Tuesday, August 12, 2008

English Giants Wary Of Slipping Up

Premier League giants Arsenal FC and Liverpool FC begin their assault on the UEFA Champions League tonight, and both can expect serious tests as they target group-phase berths.

Arsenal travel to face FC Twente on Wednesday, before hosting the Eredivisie side a fortnight later, and manager Arsène Wenger knows his players will have to be focused if they are to emerge triumphant. "When you go to Holland, you get a game – it's a football country," he said. "The clubs are always well organised and we will be favourites. It will be important for us to be at the top of our concentration to go through."

The Gunners were in the Netherlands on pre-season duty and had to come back from two goals down to beat AFC Ajax on Friday, winning 3-2 against the side Twente pipped in a play-off to claim their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round place. And with former England manager Steve McClaren in the dugout, the Enschede outfit will have added motivation. "It is a good opportunity for him to show his quality," added Wenger, whose Arsenal side beat McClaren's Middlesbrough FC 7-0 the last time the pair locked horns in January 2006. "He will want to show that he can bounce back and show his quality."

Liverpool also contest their first leg away from home as they face R. Standard de Liège on the same night. The two sides previously met in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup during the 1965/66 campaign, with Liverpool claiming a comfortable 5-2 aggregate win. Yet the Merseysiders' coach Rafael Benítez knows not to take the Belgian champions lightly. "People may say it's a kind draw for us but we will treat them with respect," said the Spaniard. "They have not played in the group stages of the Champions League before so they will be keen to change that. Also, they will have the confidence of champions after winning their title."

Benítez's cause could be complicated by an injury to talismanic captain Steven Gerrard, who suffered a thigh strain during a friendly with Vålerenga IF and may not be risked. The five-time European champions will also be without Lucas Leiva, Javier Mascherano and Ryan Babel, all of whom are competing at the Olympics.

Premier League Season Preview: The Big Four

Following on from our look at each individual Premier League club, Luke Simmons compares and contrasts the fortunes of the 'big four'.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool comprise the biggest names in English football, some of the greatest in Europe, and four of the most reowned names in the Wworld. But what does this new season hold for each team? Every season each team set out knowing that they have a massive chance of winning a major trophy, but with only four pieces of silverware up for grabs, none of them intend on settling for one cup each…


The Red Devils have enjoyed two brilliant seasons in recent years, following up their 2007 league victory with the historic double of 2008. They have the best player on the planet in Ronaldo, who was simply outstanding last season, and they have the most successful manager in Premier League history. But everything is not so perfect down at Old Trafford: the just-concluded ‘will he, wont he’ transfer saga of Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid stretched nearly all summer long and left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that, if Ronaldo did leave Man Utd, they certainly would not be the force they were last season. On the other side things have been slow:Sir Alex has been quiet in the transfer market so far, only bringing in Davide Petrucci. But no doubt about it, the champions will be up for retaining their trophy for a third season in a row.

And the bookies have them in pole position to do just that, with one leading bookmaker putting them at 11/8 favourites to rule in England yet again. Not a surprise to anyone that they are the favourites, with ten League titles under his belt, Sir Alex will be confident of securing his 11th this season, especially with wonder boy Ronaldo staying at Old Trafford. Their fast paced style of play ripped teams apart last season, and while Ronaldo was obviously the man who grabbed the headlines the link-up play between Rooney and Tevez was incredible. Two results that stuck out last season were the Newcastle games, home and away, in which United 11 goals all together, with a 5-1 away win and an incredible 6-0 home win. If they can keep producing this type of football this season, does anyone else really stand a chance?


The London club are yet again going through another managerial change, their fourth in five years, with new boss Felipe Scolari taking charge of the Blues this season. The new coach has been quick to bring in players who he has managed in the past, with Jose Bosingwa and Deco being added to the squad, with a cost of over £23 million for the pair. After their heartbreaking defeat in the Champions league final in Moscow to bitter rivals Manchester United last season, they will be looking for revenge this time around. They will surely be contenders for every trophy, and with their strong but fluent style of play they are a good bet for silverware this season. Can Scolari be the man to make the Chelsea fans forget about Jose Mourinho? Only time will tell, but I myself believe they can win either the Premier League, or the Champions League next season, or even both.

