Monday, September 01, 2008

Aston Villa 0 - 0 LiverpooL

Rafael Benitez suffered a torrent of abuse and saw his Liverpool side miss out on the chance to go top of the Barclays Premier League after a goalless draw at Villa Park.

Aston Villa fans taunted the Reds boss with chants of 'There's only one Gareth Barry' after the collapse of the England midfielder's move to Liverpool, and some of the crowd aimed personal insults at the Reds manager.

Benitez was met with a crescendo of abuse from Villa fans when he made his way to the dug-out before shaking hands with home manager Martin O'Neill, with whom he became embroiled in a war of words over Barry.

But the game itself was mostly disappointing, with both sides cancelling each other out and for long periods adopting a safety-first approach until an exciting finale.

Liverpool needed to win to go top but they could not find their way through a home rearguard in which captain Martin Laursen was a rock-solid performer.

Midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker had one of his best games for Villa on the right flank, before switching to full-back in the closing stages to accommodate £12million new recruit James Milner.

The encouraging factor for Villa was that they looked a match for Liverpool, an established member of the Premier League's 'big four', in a season where they are expected to challenge to break into the elite group of teams.

But Villa also found it difficult to create decent opportunities, with Javier Mascherano impressing in the Liverpool midfielder after his return from Olympic action with Argentina.

The first incident of note saw Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel booked after 13 minutes for hauling back John Carew on the left flank.

Liverpool suffered a setback after 27 minutes when striker Fernando Torres pulled up sharply when chasing an innocuous-looking pass and was immediately taken off.

It led to Benitez giving a debut to striker David Ngog who was signed from Paris St Germain earlier in the summer.

Then, after 35 minutes, Carew squandered the first clear-cut chance.

Barry's fine pass played in Ashley Young who had beaten the offside trap and he laid the ball back invitingly into the path of Carew, only eight yards out from goal.

But the Norwegian international opted to place his low shot rather than go for power and Reina was able to block his attempt.

Liverpool threatened for the first time when a deep cross from Andrea Dossena was only headed by Nicky Shorey into the path of Dirk Kuyt but his side's midweek Champions League goal hero shot into the sidenetting.

Then a superb reverse pass from Robbie Keane opened up the Villa defence for Ngog and his left-footed curler was only inches too high.

The visitors stepped up their game in the second half and Keane teed up a shot for Xabi Alonso which was deflected over Brad Friedel's bar by Shorey.

Then Friedel did well to tip over, at full stretch, a superb cross on the run from Dossena.

Villa enjoyed pressure of their own and Curtis Davies made good ground to get on the end of Young's free-kick but summed up the game by heading the ball away from the Liverpool goal.

The biggest cheer of the afternoon came with the introduction of Milner in place of Luke Young whose right-back berth was filled by Reo-Coker.

Dossena was booked a minute later for throwing the ball away after disputing a throw-in awarded to Villa.

Benitez brought on Fabio Aurelio for Kuyt after 70 minutes, and Petrov was just off target with a dipping volley.

Benitez then appealed in vain for a penalty after Reo-Coker's tackle on Keane who shot wide when under pressure from the Villa midfielder.

Keane Says Goals Will Come

Liverpool striker Robbie Keane says he is too experienced to start worrying about his Anfield goal drought.

The Republic of Ireland forward insists his slow start is nothing to be concerned about, and he said he is looking forward to developing a lethal partnership with Spanish ace Fernando Torres.

Keane is yet to find the back of the net since his £20m summer move from Spurs, but he is confident he can rediscover his scoring touch soon.

Keane scored 80 goals in 197 appearances for Spurs, including 23 in all competitions last year, and he said he wants to get his goal tally up and running when he plays in the next few matches.

He said: "If I was younger and a bit more naive, maybe I would start to worry about it. But when you're 28 and you've got experience with many clubs, you're not worried one bit as long as the team is winning.

"That is the main thing. It took me five games to score my first goal for Tottenham. The more people talk about it, the more it becomes a big issue.

"But I'm not worried about it and if I'm not worried, you shouldn't worry."

Keane added: "When you've been there and done that, you settle in a lot quicker than you would if you were younger.

"The new players and new environment take a little bit of getting used to.

"The spark with Fernando is only going to come with games. We have to understand each other and what the team do."

Gerrard's Injury Frustration

Liverpool ace Steven Gerrard says he had no choice but to go under the knife to resolve his groin problem.

Gerrard underwent the groin operation earlier this week after the club decided the time was right to get the injury cleared up.

The injury will sideline Gerrard for up to two weeks and it means he will miss England's World Cup qualifiers with Andorra and Croatia next month.

Gerrard admits he has been struggling with the injury for some time and he has revealed his frustration at missing the opening World Cup qualifiers.

"I've been struggling for a few weeks now. It's really frustrating for me because I want to play in every game," Gerrard told the News of the World.

