

“Other teams now are very worried by him, but you could see with the way he put away his one chance of the night just how dangerous he is.

“The rest of the players seem to think he will score in every game, and the way it is going, that is starting to happen.”

Fernando Fear Factor

Arsene Wenger last night warned that red - hot Fernando Torres is the biggest danger to Arsenal's Champions League hopes.

Gunners boss Wenger tried to be upbeat as he insisted Arsenal can win the Double despite being paired with Liverpool in the last eight - and could end up facing Chelsea in the semis.

But Wenger did admit that in-form Torres - the destroyer of Inter Milan in the last round - is the man they have to stop as they face Liverpool three times in the space of eight days in Europe and in the Premier League.

Wenger said: "He is going through a good spell. He had an indifferent spell at the start, but now he has adapted very quickly.

"He is quick, strong, brave and that's the kind of competition you want to keep quiet in the Champions League. You must be particularly careful when he is away from home. You do not want to give him any counterattacking chances. He and Steven Gerrard are both very quick on the break."

Wenger has said that he wanted to avoid an-all English quarter-final and that he would have to treat the Champions League games differently to the Premier League encounter sandwiched in the middle. But he firmly believes his players can rediscover their form in the Premier League - and that would help them overcome Liverpool.

Wenger said: “You would ideally prefer to avoid another English team but we knew that if we wanted to go all the way through to the final then we would have to play another English side at some stage.”Football is not predictable - that's why it's interesting - but at the moment we are in the position in the Championship where we have the advantage. So we want to focus immediately - we aren't sitting there waiting for the Liverpool game, we are focusing on Middlesbrough.

"It will help us when we play Liverpool if we are in a good shape in the Championship. We can play with less pressure. I believe between the two legs in the last round (against Milan) there was a hangover. We were desperate to go through and the 0-0 draw in the first match created an uncertainty and we dropped maybe two points in the league from that.

"That shows you how strong you have to be to deal with both competitions.

"This is a cup game, and in a League game you can concede a goal. In the Champions League you have seen against Liverpool, against Milan, how vital it is not to concede at home.

"What Liverpool have done before doesn't bother us at all, what is very important on the day is that you are at your best, we need to raise our game on the day, because it's a cup game."

Wenger also believes Arsenal have got an ace up their sleeve for the run-in in the shape of fit-again Dutch striker Robin van Persie. He is in the squad for the visit of Middlesbrough today, and Wenger added: "He has only played the first eight games, where he scored five goals. At the end of the season, that could make for an interesting total.

"He can give us the final push. He can give you the final ball, score free-kicks, he's dangerous on corners and he can score."

Liverpool boss Benitez sees the clash with Arsenal as a chance for Liverpool to prove their greatness. He said: "You know what, I don't even care about those people who say that we are not great champions, even though we have won the trophy and got to the final again.

"I believe strongly that over the past three years it has got harder and harder to reach the final, because you must play the Champions of each country to get there. This season, it is a fantastic achievement to even be in the quarter-finals, because some sides you can consider to be great have not made it. We beat Inter Milan who are a fine side, and that shows our strength.

"If we progress further then it will be an even greater achievement, and if we win the competition by beating English teams, then yes, it will show we are a force.

"But then I believe we can call ourselves a great side, whether we play English teams or others. I think we have shown we are a force by beating a side as strong as Inter to get here.

"It is very hard to get to the final of this competition. Some great sides have not done that for a long time."

Daniel Agger Injury: Benitez Sure Liverpool Star Will Bounce Back

Rafael Benitez has allayed fears Daniel Agger’s career is under threat after the Liverpool defender was ruled out for the rest of the season.

The Denmark international will undergo an operation on Monday to reset the broken metatarsal that has decimated his campaign.

Agger has not played for the first team since the goalless draw at Portsmouth on September 15 after suffering the injury, which has affected the second metatarsal of his right foot.

The 23-year-old had to abort an attempted comeback in January before making his return to action with a 45-minute run-out for the reserves against Manchester United last month.

Agger played an hour for the second string against Bolton Wanderers last week, but continued to complain of pain in his foot.

And, with centre-back Martin Skrtel having become established since his January arrival, the decision has been made for Agger to finally go under the knife to repair the problem.

“It’s really bad luck for him,” said Benitez. “He will be out for three to four months, but he will be back for next season.

“We spoke to different doctors and we did everything right. They told us the bone was healed and maybe he could try and play, but it depended on the pain he was feeling.

“He played for the reserves for 45 minutes and felt something but could train the day after.

“The second game he played 60 minutes and the same thing happened, but three or four days later he was still feeling pain.”

Liverpool had originally been told Agger’s injury would heal naturally and would not require surgery.

And Benitez added: “He didn’t have an operation initially. We’ve not made any mistakes with how we have looked after him, we spoke to two or three doctors and they said he could rest, and all the experts said that an operation was the last resort.

“But now, after talking with doctors, he needs an operation. Agger’s problem is the second metatarsal and it’s more difficult than Alonso’s, who broke his fourth metatarsal, as there is more pressure on it.

“Agger is a player with quality, he is a good defender and can pass the ball and score goals. We have missed him this season, especially in the games we have drawn at home because of his ability to bring the ball out of defence.”