Sunday, May 04, 2008

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs Manchester City

When these sides met at the City of Manchester Stadium just after Christmas, it was a staunch and stoic defence marshalled by Richard Dunne that kept Manchester City level at 0-0. The inspirational Irish captain will be absent due to injury this weekend and may well have played his last game for City, due to recent boardroom turmoil.

Dunne is one of a host of City players seemingly ready to down tools and mutiny as a result of Thaksin Shinawatra’s decision to bring to an end Sven Goran Eriksson’s ten month reign at Eastlands. The judgement of Shinawatra has been questioned from all quarters, supporter to shareholder, with everyone involved with the club baffled and bewildered at the former Thai PM’s premature assessment of Sven’s achievements.

A league double over their illustrious neighbours and a highest ever Premier League points tally has not been enough to prevent Sven inevitably becoming the league’s latest managerial casualty.

Before the season kicked off, Shinawatra declared a three-year plan for City. After the first year, he said, City were expected to be a top-ten club; after two, top six; and after three, Champions League contenders. Somewhere along the line this season however, the paradigm shifted.

Shinawatra, seemingly initially enthused by Sven’s credentials, decided to hastily change his three-year plan to something decidedly shorter. No longer was Sven untouchable and impervious to interference from a patient and pragmatic chairman, now he was under pressure for immediate outcomes. This policy may hold water at the Bernabeus of this world but sea changes at places like Eastland can reasonably be expected to take a little longer than one season.

City’s players, under pressure since the turn of the year and a mid-campaign slump, will be desperate to dispute their paymaster’s appraisal of their mentor’s accomplishments. Gelling a set of under whelmed and underachieving senior players with a band of hired guns imported from abroad into a liquid and capable outfit, Sven has created a worthy side with an hitherto air of gradual improvement.

Recently however, with a clutch of injuries to contend with, City have struggled. Despite winning two of their last three league games, City have taken only six of fifteen available points and are leaking goals. Elano, an auxiliary right back in the last two matches has flitted in and out of form capriciously since his star rose before Christmas, while the likes of Michael Johnson and Stephen Ireland have jaded as a long season unfolded.

A palpable absence of a genuine goal threat, with only the sporadic contributions of Benjani to turn to, has given City a blunt edge. The club are by no means in crisis, their improvement this season has been just a shade below laudable, but patience in the overlord’s office has worn thin. The chairman sits with his finger over the red button. Sven stands before him waiting for the trap-door to open.

Events at Anfield have mirrored those at Eastlands, with administrative disagreements being conducted with all the dignity of a drunk couple. George hates Tom who hates Rick who is confused, and all this leaves Rafa scratching his head and wishing the carousel of ignominy would end.

His position, by no means untenable, is somewhat unsteady with a palpable air of uncertainty over his head. The sword of Damocles which dangles over Sven hasn’t reached the Spaniard as yet but, to the detriment of the side he has moulded, it could in the wake of an ultimately barren campaign.

Champions League elimination came after two visits to two of the league’s relegation fodder in the shape of Fulham and Birmingham, which yielded four points for largely reserve line-ups. Indeed, Rafa Benitez had his authority questioned by various managers desperate to avoid the basement door with regard to his alleged compromise of the league’s integrity. Liverpool’s league campaign has petered out into futility with only a minor say in the relegation shake-up to influence, now that the fourth Champions League place is a certainty.

Rafa’s priorities laid with the Champions League this season ever since Liverpool reversed their horrendous early group form to become their usual rigid selves on the continent. However, with all his eggs in that basket, Benitez is now forced to contemplate a stilted league table in the aftermath of Chelsea’s semi final victory.

While the likes of Pennant and Crouch excelled in the league over the past two weeks, it was Gerrard and his ilk who disappointed on the big stage mid-week. The captain, a proud and effective motivator, will be desperate to see his supporters leave Anfield for the final time this season with a semblance of a smile on their faces.



Apr 30 (Champions League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 3-2 (Extra Time)

Apr 26 (Premier League) v Birmingham (A) DREW 2-2

Apr 22 (Champions League) v Chelsea (H) DREW 1-1

Apr 19 (Premier League) v Fulham (A) WON 2-0

Apr 13 (Premier League) v Blackburn (H) WON 3-1

Manchester City

Apr 26 (Premier League) v Fulham (H) LOST 3-2

Apr 20 (Premier League) v Portsmouth (H) WON 3-1

Apr 12 (Premier League) v Sunderland (A) WON 2-1

Apr 5 (Premier League) v Chelsea (H) LOST 2-0

Mar 29 (Premier League) v Birmingham (A) LOST 3-1



Rafa Benitez will be without Martin Skrtel, injured chasing Didier Drogba on Wednesday, as well as Fernando Torres due to a hamstring tweak. Daniel Agger, Fabio Aurelio and Harry Kewell remain sidelined.

