Sunday, August 17, 2008

Match Report: Sunderland 0 - 1 LiverpooL

Fernando Torres fired Liverpool to a scarcely deserved victory over Sunderland in their Premier League opener at the Stadium of Light.

The striker, scorer of the winning goal in this year's European Championships final, was anonymous for much of the evening as his partnership with £20m new boy Robbie Keane continued to stutter, but he produced a vicious drive eight minutes from time to claim the points.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for a Sunderland side who had enjoyed the best of the play and all but negated the return of the Reds' fit-again skipper Steven Gerrard.

Sunderland handed out four debuts - with former Reds winger El-Hadji Diouf joining Teemu Tainio, Steed Malbranque and Pascal Chimbonda in the starting line-up.

The Black Cats immediately went on the attack, Diouf powering straight into the Liverpool half before losing the ball at speed.

Malbranque was also eager to make an impression, nimbly turning Yossi Benayoun but chipping his through-ball just too long.

With just five minutes gone Diouf pace had worried his former side twice, first drawing a last-ditch tackle from Jamie Carragher and then forcing Jose Reina into an ill-judged clearance.

Liverpool attempted to force their way back into the game, Gerrard drifting out wide as he twice tried and failed to play in Keane from the right.

Diouf, enjoying quite a start to a Black Cats career, proved more incisive after 13 minutes, taking advantage of some sloppy defending to cross for Daryl Murphy but the Irishman headed straight at Reina with the goal gaping.

Gerrard then prevented another attempt on goal when he stole in to dispossess the Kieran Richardson in the box.

Sunderland briefly lost their composure after 25 minutes when the unlikely figure of Sami Hyypia caused a mix-up between goalkeeper Craig Gordon and his defence although Liverpool's attackers were unable to take advantage.

Referee Alan Wiley decided not to award a penalty after a heavy collision involving Benayoun, instead blowing for a foul on Gerrard moments before. The resulting free-kick was in a promising position, but a telegraphed routine from Keane and Gerrard ensured nothing would come of it.

Keane made a better fist of a half-chance three minutes before the interval but screwed his shot wide after skilfully setting himself up.

Benitez swallowed a certain amount of pride during the break, withdrawing the ineffectual Damien Plessis and installing Xabi Alonso - a player the Spaniard is happy to sell for the right price - in the centre.

After 54 minutes, former Bolton man Diouf spurned a fine chance.

Murphy, making amends for his earlier miss, laid the ball tantalisingly across goal only for Diouf to scuff his shot to a grateful Reina.

Alonso gradually started to rouse the Reds, elegantly starting a move which ended with one of their better chances - a Gerrard shot cannoning off Danny Collins on the six-yard line.

With 20 minutes to go, Benayoun won a free-kick a yard from the edge of the penalty box - but again Gerrard's delivery was tame.

In the aftermath, Keane and Torres' fledgling pairing - which struggled in the 0-0 midweek draw at Standard Liege - reached its lowest point yet, the Spaniard turning a loose ball goalwards only to see his partner unintentionally deflect the ball out of play.

Keane was taken off, his name sung loudly by the home fans, minutes later.

An Alonso special from within his own half almost settled the match in spectacular fashion, but the midfielder was just wide with his strike - much to Gordon's relief.

It was Alonso's touch too that freed his compatriot after 82 minutes - but the finish, swerving at pace, was all Torres.


Sunderland: Gordon, Chimbonda, Nosworthy, Collins, Bardsley, Malbranque (Edwards 73), Tainio (Whitehead 57), Reid, Richardson, Diouf (Chopra 81), Murphy.

Subs Not Used: Ward, Leadbitter, Higginbotham, Stokes.

Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Dossena, Kuyt, Gerrard, Plessis (Alonso 46), Benayoun (Aurelio 81), Keane (El Zhar 77), Torres.

Subs Not Used: Cavalieri, Agger, Ngog, Skrtel.

Booked: Arbeloa, El Zhar.

Goals: Torres 83.

Att: 43,259

Ref: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).

Rafa Urged To Play Keane Up Top

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has been urged by former Premier League striker Les Ferdinand to play new signing Robbie Keane as a central striker.

