Sunday, April 27, 2008

Birmingham 2 - 2 LiverpooL

Yossi Benayoun's deflected equaliser clinched Champions League football for Liverpool but dealt a massive blow to Birmingham's hopes of Barclays Premier League survival.

Alex McLeish's side had appeared to be coasting to victory after goals from Mikael Forssell and Sebastian Larsson had put them in total command.

But a lethargic Liverpool suddenly came to life and, after Peter Crouch had reduced the arrears, Benayoun's deflected header rescued a point and dealt a massive blow to the home side.

Blues will be wondering how they surrendered two priceless points after appearing to be cruising to only a second win in the last eight matches.

Larsson and James McFadden were a handful throughout for the Reds and Birmingham were also hard to break down - a sharp contrast to the 5-1 mauling at Aston Villa last weekend.

But a failure to keep clean sheets has been an Achilles heel for City all season and they were forced to defend desperately for the final half hour.

Liverpool's inspiration was former Blues winger Jermaine Pennant and he was one of the few players in Rafael Benitez's 'shadow' side to stake a claim to start in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final with Chelsea.

Benitez's line-up, showing nine changes from the starting XI against Chelsea in the Champions League, had plenty of possession in the early stages and were content to knock the ball around and probe for an opening.

Lucas had the first effort on target from a cross by Andriy Voronin but Blues goalkeeper Maik Taylor was able to save comfortably away to his left as he failed to make full contact.

Forssell showed good skill on the edge of the Liverpool box to manufacture half a chance for himself but his volley flew straight at Jose Reina.

Forssell was looking the most threatening for Blues when the ball was played into his feet and good skills by the Finnish international found Olivier Kapo in space on the left of the Liverpool box.

But the former Juventus player opted to strike the ball first time and his shot flew into the side netting.

Kapo did better when turning past Steve Finnan and getting to the byline but he over-hit his cross with Forssell waiting in the centre.

Then after 34 minutes the home side went ahead through Forssell's ninth goal of the season.

McFadden was the creator with a teasing cross from the right flank which seemed to glance off the head of Martin Skrtel before finding Forssell unmarked at the far post.

He had time to bring the ball down before hammering it past Reina.

Liverpool tried to retaliate and Taylor was called into meaningful action for the first time to turn aside a dipping powerful 25-yard drive from Crouch.

Voronin became the first player to be yellow-carded after 42 minutes for a touch-line challenge on City skipper Liam Ridgewell.

Then home defender David Murphy was booked in first half injury-time for chopping down Pennant but, fortunately for Blues, John Arne Riise was inches too high with his 30 yard free-kick.

Benitez would have wanted a more committed performance from his side and Liverpool had most of the possession in the early stages of the second period.

But after 54 minutes St Andrews erupted after a stunning free-kick from Larsson doubled Birmingham's lead.

McFadden was brought down by Skrtel some 25 yards out and before the free-kick was taken both Riise and Hyypia complained that Jaidi was obstructing Reina.

But the keeper had no chance as Larsson's curling effort beat his dive and hit the top corner of the net.

Ridgewell got up well to meet a corner from Larsson but he directed his header past the post when he should have at least hit the target.

But Liverpool gave themselves a life-line after 62 minutes when Crouch made no mistake with a first time drive from the edge of the box after a mazy run by Pennant had created the chance.

It means City have now gone 17 games since last keeping a clean sheet against Middlesbrough on Boxing Day.

Jaidi had a chance to restore City's two-goal advantage but headed Larsson's free-kick wide from close range before Nafti was booked for bringing down Pennant.

But Liverpool were now in the ascendancy and Voronin and Benayoun both wasted decent opportunities.

The visitors were not to be denied and after 77 minutes Benayoun's deflected header brought them back on level terms.

Lucas sent over a teasing cross which Benayoun was first to react to but his header hit Jaidi and wrong-footed Taylor as it trickled into the corner of the net.