"It's a very tough time as a player when you're injured. I've got some very big games coming up for club and country, so it's a massive frustration for me.

"But the fact is I couldn't reach the level I need at the moment because my groin was too sore.

"It was clear I needed to get the problem sorted.

"The doctor told me I needed to see a specialist. And he felt an operation was needed."

Torres Eager For 'Special' Madrid Return

This weeks Champions League draw will see Fernando Torres revisit Vicente Calderon as Atletico Madrid are pitted in the same group as Liverpool.

Fernando Torres spent six idolised years at Atletico Madrid, accumulating a multitude of appearances despite his young age.

El Nino hasn't taken long to win over the Liverpool support scoring some fantastic goals in his debut season, and looks set to continue that trend this campaign.

Speaking to, Torres said: "It will be very special for me and I’m sure that I’m going to enjoy the experience. I hope to get a good reception from the fans because Atletico gave me a lot, although I also gave a lot to Atletico."

"I understand that when the game starts they will see me as a rival, but I’ll never forget the years I spent there," he said.

"It will be an amazing feeling to run out onto the Vicente Calderon pitch again and meet up with old team-mates and friends," he concluded.

Liverpool travel to Madrid on Wednesday the 22nd of October.

Benitez - We Need To Be More Clinical

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was satisfied with the point his side secured away to Aston Villa, but believes his men need to improve their final ball if they are to challenge for a top-two finish.

In a drab affair at Villa Park, both teams lacked potency in the final third as Robbie Keane, Martin Laursen and John Carew spurned the only real clear-cut chanced of the game.

And Benitez, who is close to securing the £8 million signing of Albert Riera from Espanyol which could solve The Reds’ lack of width, believes his side will struggle to match Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United this season unless they can improve their attacking proficiency.

"We were controlling and creating the opportunity for the final pass," Benitez told Sky Sports 1. "We have to improve the final pass and that could be the difference."

The former Valencia manager confirmed Riera’s arrival at Anfield, believing the player will prove to be a shrewd addition to the side.

"I think so," Benitez said when asked whether the Spain international would be arriving. "He will be a good addition. It is nearly done."

Benitez also admitted that the club will have to await scans on Fernando Torres’ hamstring injury after the hit-man limped off midway through the first half.

"We don't know how long Torres will be out for yet," Benitez told Liverpool's official website. "We'll have to wait for the results of the scan on Monday.

"It could be he is out for seven to 10 days, but until he has the scan we won't know."

Rows Are Over, Insists Parry

Liverpool's chief executive Rick Parry insists that the fighting within Anfield is now over. Rows between Parry and Rafa Benitez over who would and wouldn't be signing for the Reds, along with the fallout between owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, threatened to see chaos decent. However Parry says that stability has been restored and everyone is now pulling in the right direction, as he explained to Sky Sports:

'Everyone is working together.

'Everything was relatively calm during the close season compared to the publicity at other clubs and now we just want to focus on winning games.

'There is a dialogue between the two owners on a regular basis. And they have been supportive throughout the last six months, especially in the transfer market.

'People forget that we have bought Robbie Keane and paid a huge fee for Javier Mascherano. So the commitment has still been there. They have been supportive through this transfer window and, at the moment, it is stable.'

Whatever happens we do not want any problems brought out into the open anymore, as far too much has been broadcast in public to see this famous club come something of a laughing stock all to often. Problems in the Anfield boardroom should, as much as is humanly possible, remain there from now on as most doesn't, and shouldn't be made public.

Parry also denied speculation that he could replace Brian Barwick as chief executive of the Football Association, he added:

'I'm still here but it's not about me. The story should always be the players.

In other Reds news out of favour winger Jermaine Pennant is being linked with a move to Stoke before the transfer window closes. A fee of £4m is being spoken of, and despite his desire to remain his future with the Reds looks very bleak, so there is a good chance he could go before midnight on Monday.

Old Failings Are Still Present

IT clearly wasn’t in Rafael Benitez’s plans to get to a day from the end of the transfer window and be watching Gareth Barry playing for the opposition.

But it was the players missing from his own squad that proved the greatest frustration for the Liverpool manager.

Steven Gerrard’s absence already assured Liverpool would be suffering from a lack of creativity – but having to make do for an hour without Fernando Torres, the one player who can make something happen out of nothing, left Benitez on a hiding to nothing.

And although in circumstances a draw can be considered a decent result, it brings back bad memories of what cost Liverpool a title challenge last season – settling for one point when three were on offer.

A win would have given Benitez the boost of getting one over on Martin O’Neill where it really matters – on the pitch.

If only events between the two clubs there could have been half as feisty as they have been off it during this long, heated summer.

But victory would have taken Liverpool top of the Premier League with three wins out of three. And unlike the previous two successes this season, they would have been easily forgiven for another below-par performance if they had forced the decisive breakthrough against a side like Villa.

The statement of intent that all title challengers want to make would be there for all to see this morning.

