Thursday, August 28, 2008

Match Report: LiverpooL 1 - 0 Standard Liege

Dirk Kuyt struck the extra-time winner which will be worth millions to Liverpool as they secured their place in the Champions League group stages.

Kuyt has been Liverpool's lucky charm in such games, and this was his ninth goal in 15 European outings.

Last season he scored seven times as Liverpool reached the semi-finals, but none were worth more than the one he forced over the line tonight with two minutes of extra-time left.

Liverpool had stood on the brink of a shattering elimination from the competition as brave Liege pushed them to the very limits.

But somehow Liverpool held their nerve, winning through after another performance which left much to be desired.

Brazilian full-back Fabio Aurelio replaced new signing Andrea Dossena for Liverpool, the only change from the side that beat Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Such was the impact Liege made on Liverpool in the first leg, maybe that change was a reflection on the hounding Dossena suffered from Wilfried Dalmat a fortnight ago.

The Belgian champions, trying to reach the group stages for the first time, had American defender Oguchi Onyewu back from suspension and he came into coach Laszlo Boloni's side.

Roared on by 3,000 noisy Belgians, Liege went searching for the away goal which they knew would make Liverpool's task so much more difficult.

It took a fine, low save from Jose Reina after seven minutes from Dieumerci Mbokani's 20-yard shot to keep Standard from taking that early lead.

Liverpool responded with an Aurelio curling free-kick which was punched away by Aragon Espinoza, with Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane both failing to capitalise on the loose ball.

Then Steven Gerrard's instant pass into Yossi Benayoun's feet ended with the little midfielder mis-hitting his shot wide.

But Liege were intent on testing Liverpool. Marouane Fellaini forced Reina into another save, stretching full-length to his right, Mbokani having failed to connect seconds earlier as the ball dropped invitingly in the box.

In a very open game, Xabi Alonso saw a 25-yard strike skim away from goal with Espinoza beaten.

Liege were certainly not overawed by Anfield, and their pace and confidence increased by the minute.

They had run Liverpool ragged in the first game, and at times they achieved the same effect in this second match.

Fellaini and Steven Defour were again giving Liverpool plenty to worry them in midfield, picking up possession and breaking Liverpool's flow.

Another Aurelio effort saw Espinoza in action again, but Liverpool were not making genuine chances.

The talented Mbokani, with four goals already this season, was engaged in an uncompromising war with Martin Skrtel while Dalmat and Axel Witsel on the flanks stretched Alvaro Arbeloa and Aurelio.

Liverpool opportunities were rare. Kuyt, in his 100th game for the club, headed wide from Aurelio's corner after 40 minutes, but the game was not going according to the home side's script.

Belief was flooding through Liege's minds and bodies, and Liverpool were not playing well and making too many unforced errors.

Defour volleyed over the bar, and there was pressure and tension every time Liege got near Liverpool's area.

The longer it went on, the more mistakes were made. Alonso's passing often went astray, with Benayoun seemingly unable to find a red shirt while Keane was virtually anonymous.

Mohamed Sarr was booked after an hour for a foul on Torres, with Ryan Babel replacing Benayoun before the re-start.

Torres then worked his way through to see a shot blocked by Onyewu, who was having a fine game in defence to keep the Spaniard relatively quiet.

Alonso produced a rare shot after a quick-passing move, but Espinoza was equal to it.

Liverpool continued to labour, with Keane missing in the area after being set-up by Kuyt.

Gerrard fired over the bar soon afterward, and then saw an angled cross-shot fly well wide.

With seven minutes of the regulation 90 left, Benitez sent on youngster Nabil El Zhar for Keane, with Kuyt pushing forward to support Torres.

Igor De Camargo headed just wide in the closing minutes, Milan Jovanovic having replaced Dalmat, but extra-time was an inevitability.

The tension escalated, and Liverpool upset the Belgians by not returning the ball after it had been kicked out for a player to have treatment.

Then Bonfim Dante was booked for a foul on El Zhar, amid continued exchanges of views on the benches.

Liege sent on Salim Toama after 100 minutes for De Camargo, but still Liverpool were making bad errors while the visitors kept coming forward with confidence.

In the second period of extra-time, Espinoza was finally extended when he beat away a 30-yard shot from Arbeloa, with Torres heading wide soon after.

El Zhar should have had a penalty when he was sent tumbling in the box, but eventually Liverpool forced their way ahead.

Babel crossed from the left with just two minutes left, and Kuyt forced the ball home on the far post for the only goal of the tie, leaving Liege barely any time to regroup.

Can Liverpool Turn Luck Into Fortune?

In one sense, Liverpool have had a perfect start to their season. Six points from two Premier League games and successful passage into the next stage of the Champions League is the best they could have accomplished to date. They’ve been almost-perfect at the back, conceding just one goal in 390 minutes of football.