The Five Players Rumoured To Be On Rafael Benitez's Shopping List

The Daily Mirror today claimed to know the five players on Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez's summer shopping list.

The Spanish boss yesterday revealed he had a productive meeting with Reds co-owner Tom Hicks in which he was promised backing in the transfer market.

The Mirror believes Benitez identified the players he'd like to sign as:

Wigan winger Antonio Valencia
England international Gareth Barry
Swiss full-back Philipp Degen
Spanish defender Fernando Amorebieta and...
Former Manchester City winger Albert Riera

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I take all speculation with a rather large dose of salt. Indeed, my mantle is very much that I'll believe it when I see it. But, I have to say, I am hopeful that the journalist David Maddock has got this wrong.

According to Maddock, Valencia is top of the list with Benitez having already tested the water with a £6million enquiry. However, the 22-year-old Ecuador international, who can play on either wing, is also interesting Manchester United and therefore his price tag would be closer to £10million. In my opinion, Sir Alex is welcome to him. He's a quick, clever player but he's not going to bring us a Premier League title.

The only thing I've seen of Amorebieta is a wild 40-yard effort which sailed high into the Madrid skyline, but Benitez is known to be a long-term admirer of the 23-year-old Bilbao centre back. With Daniel Agger, Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and the super impressive Martin Skrtel already competing for two first-team places do we really need to add an inexperienced La Liga man few have heard of?

Philipp Degen is another I know little about. However, Maddock believes the 25-year-old Borussia Dortmund star may be the player to have already agreed in principle to join the Anfield ranks.

As for Riera, I'm just not sure he possesses the quality a Liverpool player should. At 26, he should be about to hit his peak years, but a stuttering career which has included a loan spell at a then poor Manchester City side hardly inspires confidence. Currently performing well for Espanyol, Riera has forced his way into the Spain squad but I think he would have his work cut out to win over the majority of Reds fans.

The one player from Maddock's list I would welcome with open arms is Barry. Where would he play? In the centre. Yes, we already have Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Lucas. But Gerrard is a marauder and Lucas is young. Manchester United and Chelsea have shown in recent years that to compete in the Premier League you need to stock up on world-class midfielders - and Barry isn't far off that.

So, Rafa, if Maddock's right, bring us Barry. Then burn the list.

Liverpool FC Reveals New Home Strip For Next Season

Liverpool FC revealed the club’s new home strip for next season today.

The new adidas kit is a classic Liverpool red. An embroidered Liver Bird is carried on the back of the shirt and the inner neck has a red chequered area inspired by the flags of The Kop.

The kit has been designed and produced by adidas, official sponsor and sportswear supplier to the Reds, and incorporates a new shirt collar, ribbed with a v-neck.

The shirt also carries a "This is Anfield" inscription, inspired by the famous Anfield sign.

The replica kit goes on sale on May 22.

Recommended retail prices remain the same for season 08/09 - £45 adults, £35 children.

Rafa Slams Drogba

This week Liverpool, driven by a powerful sense of injustice over the antics of the Chelsea striker, fancy their chances as underdogs to reach their third Champions League final in four years.

If nursing a sense of injustice can help a club into a Champions League final then Liverpool should start embroidering the jerseys for their third in four years. If you judged Chelsea to be a tad fortunate to escape Anfield with a 1-1 draw or were unimpressed by Austrian referee Konrad Plautz's handling of Didier Drogba, Liverpool would like you to multiply those thoughts by 10.

Take Ryan Babel's reaction to the injury-time moment of idiocy with which John Arne Riise transmuted an almost stereotypically efficient Liverpool performance into Chelsea's away-goal advantage. The Dutch winger strode across the technical area to his countryman Henk ten Cate, Chelsea's assistant coach. 'I told him that they are lucky,' said Babel. 'He didn't agree - but then he never agrees.'