The bookies have Chelsea the second favourites for the league, at 7/4. The experience Chelsea have is phenomenal: some may argue that they are an ageing side, Sir Alex among them, but I see them as experienced, and with players like Ballack, Lampard, Deco and Terry, no wonder they are a strong favourite for the League. What's more, they are determined: their strength and willingness to win games showed towards the end of last season, taking the League to the last day, when many wrote them off months before. Scolari has promised more entertaining football at Stamford Bridge this season, but if I was a Chelsea fan, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the way they play, just as long as they keep up their fantastic record of winning borne of Roman Abramovich's takeover in 2003. Expect a few more names coming in for Chelsea until the end of the transfer window: rumours keep circulating regarding the possibility of Kaka joining the Blues. Whether it's true of not is another matter, but one thing's for sure: if anyone has the funds to bring Kaka in, it's Chelsea.


After a summer of rumours, with many big name players being linked with a move away from North London, Arsenal look set to start the new season with belief and hope in their young but experienced side. The losses of Mathieu Flamini and Alex Hleb this summer has left a big hole in the Arsenal midfield, but with Welsh teenager Aaron Ramsey, French attacker Samir Nasri and Portuguese starlet Amaury Bischoff being added to the squad, are Arsenal really any weaker than last year? Another new name who is making the headlines in pre-season is Mexican striker Carlos Vela, the teenager finally joining up with the Gunners after two seasons out on loan waiting for a work permit. Last term was a bittwesweet one: they finished third in the league, four points off being the champions, and reached the quarter finals of the Champions league, where they were knocked out by Liverpool in a controversial manner. Arsene Wenger will want to get off to a good start to the Premier League campaign, and with new boys West Brom their first opponents next week at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal should do just that. If the Gunners weren’t so unlucky with injuries last season, maybe it would have been them lifting the Premier league trophy instead of arch rivals Man Utd, but Arsenal have to forget about last year and their young squad needs to push on for glory this term. They should have the strength to do so: the way I see it, these kids are becoming adults, and very talented adults at that.

Arsenal are the third favourites for the league, behind Manchester United and Chelsea, with the odds-makers putting them at 5/1 to lift the trophy. Not a bad bet, considering they finished only four points behind the winners last season. Wenger has said he is looking to bring in one more experienced midfielder, and if he succeeds with this purchase, the Gunners will be, in my view, stronger than they were last year. Some say they play the best Football in the league, but their inability to finish games off cost them dearly at times last season, but if they can fix this fault in their game, I’m sure they can surprise many people next year by winning a major trophy. Like I said, the young Guns are ready to step up to the plate, and with players like Cesc Fabregas, who constantly pledges his future to the club, I wouldn’t bet against them this year.


It’s been a busy summer for Liverpool Football Club, with seven names coming in, including £20.3 Million signing Robbie Keane from Tottenham Hotspur. He'll surely form a mouth-watering partnership with Fernando Torres up front, but perhaps the one player Rafa wants the most, Gareth Barry, is still yet to put pen to paper. It’s been the most complicated transfer saga of the summer so far, and it’s still going on, with the American owners of Liverpool now refusing to pay the asking price for the England midfielder. At the other end, the Reds have let nine players leave the club this summer, Harry Kewell and Peter Crouch being among those names. With all this uncertainty surrounding the Barry saga aside, Liverpool will be hoping to end a nineteen year wait and finally win the Premier league. You can ask any Liverpool fan, what would they most want to achieve this season, and you will get the same answer every time - win the League. So, is this finally Liverpool’s year? If Steven Gerrard can produce what he normally does, and Fernando Torres can achieve the same number of goals as last season, along with Robbie Keane who also has an eye for goal, maybe this season belongs to the red half of Merseyside.

The bookmakers have them at 6/1 fourth favourites to win the League, behind the ‘big three’. But the hopes are high amongst the Liverpool faithful, they believe this is the year they can crack the Premier League code, they believe Torres and Keane is the perfect partnership to do just that. The thing that has let the Reds down in the past is consistency, they can’t seem to keep up a patch of good form in the league, right till the end, but they can in Europe, something that’s puzzled many people over the years. If they can dominate the European stage, why not England? I think it shows just how hard it is to win the Premier League, but Liverpool simply have to win it soon, they need that significant trophy added to their tremendous collection, Plus, Manchester United, their most hated rivals, are catching them up on League titles overall.

Rafa Benitez Seeks Showdown With Liverpool Board

Rafa Benitez wants showdown talks with Liverpool's American owners in the hope of resurrecting the Gareth Barry deal.

The Anfield boss is focused on the Champions' League clash with Standard Liege in Belgium tomorrow, as Liverpool pursue a place in the group stages.

When he returns, Benitez will want to know why the club agreed to meet Aston Villa's £18million valuation of Barry a week ago, but now feel the price is too high.

