Saturday, April 19, 2008

Premier League Preview: Fulham vs. LiverpooL

Liverpool look almost certain to pip Merseyside rivals Everton to the final Champions League place after Everton’s defeat to Chelsea on Thursday evening. Chelsea return to the city for the midweek Champions League semi-final, and Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez will surely have one eye on that game when he selects his side for this game at battling Fulham.

Benitez has managed to guide his side to a run of one defeat in thirteen, despite the club being in the news for all the wrong reason recently. The Spanish boss is one step away from a third Champions League final in four seasons but rumours persist that he may leave the club in the summer because he is sick and tired of all the power struggles that have kept the club in the news in the last few months.

Benitez was criticised strongly for choosing a weakened side last season at Craven Cottage, but he has his own club to think of, and do not be surprised if he again sends a second string to the Cottage. Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano among others can expect to sit this one out, but Liverpool will still beb ale to send out a side that is capable of beating Fulham.

Depending on the attitude of the Liverpool players, this game could go either way. Fulham may want it more, and that desire could overcome the difference in quality but with players such as Crouch, Benayoun and ex Fulham right back Finnan having to stake a claim for a more regular place in the Liverpool side, The Reds could effectively send the home side down.

Fulham gave themselves a fighting chance of retaining there Premier League status when they finally picked up three points away from the Cottage with the impressive 2-0 win at Reading last weekend. That win ending a run of 33 games without taking maximum points in the League on their travels, and rekindled the Cottagers' belief that they can still be playing top flight football next term.

That victory means the Cottagers are now four points from safety, although the run in has been quite kind to Roy Hodgson’s men. Fulham’s remaining fixtures start with this game against a Liverpool side that have been defeated here on each of their previous two visits.

Last season Benitez was criticised for sending a second string side to Craven Cottage ahead of the Champions League final, where Clint Dempsey’s winner virtually secured Fulham’s Premier League safety. Following Everton’s defeat to Chelsea, which virtually assures Liverpool of fourth place, The Reds may once again rest some regulars as they will undoubtedly be focusing on the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in midweek.

A repeat of that win could set Fulham up for a run-in that sees them take on out of form Manchester City, fellow strugglers Birmingham and then Portsmouth on the last day, before the South Coast play in the FA Cup Final, all winnable games for a side that have improved there form since Hodgson took over from Lawrie Sanchez.



Reading - Fulham 0 - 2 12/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Fulham - Sunderland 1 - 3 05/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Derby - Fulham 2 - 2 29/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Newcastle - Fulham 2 - 0 22/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Fulham - Everton 1 - 0 16/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Blackburn - Fulham 1 - 1 08/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE


Liverpool - Blackburn 3 - 1 13/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Arsenal 4 - 2 08/04/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Arsenal - Liverpool 1 - 1 05/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Arsenal - Liverpool 1 - 1 02/04/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Liverpool - Everton 1 - 0 30/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Man Utd. - Liverpool 3 - 0 23/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE



Powerful American forward Eddie Johnson is doubtful through illness, and experienced Finnish internationals Anti Niemi (achilles) and Jari Litmanen (groin) will definitely not feature. Squad players Ian Pearce (ankle), Chrius Baird (knee), Aleksei Smertin (leg), Philippe Christanval (leg) and Simon Elliot (Achilles) are also sidelined for the home side.


Rafa’s rotation policy keeps his squad fresh, and the only players that are injured for the Red’s boss are reserve wingers Harry Kewell (hamstring) and Jermaine Pennant (hamstring) as well as classy Danish central defender Daniel Agger (foot operation). With fourth place almost sewn up, expect Benitez to shuffle his pack ahead of the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea next week.


Fulham - Jimmy Bullard has returned from a horrendous injury lay-off and his prompting from midfield has inspired Fulham to some excellent results in recent months. Superb free-kicks against Villa and Blackburn show the technique that Bullard possesses and he will have to be at his energetic best if Fulham are to surprise the Reds once more at Craven Cottage this weekend.

Liverpool - Peter Crouch may get another run out on Saturday with Fernando Torres expected to be rested ahead of the Champions League semi. The tall England striker never lets his club or his country down, and he will hope to impress Benitez sufficiently to be rewarded with an extended run in the Liverpool side, although it appears unlikely that he will play in midweek, as Benitez seems to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation for his key games.

DIC Enter Liverpool Ownership Battle

Dubai International Capital are preparing to buy out George Gillett’s stake to seize co-ownership of Liverpool, in a long-sighted attempt to oust Gillett’s antagonistic business partner Tom Hicks.

Boardroom relations at Anfield have capitulated to the point of name-calling and gossiping over the last few weeks, as Hicks has amped up his attempts to exercise executive control of the club.

The Texan asked for Rick Parry to step down as Liverpool CEO last week, claiming he has been a ‘disaster’ who has let the Reds slip inexcusably far behind the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea on the commercial front.

But DIC are undeterred by the American’s antics, and await only the expiration of pre-emption rights that currently bar the sale of Gillett’s majority before they swoop in take a 50 per cent stake in the Merseyside giants.