The former League Cup winner has commented on his Setanta Sports blog that playing Keane as a central striker will see the best out of him, rather than playing on the wings.

Speaking on his blog, Ferdinand said, “The thing is I’ve heard Rafa Benitez saying Keane can play anywhere - left side or right side. If he plays Robbie on the left or right, then he’s not going to get the best out of him.

“To get the best out of Robbie is to play him down the centre with Torres. If Benitez does, he will get the best out of the partnership.”

The 28-year-old Ireland international made the move to Anfield last month after Liverpool agreed a £19m fee with Tottenham, which could rise to £20.3m after appearances.

Ferdinand also believes that Keane can form a good partnership with Spanish superstar Fernando Torres, saying, “Robbie and Torres are both intelligent players. Torres makes great runs and Robbie has played with Dimitar Berbatov and a lot of players so he knows where to go and where not to go.”

Torres Focussing On League

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has admitted that winning the Premier League is his priority this season.

The Spanish striker enjoyed a good start to his second season in English football with the only goal in yesterday’s 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

Having finished last season in fourth place, despite Torres’ 24 league goals for the club, Liverpool are eager to maintain a serious title challenge this season and end their long wait for the league title.

Speaking to Setanta Sports, Torres said: “Our focus is on The Premier League and we know how important it is to win The Premier League for the fans.”

Despite the victory yesterday, Liverpool’s performance was far from convincing yet Torres appeared unconcerned and was simply pleased to have collected all three points on the opening day. The striker admitted: “It has been too many years and we are focusing on that. It was important to start with a win after the not so very good game in the Champions League.”

Yesterday’s game also saw a league debut for Liverpool of their new £20 million signing from Tottenham Hotspur, Robbie Keane. Although Keane had a quiet game and was substituted in the second half, Torres revealed he is looking forward to playing with the new man. He declared: “I always want to play with a good player like Robbie and he is fine for me and the team, which is more important.”

Liverpool’s next challenge is the visit of Middlesbrough who head to Anfield next weekend after enjoying a bright start to their campaign with a 2-1 win over Juande Ramos’ highly regarded Spurs side.

Mascherano Targets Olympic Gold

Javier Mascherano is confident Argentina can gain revenge for their Copa America heartache when they face Brazil in the semi-finals of the Olympics on Tuesday.

The Reds midfielder will come face-to-face with clubmate Lucas Leiva in the last four meeting between South America's big two and is hoping his side will banish the memories of the 3-0 defeat to the Brazilians in 2007 and give themselves a chance to play for gold.

"It will be a difficult match, but I think we'll play much better than them," he said.

"We will not make any mistake against them, or we may pay for that.

"We lost 0-3 in the Copa America final. Now there are some different players (in the Argentine team), but we still have four or five players who played that match in the team now."

He added: "We'll watch their video later, and try to study them."

Dossena Lands Italy Call-Up

Andrea Dossena has received a timely boost with the news that Italy coach Marcello Lippi has named him in his squad for Wednesday's friendly with Austria.

The Reds full-back completed his first 90 minutes of Premier League action in Saturday's 1-0 win at Sunderland and will now join up with the Italians for what will be Lippi's first match in charge since returning to the post in which he won the 2006 World Cup.

Dossena will be hoping his impressive form at Liverpool will see him add to his one Italy cap to-date after he made his bow in a friendly match against South Africa in October 2007.

Gerrard Named In England Squad

Steven Gerrard has been named in Fabio Capello's England squad for Wednesday's friendly clash with the Czech Republic at Wembley.

The 28-year-old showed no signs of a reaction to the thigh injury that he sustained in pre-season and will now take his place as the sole Liverpool representative in the pool of 23 players after featuring for the full 90 minutes in yesterday's 1-0 win at Sunderland.

Gerrard will also find out whether he is to be the next England captain later this week, with Capello set to name his new skipper on Tuesday.