Ten Cate would doubtless dispute Rafa Benítez's re-assessment of the first leg. Reviewing the game on video and sleeping on the result had done nought to temper his anger towards Plautz: 'We knew before: six games, just one victory for the home team. Now seven.' As for Drogba, Benítez labelled him a diver in every way possible without using football's taboo word. 'Drogba was given seven fouls and Fernando Torres three. Torres has bruises all around his body. From the first minute I was disappointed by the performance of the referee.

'With Drogba it's important to have a good referee. You can't do anything [to stop him going down], but I will say it because it was so clear. He is amazing because he is massive [yet he goes down]. It's very impressive. I have a lot of clips of him from over the years and he surprises me. After four years I expected it. It's very impressive.'

This may sound like trash-talking bravado from Liverpool, who have yet to register a goal at Stamford Bridge under Benítez's stewardship and who have enjoyed their own share of luck in big Champions League matches in recent years. But this Liverpool side are structured, settled and confident. Since February's home victory over Internazionale there have been consistent three-point Premier League hauls; Arsenal have been thrice out-thought and eventually eliminated from this competition and now Chelsea have been outplayed on home turf. The sole defeat - away to Manchester United - was cheekily explained away by Javier Mascherano's ref-rage red card.

Less than six months ago Steven Gerrard was filling the pages of the club magazine with carefully phrased doubt over Benítez's championship-winning credentials: now there is a new unanimity of belief in their ability to better England's best. 'If they didn't have Petr Cech in goal then we might already be through,' was Gerrard's analysis of an evening on which the Czech goalkeeper had been Chelsea's best player.

'It is the game of the year for us,' said Dirk Kuyt, the one man to find a way past Cech. 'We have a strong belief we can do something out there. We know we haven't scored there for a long time, but we also know we can score anywhere.' Babel argued that 'this Liverpool is a different team than the Liverpool of other years' - to his manager's approval.

'After four years and three times in the semi-finals and twice in the final in Europe we have a big name again, and the top players want to come here,' said Benítez in a message with as much relevance to the club's warring owners as to their Champions League campaign. 'I received some messages from the Spanish press and they told me that in the semi-finals we were the best of the four teams. The players know we are contenders and they know we have good players and can beat anyone. I think we are different now.

'I feel positive. In some sports the best team always wins, but in football you never know. But we were much better than them. I think they need to attack. You know what it is like with supporters, when you are waiting and playing counter-attack at home, and you concede a goal and lose ... supporters will kill you.'

While Avram Grant is perhaps the only man who would argue that Chelsea are a more powerful, effective or better prepared outfit than the one that narrowly ceded two previous Champions League semi-finals to Liverpool, all parties concur that a Benítez side with Torres at the point of its attack is a considerable step up on earlier incarnations.

'They are a stronger team this year and I think that's mainly down to the one man,' said Chelsea's Frank Lampard after the Anfield game. 'Torres is an absolutely fantastic, world-class goalscorer, and that's something they've been crying out.'

Yet Torres, as much as Cech and Riise, was responsible for Tuesday ending in stalemate instead of a decisive Liverpool win. Though the intelligence and pace of the young Spaniard's running was a constant problem for John Terry, when twice propelled free on Cech he failed to apply a top marksman's finish. Torres's first season in English football has been remarkable, but there is still promise that requires fulfillment. Of his 30 goals this campaign, only seven have come away from home - and three of those were in the League Cup at Reading. Delivering Benítez's first Stamford Bridge goal would underpin his manager's message that 'Torres is very strong, mentally, don't worry'.

Torres's performance is less of a concern to Liverpool than Drogba's is to Chelsea. Few within the Chelsea camp were more angered by the manner of José Mourinho's dismissal than the Ivorian, and the season of a footballer who could have been voted England's finest last year has reflected that discontent ever since.

From October to November Drogba reprised his best form, scoring eight times in eight matches. Then came further knee trouble and a fight with Chelsea to be operated on in time to captain Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations. On his return from Ghana, the physical problems returned, the goals dried up and Drogba's desire to exit Stamford Bridge became increasingly manifest.