This, of course, is painting a picture so pretty that it would make Water Lillies look like a photo of horse dung. Liverpool have yet to face anything approaching the top class teams they’ll have to overcome if they’re to have a truely successful season. They have yet to score a goal in the first 80 minutes of any match. They have yet to win a game by more than a single goal.

If Liverpool are to continue to be lucky, rather than good, then their season is surely about to fall badly off the rails. Their upcoming Premier League fixtures involve a trip to Villa Park and a visit from Manchester United. They are also just three weeks away from the group stage of the Champions League. Their recent success in this competition means they will be the top seed in their group, but they can still expect to face much sterner opposition than Standard Liege.

And yet, a glorious opportunity awaits if they can kick their season out of first gear. Another two Premier League wins would see them eight points clear of Manchester United and looking down on every other team apart from, most likely, Chelsea. A kind draw from Mr Platini would pit them against Eindhoven, Basel and, I kid you not, Anorthosis Famagusta (who, interestingly enough, are managed by former Newcastle player Timur Ketsbaia).

Gareth Barry Deal Finally Over For Liverpool

GARETH BARRY’S agent has stated the England midfielder will stay with Aston Villa rather than make a late move before the transfer window closes.

Liverpool have been eager to sign Barry this summer but have been unwilling to match Villa’s £18million valuation of the 27-year-old.

Agent Alex Black said: “After much speculation I can confirm that Gareth Barry will not leave Aston Villa before the transfer window closes.

“Gareth made the decision to stay two weeks ago and informed Aston Villa of his intentions.

“During this time discussions have taken place to decide the best way forward for all parties.

“Any talks regarding potential new contracts at Aston Villa will not take place until the end of the season. Gareth wants to concentrate on playing on the best of his ability for Aston Villa, and we hope this draws a line under the matter.”

Meanwhile, Villa manager Martin O’Neill believes Barry has been in the right frame of mind mentally since returning to the side after the collapse of a move to Liverpool.

He said: “If Gareth stays with us for the foreseeable future, I will be really delighted.

“I would have said only a few weeks ago, I was resigned myself to the fact he would no longer be here – around about the time we played Reading in a friendly and when he didn’t come with us to Malaga.

“If he does stay, I will be delighted. It will be a really big bonus for us.

“I think Gareth has played four games in quick succession – with the one for England. Four in 12 days after a stop- start pre-season, which hasn’t helped him.

“He will have better days for us than on Saturday at Stoke with a bit of luck but Saturday might just have been a culmination of the four games in quick succession, the lack of any steady pre-season, and all of those things. I couldn’t have faulted him in any of the matches he had played for us before that.”

Liverpool FC Fans Get Minister's Backing

THE Liverpool fans group who want to buy the club last night received the backing of sports minister Andy Burnham.

The MP for Leigh, a life-long Everton fan, will put aside cross-city allegiances to back ShareLiverpoolFC’s dream of co-operative ownership of the Anfield club, eventually ousting American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Burnham was due to speak at a meeting with fans prior to the last nights Champions League qualifier with Standard Liege, at a pub near the stadium.

Also speaking will be officials of the Spirit of Shankly fans organisation to emphasise the solidarity of Liverpool supporters’ groups behind the scheme.

ShareLiverpoolFC founder member Dr Rogan Taylor will also address the meeting, aimed at re-establishing the group publicly as the current Liverpool owners try to raise money to re-finance their own loans as well as the £400m needed to build a new stadium.

Taylor, director of the Football Industry Group at Liverpool University, said: “We want to make sure everyone realises that we are serious and intend to be around and ready whatever happens.”

Taylor believes that financial pressures will soon call into question once again the Americans’ ability to continue as owners and prompt more interest from Dubai-based investors, who have been waiting in the wings to mount another takeover bid.

Taylor added: “Whoever takes over the club, they are going to need a local partnership. We are here to stay, and have people signed up to help and support the plans we have.

“We want to be around when the next roll of the dice comes, and that could be very soon.”

The grand idea is to have 100,000 people pledging £5,000 to create a financial base to fight for control of the club.

Currently the group have 9,500 who have signed up.

It is believed that ShareLiverpoolFC have held meetings with possible Dubai investors and members of the previous Anfield hierarchy.

Injured Steven Gerrard Will Miss England's Next Two World Cup Qualifiers

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard is out of England's opening two World Cup qualifiers as he goes into hospital for surgery today.

Gerrard played through the pain barrier to see his side make the Champions League group stage, but he was at half power with a groin problem.

Boss Rafa Benitez revealed that the decision was taken to send Gerrard for surgery before the game with Standard Liege and his absence will hit England coach Fabio Capello for the ties against Andorra and Croatia next month.

Gerrard will also be absent from the Manchester United showdown on September 13 and Benitez said: "I'm disappointed because Steven Gerrard will have a groin operation.

"He will be out for 10 to 15 days - he needed to do it. He had pain and had to do it.

"It happened when he went with England. We spoke to the doctor, but Steve said he would play with pain. He kept going but will have surgery."