The England squad to face Czech Republic on Wednesday at Wembley Stadium:

Goalkeepers: David James (Portsmouth), Paul Robinson (Blackburn Rovers), Joe Hart (Manchester City)

Defenders: Wayne Bridge (Chelsea), Wes Brown (Manchester United), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Portsmouth), John Terry (Chelsea), Matthew Upson (West Ham United), Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham Hotspur)

Midfielders: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), David Bentley (Tottenham Hotspur), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), David Beckham (LA Galaxy), Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

Forwards: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Jermain Defoe(Portsmouth), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Emile Heskey (Wigan Athletic).

Benitez Cheered By Opening Victory

Rafael Benitez was happy for the focus to return to the field after Liverpool began their Premier League campaign with a 1-0 win at Sunderland.

Fernando Torres' low shot from the edge of the area with seven minutes remaining proved enough for Liverpool at the Stadium of Light in a fast-paced but scrappy match.

Following recent speculation over his future at Anfield, Benitez was able to discuss a welcome win after Wednesday's Champions League struggle at Standard Liege.

"You could see the team was really focused," he told Setanta Sports 1.

"We want to concentrate on winning, and the best news for our supporters is to win games.

"In the first half, they were attacking; the second half, we were on top and attacking - and continued until the end.

"We had chances. Torres is a key player and he can change games. For the team, it's really important to have these sorts of players."

Meanwhile Sunderland boss Roy Keane knows why his team lost, after enjoying the best of the play for long periods.

"We tired in the last 15 to 20 minutes - which is something I should take responsibility for. We should have had some tougher games in pre-season," he said.

"I know Liverpool have only had one game in Europe, but it was a tough game. We tired, and I think that probably affected our decision-making.

"For all the hard work, the number of goals scored in the last 15 minutes is huge - and the other 75 minutes goes out of the window.

"It was just one moment - that's all we're talking about - but that's the beauty of the Premier League. I can't complain, because I've been on the other side of it."

Torres Summons Lightning Strike

Fabio Capello believes Fernando Torres is the best striker in the world, though he did not look it here. He did sink Sunderland and claim three opening-day points Liverpool barely deserved with a wonder goal seven minutes from time, however, and that is all anyone can ask of a world-class striker.

To the enviable talents fully displayed last season and in the European Championships in the summer can now be added the knack of appearing to sleepwalk through a game before bursting into life with one decisive moment. The match was petering out to a draw and Sunderland had no reason to suspect imminent danger when Torres collected Xabi Alonso's shrewd pass just outside the centre circle, took a couple of strides towards goal and shot past Craig Gordon from 25 yards out. It was cruel on Sunderland, though Roy Keane, for one, was not surprised.

'We're only talking about one moment, but that's all top players need,' the Sunderland manager said. 'We worked hard and played really well, but it was a goal as soon as it left his foot. That's why he cost a few bob. That's why the Premiership is the toughest league in the world. That's life.'

Sunderland began purposefully, with Steed Malbranque and Kieran Richardson showing early enterprise and the front-runners harrying Liverpool so successfully that Pepe Reina was bombarded with backpasses. El-Hadji Diouf had a difficult chance in the opening five minutes, getting behind the Liverpool defence, but finding the ball would not come down quickly enough.

There was little sign of a partnership between Torres and Robbie Keane in the first half - in fact, there was little sign of either player as Liverpool swept the ball from wing to wing, but struggled to find a pass to outwit the Sunderland defence in the final third. The visitors' first shot took half an hour to arrive and was delivered with the usual power by Steven Gerrard. Trouble was it lacked the usual accuracy.

Sunderland were responsible for some of the neatest interpassing of the first half, though perhaps significantly it was the core of players imported from Tottenham who were usually involved. Diouf showed moments of promise but the usual moments of perplexity and petulance as well, while Daryl Murphy showed why Roy Keane needs Kenwyne Jones back as soon as possible. Murphy put himself about well and made himself available as a target, though rather than sticking to him the ball tended to bounce off, sometimes by distances of yards. Sunderland still do not carry enough of a goal threat, as Keane is all too aware, and the longer the game went on the more likely it appeared that Liverpool would simply let them tire themselves out before trying to pinch a winner.