Manchester City

City will be forced to retain a patched up defence as an almost entirely absent back-four give Sven selection headaches. Richard Dunne, Nedum Onuoha and Micah Richards are all still sidelined, meaning that Elano will probably continue to be deployed as the league’s least likely right back. Daniel Sturridge’s knee problem keeps him out.
Last Starting XI (v Fulham): Hart, Elano, Sun, Corluka, Ball, Johnson, Ireland, Gelson, Petrov, Vassell, Benjani.


Liverpool: Peter Crouch

In the absence of Fernando Torres, the goal-scoring burden will fall onto the shoulders of the Englishman. Crouch, linked this week with Aston Villa, will be eager to retain the admiration of Rafa Benitez and spare himself from the Anfield cull. Two goals in his last two league starts means that Crouch is on fine form going into this encounter.

Manchester City: Michael Johnson

Lining up against the opposition he may well be representing next season, Johnson will be eager to impress. With Sven’s reign prematurely doomed, his young star midfielder will want to give the manager a fine send off. His form has dipped with that of his team but Johnson will want to pit himself against one of his idols, Steven Gerrard.

Rafa Thwarted By Rafinha No-Go?

One of the players whon Liverpoool manager Rafa Benitez has reportedly been tracking - Schalke's Brazilian full-back Rafinha - looks unlikely to be going anywhere this summer.

According to Bundesliga side Schalke, their Liverpool target Rafinha is not about to leave the club.

Although the Brazilian has been linked with a possible summer move to Anfield for some time, Schalke have reaffirmed that no offer has ever been made for the player - and they insist that they do not want him to leave.

Schalke's general manager, Andreas Muller, is adamant that the German club's prized assets - such as Rafinha and Jermaine Jones - will be staying in Gelsenkirchen.

"So far, I have not received any enquiries for the players," Muller told Bild.

"We want to try and win the Champions League next season with both Jermaine Jones and Rafinha."

Mascherano Targets Beijing

Javier Macherano, who should line up for Liverpool against Manchester City at Anfield today, has warned his manager, Rafael Benítez, of a potential showdown over playing in this summer's Beijing Olympics.

'It is a difficult situation,' Mascherano said of his wish to try to help Argentina retain the title won in Athens four years ago. 'It's very important for any footballer to win the Olympics.'

Fifa rules state that anyone selected must travel, even if they are one of the three over-23 players allowed. Didier Drogba, his Ivory Coast team-mate Salomon Kalou and Serbia's Branislav Ivanovic, all at Chelsea at present, have, like Mascherano, been selected for their country's preliminary squads. Additional players can be added, so Chelsea's Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel could also be absent for a competition that ends on 21 August.

Manchester United may lose Argentina's Carlos Tevez, while Arsenal could lose Kolo Touré to Ivory Coast and Gilberto to Brazil. Clubs can only stop players going by pleading with the respective national associations, but the clubs have accepted this is unlikely. Instead, one executive from a Big Four club told Observer Sport: 'We will try and hold players back for as long as possible.'

Mascherano, though, seems adamant he will play. 'I know that Liverpool has a big game around when I have to go, but we will decide with the manager.' And if Liverpool say no? 'We didn't talk about this because we had big games but now we have time. I want to play for my country.'

Other clubs that may suffer include Newcastle United - who have Nigeria's Obafemi Martins and Geremi of Cameroon - and Everton, who could lose Yakubu to Nigeria.

Mascherano's clubmate Jamie Carragher has begged for an end to the very public row between co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, lest Benítez becomes disgruntled enough to quit during the summer. 'The best clubs are always the ones you don't hear much from behind the scenes,' he said. Is there concern in the Liverpool dressing room that Benítez may walk? 'Of course, he's done a great job - he was employed to take us to Champions League finals and semi-finals, and done that.'

Liverpool have been told to double their £3million bid for teenage midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who is part of Cardiff City's FA Cup final challenge.

Manchester City defender Micah Richards will not play today and is unlikely to be fit to appear against Middlesbrough on Sunday, so will miss England's summer friendlies. 'The club comes first. I'm just focused on getting fit,' he said.

Crouch Set For Summer Exit?

Liverpool's final home league game of the season against Manchester City on Sunday could be the last time the Anfield crowd see Peter Crouch in a red shirt.

Crouch may play against City, even with Fernando Torres likely to have recovered from a hamstring scare, but there is a summer of transfer speculation awaiting the England striker.

He has failed to hold down a regular place in the side since 31-goal Torres arrived, with boss Rafael Benitez happier to play Steven Gerrard as a support striker with Dirk Kuyt and Andriy Voronin as back-up.

Crouch has had to live off scraps all season and has already admitted he will need to review his career at the end of the campaign.

Benitez has been told he must sell as well as buy and wants Aston Villa's midfielder Gareth Barry, a long-term friend of Gerrard's.

Villa are believed to want Crouch and John Arne Riise, while Scott Carson's loan deal at Villa Park ends soon. Any of those players could be used as a bargaining tool to get Barry.

