Saturday, April 05, 2008

Premier League Preview: Arsenal vs. LiverpooL

Part one of the Arsenal-Liverpool trilogy finished all-square in the Champions League and now the focus shifts to the domestic stage and the quest for Premier League points. Unlike in Wednesday's game at the Emirates, the two sides will have rather different targets come Saturday lunchtime.

Liverpool are now favourites to secure fourth place in the Premier League after winning last weekend’s Merseyside derby 1-0. Another draw in North London would probably be seen as a good result for them. Arsenal, though, have to win on Saturday. Anything less and their title challenge may finally run out of steam, given that they are now six points behind Manchester United - whom they meet at Old Trafford next weekend - and one behind Chelsea.

Liverpool appear to be congratulating themselves for having achieved a 'near-perfect' outcome at the Emirates on Wednesday. Comments from Anfield have suggested that that the 1-1 draw was exactly what they were looking for, the feeling being that getting the away goal will have a huge influence on how the Reds approach the second leg in front of their own fans.

However, the Gunners were outstanding throughout the second half of the first leg of the European tie, pinning Liverpool back in their own half. It took a combination of resolute defending, some over-hasty finishing and a couple of large slices of luck to prevent an Arsenal victory.

Given that Liverpool set out to defend and showed limited attacking ambition, the fact that Arsenal created numerous chances should give the Gunners heart ahead of the next two matches between the sides.

Apart from the goals - within three minutes of each other - the main talking point from Wednesday's match was Arsenal's penalty appeal when Dirk Kuyt hauled down Alexander Hleb in the area. While Kuyt himself somewhat sheepishly sought to play down the incident, and former Liverpool striker David Fairclough accused Hleb of going down too easily, Tony Barrett of the Liverpool Echo offered a more realistic assessment.

"It was a penalty," he said. "As soon as I saw it, I watched Hleb come across Kuyt and his arm does come out and he catches Hleb. There is a tug there but the referee missed it. It is one of those you can say that Liverpool got away with it and I wouldn’t begin to contest that one."

Liverpool will be wary of Emmanuel Adebayor's aerial ability after the Togo striker put Arsenal briefly in front with a powerful header that asked questions of Liverpool's zonal marking system, and in particular of Sami Hyypia, who was caught flat-footed by Adebayor's movement. But equally, the way Steven Gerrard's driving run to set up Kuyt's equaliser left Arsenal defenders trailing in his wake was a lesson that Arsene Wenger will hope his players have quickly absorbed - though some would argue that not even the best-laid plans can stop Gerrard when he is in full flight.

Asked whether Benitez got his tactics spot-on, Barrett replied: "The result says he did. If you go to Arsenal at any time and get a draw you have done well. If you go there in Europe and get a draw and an away goal it sets us up perfectly, so I would say it was right. You will have to ride your luck because you won’t go to Arsenal and have it all your own way. I think he will be looking to do the same in the home leg because Liverpool don’t need to score now."

Regarding Saturday's game, though, another draw would be a decent result for Liverpool, given that Arsenal are still going for the title and can be expected to fight all the way again. Some of the Gunners looked a little leg-weary towards h end of Wednesday's clash, but Wenger will have less scope, if equal temptation, to rotate his squad than Benitez, because he has to go for the three points and to weaken his starting eleven could undermine that.

Liverpool's need is less acute, having put five points between themselves and fifth-placed Everton, so Benitez, who likes to rotate anyway, will probably do so with the aim of bringing back some of his big guns rested and refreshed for Tuesday's European decider.

Under the circumstances, the Champions League clash seems certain to take precedence in Benitez's thinking, although he will not want to cede Wenger a psychological advantage ahead of the return leg. On the other hand, Liverpool have previously sacrificed a domestic League match immediately prior to producing a top performance in Europe. As Barrett recalled: "One time against Crystal Palace, who were fighting relegation, Liverpool lost and came back strong to reach the European Final. There is a whole list of occasions when Liverpool have let themselves down in the League and them three or four days later they have proved people wrong. I don’t know how they do it because if you’re short of form you shouldn’t be able to pick yourselves up as easily as they do."