It is believed the Arab firm will then attempt to implement a long-term plan to ease Hicks out of the club, which will involve providing significant funds for Liverpool’s new stadium at Stanley Park and then asking Hicks to do the same – a challenge they believe the American will be unable to match.

But Hicks is refusing to let DIC walk into the club without a fight. He has outlined a plan that involves buying out Gillett’s share – despite Gillett’s insistence that he would never sell to Hicks – and thus seizing sole ownership of the club, a venture that he hopes will be financially backed by a host of minority shareholders.

Meanwhile, Hicks has attempted sully the reputations of Parry and Gillett in an attempt to lure Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez into the fray, yesterday claimed that Parry had spent “three or four hours” in a private discussion with Jurgen Klinsmann, who was interviewed as a possible replacement for Benitez amid disagreements over Liverpool’s transfer policy.

However, Rafa has remained silent on the matter and the Liverpool fans seem to have wholly rejected Hicks’ approach and sided with Gillett and DIC, with many rally groups and petitions forming directed at ousting the Texas Rangers owner.

But even if DIC do succeed in taking part-control of the club, it will take time before they can attempt to fully overthrow Hicks. Hence, with no clear and immediate resolution in sight, it is possible that Benitez may choose to leave Merseyside at the end of the season – although a second Champions League triumph may sway him to stay, should it occur.

Liverpool May Have To Sell Torres And Babel

Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel could be forced out of Liverpool unless the club can prove they can repay a huge loan that they took out in order to help secure the transfers of the duo.

In an unusual move, the Anfield-based outfit borrowed money to sign Torres from Atletico de Madrid and then refinanced that debt in January, at the same time as they obtained a refinancing package of £350 million (€442m).

According to The Times, the smaller refinancing package helped buy Ryan Babel from Ajax and was an 18-month agreement with interest of nine percent, equating to around £2.8 million a year (€3.5m).

A letter of credit was signed whereby Liverpool agreed to pay that fee back at the end of the period, but should the club be unable to do so then banks could force them to sell the two players that they bought with the money.

Premier League clubs usually do deals that are funded by the huge television income in England and the Reds are playing a dangerous game already as the £350 million loan is set to cost them £30 million (€38m) per year in interest alone.

The news comes at a time when Liverpool are being rocked by the continuous public disagreements between the club's two American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The pair are at loggerheads with both describing their relationship as unworkable and that has meant that any forward planning has been stopped while their differences are sorted out.

On the pitch, Rafa Benítez is managing to keep the club on a track as they have qualified for the Champions League semi finals and look set to finish in the top four of the Premier League.

Torres: I Can't Imagine LiverpooL Without Benitez

Fernando Torres says he cannot imagine Liverpool without Rafael Benitez.

Boardroom quarrels at the club have led to speculation about the Spanish manager's future, but his star striker insists the former Valencia boss must remain at the helm.

Speaking to Eurosport, Torres said:

"I have learned a lot with [Benitez], he is someone with whom you can learn a great deal.

"He has a lot of experience in football and a great CV, and we all hope to do better for him. And I have to thank him because he helped me take the first step.

"I don't know about [rumours Benitez will be sacked]. I know that everything is magnificent here, and you can interpret that in whatever way you want. But for the moment I can't see Liverpool without Benitez."

Torres went on to discuss his remarkable first season on Merseyside, thanking his team mates and the fans for making it easy for him to adjust to life at Anfield.

He said:

"I am experiencing some very good moments. When I signed for Liverpool, it was to experience moments like that.

"But I just thought that I would need more time; that it would take some time to adapt. I didn't think I would get there quickly, and luckily everything has worked in the first year, and I have profited from that.

"When I signed here, I knew that people expected a lot from me. The club paid a lot of money, it was a big investment. I knew the requirements that people would have; the spectators, my team-mates and the manager.

"But I have to say that everybody helped me. When you arrive at a club and everyone does all they can for you to integrate, to make the transition easier on and off the pitch, it's not so hard.

"I have to thank Pepe, who helped me a lot, all my compatriots and the coach who is also Spanish, and who has been important for me.

"Above all, the love of the people from the first day. I was lucky enough to score at Anfield in my first game, and from that day the fans were behind me, and that still continues today."

The Spain striker also suggested that the faster football and slower way of life have been factors in his success.

"I think the main difference is the speed. It is a very quick style of football, with a high tempo. There are few interruptions.

"Maybe there is not as much tactical work as matches in Spain, including matches between the 'Big Four'. And that allows you more space, to play quickly with players who know how to take advantage of that space and who can give me scoring chances.

"It's a much calmer life. People respect your private life a lot, they don't hassle you in public places. It is a totally normal life - or nearly normal."

"You can think about football when you need to, and you can go to a shopping centre knowing that you can walk around peacefully. At the end of the day, football is your job and you can concentrate on it more easily."

Benitez Intends To Stay At Liverpool

Rafael Benitez has reiterated his determination to stay at Liverpool despite the boardroom fight between the club's two owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

"At this moment I have two years on my contract. I am really pleased and happy here and want to stay," he told reporters on Friday.