Liverpool brought on Alonso for Damien Plessis at half-time, pleasing the travelling supporters who had been chanting the Spain midfielder's name all afternoon, perhaps with a view to persuading Rafa Benítez not to sell him. His introduction immediately brought a crisper brand of wing-to-wing passing, even if it could do little to alter the fact that neither Dirk Kuyt nor Yossi Benayoun offered any actual penetration on the flanks.

Sunderland's chance to frighten Liverpool arrived in the 54th minute and Diouf missed it. Murphy crossed low from the left and found Diouf ideally placed at the far post, but instead of a decisive finish the striker could manage what amounted only to a pass back to Reina. It was exactly the sort of chance Diouf needs to be grabbing if he is to be of any use to his new club.

Danny Collins is not a regular centre-half and Phil Bardsley is a right-back rather than a left, yet considering they were up against a £50m strikeforce Sunderland's patched up back line did all that could be asked of them. They survived a scare 15 minutes from time when Collins stuck a boot out and made a Kuyt shot rather more difficult for Gordon to deal with, but the goalkeeper produced a one-handed stop on the line and neither Torres nor Keane could follow up. Alonso came as close to scoring as anyone with a shot from halfway that had Gordon briefly worried, before Torres applied the coup de grace from his pass to leave Sunderland three points worse off than this time last year. Keane had just been substituted, so the partnership has not properly got off the ground, but Liverpool are up and running.

'The second half was much better for us,' Benítez said, after explaining he initially left Alonso out to protect a dead leg. 'But the difference, I feel, was Torres.' Sunderland might like to take that as a compliment.

Benitez Committed To Reds '100%'

Rafael Benitez insists he was never close to resigning as Liverpool boss - but has admitted his frustration at the Gareth Barry situation.

The Spaniard's interest in the Aston Villa midfielder has been this close season's longest-running transfer saga, and one which some reports suggest brought Benitez to the brink of leaving Anfield.

Benitez had earlier told the club's official website: "I am not thinking of leaving."

"My commitment with the club, the fans and the players is so big that just because I can be disappointed about different things I won't stop trying my best to achieve all of the targets that we have established as a team.

"My family and myself are very thankful to the club, the fans and the city and we will never give up fighting to get the best for Liverpool."

But having watched his side record a fortunate 1-0 win over Sunderland in their Premier League opener at the Stadium of Light, with a trademark Fernando Torres strike the difference, he reiterated his complete commitment to the Reds.

He said: "I don't read headlines on the day of the game, but my commitment is 100% - with the fans, with the players and with the club in general. I say 100 times my family is happy here - we want to win trophies at this club because it is a massive club.

"If we have problems because we are not doing things which, in my opinion as a manager we could do, I will work as hard as I can for the club."

While Benitez refused to overtly name Barry as the source of the recent discontent at the club, he was as clear as he could be that he wants the versatile England international to join his squad sooner rather than later.

"I will not talk about any player - but in April I was talking about this (behind the scenes)," he recalled.

"We tried to do things in confidentiality, but sometimes you cannot and you need to explain before the end of the transfer window. If the manager has an idea and it is not a question of money, then we have to make the right decisions in terms of whom we bring in. That has to be the decision of the manager."

The Spaniard was also quick to emphasise the need for greater speed in his club's dealings.

Barry has already played for Villa in the UEFA Cup - meaning he would be ineligible for the Champions League group stages - a situation Benitez is clearly unhappy about.

"We have to be quicker," he said.

"I thought this four years ago and I think it now. If you are quicker it is easier to sign the target you have."

Benitez also confirmed he has been given the green light by co-owner Tom Hicks over the availability of funds - but his refusal to name George Gillett or chief executive Rick Parry may only fuel talk of a deep rift between the club's major players.

"I was in contact with Tom Hicks, and he told me we had the money. We have sold players for more than £20million in the summer, and he told me 'if you sell players you can buy with that too'.

"I have the support of at least one of the owners. I sent emails to all of them, but he [Hicks] was clear we had the money.

"It is not something that I can explain. You have to analyse it - but to me it is clear: they were supporting me if we had money, and we do have money."