On the question of form, each club's results since both were eliminated from the FA Cup on 16th February - Arsenal at Manchester United and Liverpool by Barnsley at Anfield - offer a stark contrast. It has been Liverpool's most productive run of the season, their new-found consistency of selection being matched by improved results that have seen them win eight, lose one (to United at Old Trafford) and draw one (at the Emirates on Wednesday). Arsenal, though, have endured their worst spell of the season over the same period. The Gunners, who have played nine to Liverpool's ten in that time, have managed just two wins (away to AC Milan and Bolton), losing once (at Chelsea) and drawing six.

It is ironic that the thing which undermined Liverpool's Premier League challenge this season - too may drawn games - seems now to have sabotaged the Gunners title bid, after they'd led the table for so long. Ironically too, if Liverpool beat Arsenal on Saturday it would hand an advantage to the team Reds' fans would least like to see profit - their hated rivals Manchester United. But from a purely Liverpool perspective, three points at the Emirates would go a long way towards guaranteeing another Champions League adventure next season, irrespective of whether can progress past Arsenal in the current European campaign.

But although there is little doubt about who is in the better form going into Saturday's match, Arsenal were the better side on Wednesday, something Wenger will no doubt have stressed to his players.

Both sides did well to bounce back from defeats on 'Grand Slam Sunday' by securing morale-boosting wins in the Premier League last weekend. While Arsenal staged a remarkable comeback at Bolton, overturning a two-goal and one-man deficit in the second-half at The Reebok to win 3-2, Liverpool won the Merseyside derby 1-0 the following day.

Liverpool go back to London for what is only their second ever League visit to the Emirates. Their first trip to Arsenal's new home ended in a comfortable 3-0 win for the Gunners last season. Liverpool's last win on Arsenal turf was on 13th February 2000 at Highbury, when Gerard Houllier's side ran out 1-0 winners thanks to a Titi Camara goal. Three of the winning side that day are still at Anfield - Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Steven Gerrard. Since then Arsenal have won five and drawn two of their home League games against the Reds.

The Gunners have also enjoyed some success at Anfield, notably last season when, in the space of four days, they knocked Liverpool out of both domestic cup competitions, winning 3-1 on Merseyside in the FA Cup before thrashing the Reds 6-3 in the Carling Cup at Anfield. However, Benitez's side won 4-1 at Anfield in the League last season.

Earlier this season, on 28th October, the Gunners travelled to Merseyside having just thrashed Slavia Prague 7-0 in the Champions League. Liverpool had gone down 2-1 to Besiktas in Istanbul, but they took the lead against the Gunners after seven minutes through a superbly struck free-kick from Steven Gerrard. Arsenal took that set-back in their stride and continued to play their fluent passing game, threatening the Liverpool goal several times before finally being rewarded when Cesc Fabregas latched onto an Alexander Hleb through-ball to equalise ten minutes from time.

That was seen as a point gained by Liverpool and two dropped by Arsenal at the time: although both teams were unbeaten in the Premier League, Liverpool were struggling a little at Anfield while Arsenal went into the game on the back of 12 straight wins.

Since Benitez took over at Liverpool, Arsenal have had the better of the contests between the two clubs in all competitions, though there is not a great deal in it. At the Gunners' patch Arsenal have won three, drawn one and lost none. At Anfield, they've won two, drawn one, lost three. Remarkably, Liverpool have not beaten a fellow 'Big Four' club away from home under Benitez.

On the other hand, the Gunners have been beaten more times (14) by Liverpool in the Premier League than by any other club.

Overall, Saturday's will be the 201st meeting between the two teams in a major competition. So far, Arsenal have won 70, Liverpool have won 80, and 50 have been drawn, including last Wednesday's. In League games only, Liverpool have 68 wins to Arsenal's 58 wins, with 41 draws. At Arsenal, the record is Arsenal 37 wins, Liverpool 20 wins, and 26 draws.