American co-owners Hicks and Gillett each own 50 percent of the club, winners of five European Cups and 18 League Championships, as a result of their 219 million pounds ($441 million) take over in Feb. 2007.

But they are no longer talking and Hicks's attempts to force Gillett to sell his share to the Texan have fallen flat.

Hicks blocked a move by Dubai International Capital (DIC) to buy Liverpool in a 400 million pound takeover last month and has called for Liverpool's chief executive Rick Parry to be sacked.

In return, Gillett has responded by backing Parry and added to the mudslinging by launching an attack on Hicks.

The latest war of words comes just days before Liverpool's Champions League semi-final tie with Chelsea, with Benitez likely to court more controversy with his team selection for Saturday's Premier League game at Fulham.

A win for Liverpool would edge them to within a point of securing a Champions League spot for next season, but the Spaniard will consider resting players with Tuesday's Champions League game in mind.

Captain Steven Gerrard is unlikely to play.

A year ago, Benitez sent out a virtual reserve team for the penultimate game of the season as he rested players ahead of the Champions League final against AC Milan.

They were beaten 1-0 by a Fulham side that needed victory to stay in the Premier League.

The move angered then Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock, whose team were relegated eight days later.

"My idea is to use a team that will win," Benitez said. "I will pick a strong team for winning because we want to guarantee fourth position as soon as possible.

"We will be eight points ahead of Everton if we can do it. After that we would need one more point and we want to do it as soon as possible because we want to be thinking about the Champions League."

Rafa Defends Team Selection Policy

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will keep Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Chelsea in mind when he picks his starting eleven for Saturday’s Premier League match at Fulham, despite pleas from Bolton boss Gary Megson to field his strongest line-up.

The Bolton manager is echoing calls similar to those of Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock a year ago, who was upset that a weakened Liverpool team lost to Fulham late on in the season.

Megson wants a Liverpool victory at against relegation rivals Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday to ease his side’s relegation worries.

But Benitez insists his mind is focussed only on what’s best for his team, and that includes European commitments. He said, “I will be thinking a little about Chelsea. I have players I don’t want to risk and I’ve enough quality in the squad to win at Fulham.”

Benitez also recalled the criticisms of a year ago when Sheffield United were relegated from the Premier League and Fulham stayed up, defending his actions.

He added, “I know there was criticism last season when we did something similar at Fulham, coming from Sheffield United.

“But what did they do in their last game? They lost. So I feel it is sometimes better to look to yourself and what you do.

“Teams have 38 games to play each season, that is enough. So you are responsible for your own luck.”

The Spaniard also criticised Megson’s ordacity to request such a thing, reminding the press, “What did Bolton do in the Uefa Cup with their team selection? They left players out.

“I will use the players I believe will be good enough to win this game, and the next one and the next one. I believe 38 games is enough to be successful or not.

“Look at what all the teams in the middle of the table have been doing recently.

“They have been using different players, young players, and they have been preparing for the future.”

Liverpool take on Fulham at Craven Cottage in the league Saturday afternoon. Kick-off is 3pm.

Warnock Should Look At Himself Before Blaming Liverpool For Sheffield United's Relegation, Fumes Benitez

Rafa Benitez has responded to a vociferous attack from former Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock, who fumed: "I hope Liverpool never win another trophy under him."

Warnock still holds the Spaniard partly to blame for the Yorkshire club's relegation last season. Liverpool fielded a weakened team in the build-up to a Champions League Final last May and lost to Sheffield United's relegation rivals Fulham.

Warnock, now in charge of Crystal Palace, said: "I'm still very bitter about it. It's part of a big club's mentality. They look after themselves and they don't bother about anyone else.

Liverpool face relegation-threatened Fulham again on Saturday and Benitez is likely to name a weakened side, with skipper Steven Gerrard and full back Alvaro Arbeloa doubtful, and top scorer Fernando Torres set to be rested.

Bolton boss Gary Megson has expressed his desire that Benitez field a full side.

But Bentiez said: "Obviously I will be thinking a bit about playing key games in Europe after Fulham. But the key is to keep winning, we may do it with different players and we need to use other players.

"We have a big squad, good players to come in and we will treat this game just like we did at Arsenal."

The former Valencia boss claimed one side did not have a major bearing on the relegation battle.

"I know there was criticism last season when we did something similar at Fulham, coming from Sheffield United," he said. "But what did they do in their last game? They lost. So I feel it is sometimes better to look to yourself and what you do.

"Teams have 38 games to play each season, that is enough. So you are responsible for your own luck. Look at what all the teams in the middle of the table have been doing recently. They have been using different players, young players, and they have been preparing for the future.

"What did Bolton do in the UEFA Cup with their team selection?. They left players out. I will use the players I believe will be good enough to win this game, and the next one and the next one. I believe 38 games is enough to be successful or not.

"And clearly our squad is stronger than it was last season when we got to this stage. We should have won that game against Fulham then. And I will put out a team I believe can win this time.

"I will be thinking a little bit about Chelsea. I have players I do not want to risk, and I have enough quality in the squad to win at Fulham."