Benítez, though, still recognises the African's ability to perform majestically when the moment takes him - and unhinge defences with a 'studied' application of physique. Hence the propaganda campaign of this week. 'We've played against Chelsea 15 games and every time I have collected some clips of Drogba,' Benitez explained. 'I have shown them to some of the players. I think that [Martin] Skrtel and Carra [Jamie Carragher] were really good against him the other day, the only problem was the referee was giving fouls. And it was not the same with Torres.'

Also noted was the anti-Drogba strategy employed by Roberto Ayala in Benítez's final game as Valencia coach - the 2004 Uefa Cup final against Marseille. The Argentina defender applied a quick, hard kick to the striker. 'With Ayala you don't need to say anything. He knew what to do,' said Benítez.

All this talk of luck and malpractice does Chelsea a disservice, especially on the evidence of yesterday's performance in the 2-1 defeat of Manchester United at Stamford Bridge which will put them in good heart for the run-in. If ever a club deserved a stroke of Anfield fortune it was Chelsea, who had succumbed to Luis García's infamous 'ghost goal' in 2005 and José Reina's penalty shoot-out excellence two years later. Moreover, the fact that they will go into May still in contention for the two main prizes is a testament to the qualities of a group who have spent most of the season working under a manager for whom they have limited respect.

So far only Tal Ben-Haim has publicly spoken out against Grant, saying of his former national team coach: 'I knew that nothing good would come with Grant as Chelsea coach.' The defender was told to train with the reserves, only for the punishment to be rescinded.

On Wednesday at least, though, the Israeli will benefit from the resilience of the squad he inherited from Mourinho, the self-belief his predecessor instilled in them, and the fundamentals of playing shape and style that Steve Clarke has worked to preserve on the training ground. That may well prove enough to take Chelsea to the Champions League final that eluded Mourinho in his three years at the Bridge. If it does the lucky one will be Avram Grant.

Cheyrou Backs Reds For Final

Bruno Cheyrou has backed his former club Liverpool to defeat Chelsea this Wednesday and progress to the Champions League final.

Cheyrou is not remembered as a fan favourite at Anfield, it is safe to say.

The French midfielder played 31 games in his four years on the Liverpool books, scoring all of two goals in the process, firmly cementing himself among Gerard Houllier's infamous flops.

However, one of those goals came at Stamford Bridge in 2004, and remains the last goal registered by a Liverpool player at Chelsea’s stronghold.

But the 29-year-old, who has fallen some way short of living up to his billing as ‘the new Zinedine Zidane’, is backing his former club to break their hoodoo and earn a final berth in Moscow against either Barcelona or Manchester United.

"When I heard I was the last Liverpool scorer at Stamford Bridge I felt proud," said the Rennes man. "Playing for Liverpool remains a great source of satisfaction.

"I'll be glued to my television on Wednesday.

"I was devastated when John Arne Riise scored the own goal. But John's a strong man. I wouldn't put it past him to score the winner at Chelsea.

"My advice to Liverpool is to keep believing. They've probably got a better side now than four years ago; I'm sure they can get a result."

Kuyt Eager To Bring Chelsea Back To Earth

Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt is hoping to serve Chelsea a big slice of humble pie.

The Dutch forward is still smarting from having victory snatched from their grasps deep into injury time last week, but he will not be lacking for motivation to set things right on Wednesday.

"When the final whistle blew I think some of them were thinking they had already reached the final," said Kuyt of the unrestrained manner in which the Chelsea players celebrated despite the equalizer on the night having arrived by a John Arne Riise's own-goal, which was a huge dose of luck which most would agree that they didn't deserve on the night.

"People talk about us not having scored at Stamford Bridge for so many years, but you can also look at it in a more positive way. We have scored in every away game so far this season in the Champions League.

Kuyt added: "We know we played well in the first leg and we know we have made it difficult for ourselves in the second match. But we always believe we can score and if we do that it will put a whole new complexion on the tie."

Chelsea will be brimming with confidence for the rematch at Stamford Bridge next week, following their massively important 2-1 win against Manchester United yesterday.