02 Apr (Champions League) v Liverpool (H) DREW 1-1
29 Mar (Premier League) v Bolton (A) WON 3-2
23 Mar (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 1-2
16 Mar (Premier League) v Middlesbrough (H) DREW 1-1
09 Mar (Premier League) v Wigan (A) DREW 0-0
04 Mar (Champions League) v AC Milan (A) WON 2-0


02 Apr (Champions League) v Arsenal (A) DREW 1-1
30 Mar (Premier League) v Everton (H) WON 1-0
23 Mar (Premier League) v Man Utd (A) LOST 0-3
15 Mar (Premier League) v Reading (H) WON 2-1
11 Mar (Champions League) v Inter Milan (A) WON 1-0
08 Mar (Premier League) v Newcastle (H) WON 3-0



Arsene Wenger has injury concerns over his two main strikers ahead of Saturday's clash. Robin van Persie is a major doubt with a thigh problem, while Emmanuel Adebayor is expected to feature despite carrying an ankle injury.

Speaking to Arsenal TV Online on Thursday afternoon, Wenger gave van Persie only a 20 per cent chance of playing because of the thigh injury that forced him off at half time on Wednesday.

"If you ask for my gut feeling right now I would say no, Robin won't play," said Wenger. "At the moment it is 80 per cent no and 20 per cent yes. But he has a scan this afternoon and he is better today than he was last night. That is positive for a muscle problem. But we'll know much more about it on Friday morning."

"We also have Adebayor who has a little ankle problem. We'll see how he is tomorrow. I hope he'll be OK. But the time is so short between the games it is very difficult to make a decision the morning after a game. You don't know if it is a bruise or a little twist and the first 24 hours doesn't tell you a lot about that."

Bacary Sagna (ankle) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) are ruled out of Saturday's game as well as the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Anfield. But Wenger is optimistic about Sagna's chances of returning next weekend at Old Trafford.

"They will not be back for the Liverpool games," said Wenger. "But Sagna is making good progress. Manchester United is the earliest for him. We are trying everything we can to get him back for that game. But we'll know more when he starts to run outside and he has not begun that."

Meanwhile, midfielder Abou Diaby is suspended.

Last Starting XI (v Liverpool): Almunia, Toure, Gallas, Senderos, Clichy, Eboue (Bendtner 67), Flamini, Fabregas, Hleb, Van Persie (Walcott 46), Adebayor. Subs Not Used: Lehmann, Diaby, Song Billong, Silva, Justin Hoyte.

Squad: Almunia, Toure, Gallas, Senderos, Clichy, Eboue, Flamini, Fabregas, Hleb, van Persie, Adebayor, Lehmann, Walcott, Song, Gilberto, J Hoyte, Bendtner, Denilson.


Rafa Benitez could make changes for this second of three clashes between the sides within the space of a week. Javier Mascherano is definitely out suspended, but Benitez, keen to guard against tiredness and with Tuesday in mind, may decide to rest one or more of the likes of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.

Fabio Aurelio took a knock towards the end of Wednesday's match and Torres went off in that game, but probably as a precautionary measure. It is possible Benitez will field a fairly different Liverpool side from the one that played in midweek, with Peter Crouch in line for a rare start, possibly partnered by Andriy Voronin, who needs to get some playing time under his belt following his recent lay-off through injury. The Reds, still aiming to keep things tight and hit Arsenal on the counter, could set up with a 4-4-2 formation.

Last Starting XI (v Arsenal): Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio, Mascherano, Alonso (Lucas 76), Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun 57), Torres (Voronin 85). Subs Not Used: Itandje, Riise, Crouch, Arbeloa.

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



Emmanuel Adebayor troubled the Liverpool defence on Wednesday both in the air, where he headed home the Gunners' goal, and with his left-wing raids in the second-half that saw him cut in dangerously along the by-line several times to fizz dangerous low crosses into the middle. Alexander Hleb could also pose problems with his excellent close control, particularly if Wenger pushes him inside to the more central role the Belarussian seems to prefer. Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas, who scored earlier this season at Anfield, will look to run the show in midfield, and may have more licence to do so given Mascherano's suspension.


Steven Gerrard showed again in midweek how important he is to the Liverpool set-up. If Benitez plays him, either from the start or subsequently from the bench, he will look to hurt Arsenal as he did on Wednesday with his superb driving run and cross on 26 minutes that set up Dirk Kuyt with the chance to equalise Adebayor's opener within three minutes.