Barry flies out with Villa tomorrow for Thursday's UEFA Cup qualifying round game at Icelandic minnows FH Hafnarfjordur - and if he plays, would be cup-tied.

Villa boss Martin O'Neill said: "He's our player. If Gareth is still our player on Wednesday morning, he's as good a chance of climbing on the team bus as anybody."

Benitez To Gamble On Gerrard To Secure Champions League Place

Rafael Benitez is ready to risk Steven Gerrard in his attempts to secure qualification for the Champions League group stages.

The Liverpool manager has been hampered in his preparations for tomorrow’s third qualifying round tie at Standard Liege and faces a crippling midfield shortage.

Gerrard is struggling to shake off a thigh strain while Benitez is still being foiled in his attempts to sign Gareth Barry after the club admitted they wouldn’t meet Aston Villa’s asking price.

And the absence of Javier Mascherano and Lucas will continue into next week as they have both helped Argentina and Brazil, respectively, to reach the quarter-finals of the Olympics football tournament in Beijing.

That means the only fully fit central midfielders available are Xabi Alonso and

Damien Plessis – who has looked impressive in pre-season but only has two first team appearances to his name and none in Europe.

With a tricky away leg looming against the Belgian champions, Benitez is giving his captain every chance to prove his fitness and he will fly out with the squad this morning.

“I was talking with him this morning and he will go with us to Belgium,” said Benitez.

“He is progressing really well but we will check after training. I will speak with the doctor and with Steven and then decide.”

Being backed into that position will only increase Benitez’s frustration as he faces up to kicking off the season at Sunderland on Saturday without Barry.

He wants to concentrate on the Liege tie in the next two days but after tomorrow’s game he is set to seek further talks with American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks regarding the direction of his transfer business in the remainder of the window.

But another nail in the coffin of the Barry deal could be struck by Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill on Thursday if he plays his skipper in the Uefa Cup

Villa to take on Icelandic side FH Hafnarfjordur in the second qualifying round and an appearance by Barry would leave him cup-tied for the Champions League.

O’Neill said: “He’s our player and though things could change, if Gareth is still our player on Wednesday morning, he’s as good a chance of climbing on the bus as anybody.”

The uncertainty surrounding Barry’s status has disrupted Villa’s preparations and with O’Neill keen to see a conclusion to the saga, dropping his £18m valuation remains an outside possibility.

It is the only way Liverpool will be able to now complete the signing of Barry.

Meanwhile, Martin Skrtel, Fabio Aurelio and Philip Degen won’t be joining Gerrard on the flight to Belgium.

“Martin and Fabio are training with us but they will stay here,” added Benitez. “They are not ready for this game but hopefully both will be available for the weekend.

“Philip isn’t training with us yet and is a little behind the other two.”

Another defender, Miki Roque, has gone on loan to Spanish side Futbol Club Cartagena for the rest of the season.

Optimistic Benitez Delighted With Liverpool Squad

The headline-grabbing signing of Robbie Keane has stirred Liverpool fans into their annual bout of anticipation that this could be the year they win the title for the first time since 1990.

Irish captain Keane cost Liverpool 20 million pounds ($38.56 million) when he signed from Tottenham Hotspur and promises to be the perfect foil for last season's spectacular success story Fernando Torres.

The Spanish Euro 2008 winner scored 33 goals in his debut Anfield campaign, with little striking support, to become an instant hero of the Kop.

Manager Rafael Benitez has moved to ease the pressure on Torres by bringing in Keane to play a support role that should ensure plenty of goals.

Keane scored 23 goals for Spurs last season and although he admits he was happy at the London side he could not resist the chance of joining the club he supported as a boy.

Benitez, who has also spent the off-season chasing Aston Villa's holding midfielder Gareth Barry, is still hoping the England international will sign before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Although he is making no predictions about Liverpool winning the title, he is optimistic about the season.

"I am confident about my squad and I am happy that we have the best squad since I arrived at Anfield," he told the Daily Mirror newspaper.

"The key is not to say we will win the title, because the Premier League is now the best, and most difficult, in Europe.

"Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are the best in Europe, but my belief is unshakeable that we can compete with them."

However, despite the arrival of Keane and Benitez's optimism, Liverpool still look short of matching the leading trio.

Benitez admitted at the start of the break that he needed a top-quality left winger and has failed to fill that gap, while the central defence is an area that could be left short if injuries hit.

Right back Philipp Degen has come in from Borussia Dortmund and Andrea Dossena has joined from Udinese as the new left back, with John Arne Riise moving to Roma.

The transitional nature of Liverpool's defence could be their Achilles heel as they go in search of the title that has eluded them for so long.