Crouch understands the scenario but for now said: "I know the summer is going to bring speculation about my future.

"It is something we always have to live with in this game, unfortunately.

"And when a player is not playing as often as he would like, then people will always say these things.

"I am just going to ignore it and concentrate on my football like I always have with this stuff in the past."

Crouch knows his situation is unlikely to get any better next term. Benitez has offered a new contract and "wants him to stay."

But Torres will always be first choice and Benitez's need to generate capital is clearly going to mean departures in the wake of the Champions League failure.

Fourth place in the Barclays Premier League is assured already but that is one place lower than last season's finish and that will be a significant factor in serious attempts this summer to bolster the squad.

If Benitez had countless millions to spend, Crouch may well be a luxury on the bench he could afford. But that is not the case, money must be generated and Crouch would clearly not be happy with another campaign on the sidelines.

There are many who feel Benitez has a blind spot when it comes to Crouch, who has hit 10 goals this term from limited opportunities.

Crouch added: "I have not played anything like as much football this season as some of the other lads. I feel fresh and it has been great to be involved again.

"I know when I signed there was no guarantee about starting games. No one has that divine right to be picked so it is down to how you do when you get your chance and whether you can hold a place down.

"I'd like to think I have shown what I can do, I was given my chance recently at Arsenal (and scored) and kept my place for the European game that followed."

Benitez: The Target Is Clear - Six Points From Six

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has insisted that his side are fully focussed on their remaining league fixtures, despite the trauma endured during their Champions League semi-final defeat to Chelsea.

With Manchester City the guests at Anfield today, the Spaniard is eager to give the Liverpool support a fond farewell by taking the maximum rewards on offer.

Liverpool have undergone an indignant campaign, with muted on-field performances exacerbated by off-field ownership wrangles.

However, the manager is aware that focus must be maintained and six points from the remaining six available is a priority.

Liverpool wind-up their season with a trip to White Hart Lane and Benitez is keen to see Spurs defeated in their last home game.

Whether the Liverpool players can match their managers enthusiasm for inconsequential league games remains to be seen but Benitez is eager to put the Chelsea disappointment to the back of his mind and move forward.

He said: "We were all really disappointed at going out of the Champions League in the semi-final because we were very close, but now we must think about the future because we still have two more games to play and I would like to win both of them.

"It is always important to win every game and I will try to do that and we will also try to play good football. The target is clear – to take six points out of six."

Carragher: Boardroom Drama Must End

Liverpool vice-captain Jamie Carragher has called for a stop to the constant public bickering between members of the club's boardroom staff in order to focus on the football.

The Reds have endured a season peppered with embarrassing moments and underachievement on the field, though after a dreadful near-elimination in the Champions League, they won back the fans with a run to the semi-finals in the competition.

However, what has constantly hounded the club and tarnished its reputation and integrity is the backroom drama. Co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett had a falling out after only being at the club for a year, with chief executive Rick Parry, manager Rafa Benitez and others dragged into the dispute.

Listing the various incidents over the past few months would be an exercise in futility. Suffices to say, the club has had enough, and Carragher is the latest to re-voice his opinion on the situation.

The hard-working stopper insists that to be a top club they need to keep behind the scenes matters where they belong: behind the scenes.

"The best clubs are the ones where you don't hear about things going on behind the scenes," explained Carragher. "That was always how Liverpool were run and that's what we want to get back to."

A spokesman for co-owner Tom Hicks has denied there were many problems with Hicks Sports Group which would force him to sell his stake, as had been suggested in recent reports.

Riise Out, Abidal In At Anfield?

Recent reports have suggested Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez will be looking to spend up to £10 million on Barcelona's Eric Abidal, to replace the troubled John Arne Riise, who may be on his way to Newcastle United.

With Liverpool constantly being linked with players to strengthen their full-back positions, Eric Abidal is the latest name to be thrown into the hat.

The French international has had a hit-and-miss debut season with Barcelona, and it is rumoured he could be allowed to leave, with the Blaugrana looking to bring in Dani Alves to play at right-back, and if Gianluca Zambrotta ends up staying at Camp Nou, then he would fill the void on the left.

The player himself did not dismiss the possibility of a move, and indeed suggested it could happen if it is what the club decides is best.

“There is change in all clubs and it’s correct we’ve not had an entirely successful season, for now I’m here, if ever the club chooses to sell me, we’ll see,” he is reported to have said.

Meanwhile John Arne Riise, whose form has declined in the past few seasons, seemingly put the nail in his coffin with the comical own goal in the final minute of the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, that arguably proved to be the turning point in the tie that saw the Blues through to the final in Moscow.

Newcastle, who are looking to rebuild their squad over the summer, are looking for a quality left-back, and are now being linked with Riise.

Claims are being made that a £4 million deal was reached six weeks ago, and that he will sign a three-year deal worth around £30,000 a week at the north-east club.