Benitez said afterwards: "When you have top class players, they make the difference. Sometimes it is Torres, this time it was Gerrard. He is a player who can change a game on his own. And he certainly did that with his run into the box to create our goal. He changed the game. That goal we scored was the real difference for us, that one piece of quality, world class, which changed everything. Stevie can do such things. It was a run they could not stop. It could change the whole tie." Arsenal know what to expect, and it will be interesting to see how they attempt to counter it.

Hicks Seeks To Buy Out Gillett

Tom Hicks has sought the advice of American investment bank Merrill Lynch as he prepares to bid for full control of Liverpool Football Club by buying out his alienated co-owner George Gillett.

Hicks and Gillett seized joint ownership of Liverpool in February 2007 in a daring ₤218.9 million venture designed to lift the Merseyside club back to the pinnacle of English football.

However, things have not gone totally to plan, as Hicks has since strayed woefully offside of manager Rafael Benitez and the majority of the immense Liverpool fanbase.

Recently there have been reports of a strain in the relationship between the two American owners, and it has surfaced that over the past two days Hicks has been meeting with senior bankers from Merrill Lynch, among other institutions, to discuss options regarding the financing of a bid that would see Gillett ushered out of the club.

Such options include:

· An additional loan on top of Hicks’ recent ₤350 million refinancing with the Royal Bank of Scotland, which would allow him to buy out Gillett’s 50 per cent stake in the club

· Persuading a number of new private investors to collectively buy out Gillett’s share

· Engaging in another refinancing deal that would raise the ₤300 million required for Liverpool’s new stadium at Stanley Park

However, reports from the United States indicate that Gillett will not sell his stake to Hicks, regardless of whether he is able to raise the required funds.

Speaking with a Toronto radio station last week, Gillett outlined the hostility that has between him and Hicks, saying that his partner’s less than favourable standing with the Liverpool supporters has rendered the option of selling out to him an “untenable alternative”.

And it is believed that Gillett has already agreed to relinquish his stake to Dubai Investment Capital, the company which initially competed for Liverpool ownership over a year ago and has been constantly linked with a renewed takeover bid in recent months.

But Hicks cancelled discussions with DIC last month, vowing to block any potential deal between them and Gillett.

Benítez Ready To Rest Torres But Will Go Easy On Reds' Rotation

Rafael Benítez has insisted he will curb his squad rotation at Arsenal today because of a lingering threat to Liverpool's Champions League qualification prospects from their Merseyside rivals Everton.

Fernando Torres is among the high-profile talents expected to be rested when Liverpool return to the Emirates Stadium three days after holding Arsenal 1-1 in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.

Unlike Arsène Wenger, who still has an outside chance of taking the title from Manchester United, the Liverpool manager can afford to utilise his squad, with Tuesday's second leg at Anfield in mind. Victory over Everton last week has given Benítez's team a five-point lead with six games remaining but the Spaniard denies that the fight for fourth has ended.

Despite his protestations Benítez will make changes from the side that started on Wednesday. Torres's likely absence could give Peter Crouch or Andriy Voronin a rare start, and Steve Finnan and Jermaine Pennant are also in contention for a return. The veteran defender Sami Hyypia is another to be rested.

Meanwhile, Liverpool will appeal against the extra two-match ban handed to Javier Mascherano, who has served one game for his two yellow cards at Old Trafford and admitted a charge of improper conduct for his refusal to leave the field. "We have requested that the penalty not be set aside pending the outcome," the club said. "Consequently, Javier is suspended for Saturday’s game at Arsenal."

Forgotten Star Crouch Set For Recall

Peter Crouch is poised for a Liverpool recall at Arsenal today.

But it seems certain to be just a temporary measure by Anfield boss Rafa Benitez as he shuffles his pack ahead of Tuesday’s third meeting between the teams.

“When you are playing three games in seven days against a team as good as Arsenal, and with the high tempo the games will be played at, you know you are going to have to change players,” said the Liverpool manager.

“It’s impossible to use the same players for all three games.

“We’ll need to see the players in the training sessions to see which ones are ready for the challenge. But it could be a chance for the likes of Peter Crouch.”

The fact he is only being considered for a recall because Benitez is reverting back to his favoured policy of rotation shows just how far the 27-year-old England man has fallen out of favour at Anfield.

He has been offered a new deal, with a little over a year on the contract he signed when he moved from Southampton for £7m three years ago, but he seems unlikely to sign if the current regime stays in place.

After hitting 18 goals last season, Crouch has so far managed eight this term, with the switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation limiting his opportunities.

The embarrassing defeat to FA Cup semi-finalists Barnsley in February was the last time he started under the Spaniard, and he has played almost as long for his country as his club since then, 54 minutes in the red of Liverpool compared with 45 minutes during England’s defeat to France last week.

But an impressive display today would do little for his case, with Liverpool’s first-choice team now set in stone, although if Benitez chooses to ring the changes Crouch could find himself without the sort of support Fernando Torres usually gets.

Despite boasting a five-point advantage over Everton, Liverpool cannot take fourth place for granted.

Everton face relegated Derby tomorrow and could close the gap again, but even so Benitez seems unlikely to risk Torres, with skipper Steven Gerrard a possible absentee as well.

Benitez said: “It was important for us to beat Everton last week, but we know it’s important to win every game that we play.

“I don’t think the fact we have a five-point lead over Everton can give us any leeway over team selection against Arsenal.

“Everton are playing Derby and normally you would expect them to win that.

“So it’s important we get a win at Arsenal, or at least don’t get beaten.

“Arsenal will try to go on the attack as always, and we will try and do the same job as Wednesday by looking to control them and play on the counter-attack.

“I don’t think Arsenal will approach the game any differently either. They are in the race for the title and they know they need to win.”

Benitez Hints At Crouch Exit From Liverpool

Peter Crouch's Liverpool future was looking bleaker than ever yesterday after a clear sign that he has become an afterthought in Rafa Benitez's Anfield strategy.

The striker can expect a recall to the starting line-up at the Emirates today but only after a broad hint from Benitez that top scorer Fernando Torres will be rested ahead of Tuesday's Champions League return with Arsenal.

Torres looks certain to be withdrawn from the firing line after 10 successive appearances and Benitez inadvertently highlighted how Crouch has become a peripheral figure as he assessed the alternatives and said: 'Maybe this could turn out to be an opportunity for the likes of Peter.'

Crouch, 27, has been confined to the bench since Liverpool's FA Cup humiliation at the hands of Barnsley in February and will be on his way in the summer if Benitez is given the go-ahead to continue next season.

Though it suits the Liverpool manager to have an established England striker as cover, he will reluctantly grant Crouch's wish to leave, if only to prevent him going for nothing when his contract expires in just over a year.

The mounting uncertainty has alerted a number of clubs at home and abroad, with Manchester City, Portsmouth and Newcastle likely to lead the chase.

City manager Sven Goran Eriksson is in the market for more firepower, Portsmouth's Harry Redknapp admires the giant striker and Kevin Keegan is planning a massive transfer turnover in the summer.

As Benitez considered his options for the second of three games with Arsenal, he made it clear there would be changes and admitted Dirk Kuyt is now in front of Crouch.

'When you play three high tempo games in seven days against a side as good as Arsenal, you know you're going to have to change players,' he said.

'We have a few players with knocks, and Torres was tired after Wednesday. We will have to look at fitness levels and decide who has fresh legs to give us the quality we need on Saturday, but this could be a chance for the likes of Crouch.

'We still have something to play for in the Premier League because we want to qualify for the Champions League again next season, and we go into the game with confidence after Kuyt's equaliser the other night.

'He is the kind of player any manager would want in his team. He is amazing. He has a high work-rate, can score goals and does a fantastic job for the team.'

Liverpool have appealed against Javier Mascherano's additional two-match ban for dissent towards referee Steve Bennett and hope to have it reduced to one game.

With Arsenal trailing Manchester United by six points in the Premier League, and with a trip to Old Trafford to come on Sunday week, manager Arsene Wenger admitted defeat by Liverpool would end his side's hopes of the title.

He said: 'We are now in the final sprint which will define and decide our season. I will pick a team who can win the game against Liverpool. I feel we have a good chance in the championship and do not want to miss that.

'Some people say it is over but I do believe United will drop points — they play four times away from home. We have to win all our games. Five wins is a minimum and a draw, but that means we would have to win at Old Trafford. Six wins would be better.'