As it is, they stand unconvincingly shoulder to shoulder with Chelsea having not been able to produce a display that will inspire confidence that they will still be alongside them come May.

The loss of Torres with a hamstring injury after half an hour could still have major significance with Manchester United the next opponents but it wasn’t the biggest problem yesterday.

Indeed, his replacement David Ngog looked lively and almost scored towards the end of the first half.

But the deadliest finisher in England might as well be limping down the tunnel when he’s not being given anything to feed off.

Once again, a chronic lack of options and ideas in the final third paralysed Liverpool’s chances of getting among the goals.

The return of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva from the Olympics couldn’t have been better timed, but teaming them up with Xabi Alonso in midfield again exposed a lack of width.

At one point, Mascherano stared into a gaping hole where Albert Riera should be, realising all his team-mates were to his right even though he was in the centre of the field.

Lucas had seemed to start on the left flank, then Robbie Keane occasionally dropped in there to provide an outlet before everyone seemed to abandon the idea all together.

All too narrow and negative to cause Villa any serious sustained problems

For that reason, it wasn’t just the sight of Barry in a Villa shirt that made Benitez envious.

Nigel Reo-Coker and Ashley Young proved the value of genuine wide men with some electrifying breaks. Their supply line was pretty well snuffed out on the whole but they still showed up Liverpool’s lack of variety.

And when Reo-Coker was shifted to right-back to allow James Milner to make his second Villa debut, Benitez responded by adding full-back Fabio Aurelio to the midfield battle.

It was all taking on a congestion of spaghetti junction proportions and just made the likelihood of a 0-0 depressingly inevitable.

But at least that scoreline only reaffirms the one positive constant running through Anfield this season and that is the reliability of the defence and goalkeeper, having now only conceded once in five competitive games this season.

Pepe Reina’s fine save form John Carew proved vital while Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel expertly repelled perhaps the most dangerous attacking line-up outside the top four.

Villa – six goals in their two previous Premier League outings plus a glut in their Uefa Cup qualifiers – had plenty of pace and passion but, like their visitors, couldn’t transform it into anything that overly-worried the opposition.

And other things were just as predictable.

Such as the biggest cheers of the day being for Barry, the biggest jeers for Benitez. The Villa fans’ way of sticking one to Liverpool for the apparently despicable way they tried to prise away their captain.

Incidentally, the next loudest roar was for Milner, the same supporters presumably having no problem with their club’s pursuit of the winger to the point of him handing in a transfer request to Kevin Keegan last week.

Double standards that perfectly sum up a tiresome transfer window.

Yet Barry has emerged from the whole saga relatively well off out of it all.

He still has the adulation of the Birmingham faithful and his desired move falling through doesn’t seem to have affected his game.

Bes of all, not being a Liverpool player spared him from having to wear those hideous red stockings with his silver away strip.

It was Barry who opened up the Liverpool defence to create the game’s first real chance after 35 uneventful minutes of shadow boxing, setting Ashley Young free to tee up Carew, whose low shot was well blocked by Reina.

Liverpool took 40 minutes to register their first meaningful effort took 40 minutes when Dirk Kuyt lashed into the side netting – but it lifted his team-mates and Ngog was soon shaving the crossbar after a deft touch by Keane put him free.

It was a spell that at least seemed to give Liverpool some inclination that they could win the game and they came out for the second half in a much more positive frame of mind.

Keane teed up Alonso for a shot deflected wide by Nicky Shorey then Brad Friedel had to tip Dossena’s dangerous cross over the bar.

Keane then had an opportunity to find the net in August for the first time in six years when he raced on to a long ball but he fluffed the finish under pressure from Reo-Coker.

From that point, Villa looked the more likely as Milner forced Reina into a sprawling save and a series of late set-pieces also had the nerve ends jangling.

And as many have feared during Liverpool’s recent run of late winners, when the standard of opposition was raised, the chances of getting away with another ineffective attacking showing would lower.

Which proved the case yesterday as Villa, with Martin Laursen enjoying a much better afternoon than this time last year when his own goal contributed to an opening day defeat to the Merseyside men, found them all too easy to defend against.

All of which means it shouldn’t be too difficult for Benitez to stop lamenting his being without Barry – because the players he has got are giving him plenty enough to worry about at the moment.

Torres A Worry For United Showdown

FERNANDO TORRES is set to miss Liverpool’s meeting with Manchester United after he suffered a hamstring tear at Villa Park yesterday.

The Spanish striker, who sustained the injury after half an hour of the goalless draw with Aston Villa, will undergo a scan to assess the extent of the damage today.

But with Gerrard already doubtful for the Premier League clash at Anfield on September 13 following two groin operations, Rafael Benitez’s plans for the game have been thrown into chaos.

The Liverpool manager does expect Albert Riera to complete his £9million move form Espanyol today. The move has been delayed while the Spanish club ponder including full back Steve Finnan as part of the deal.

The Liverpool manager also refused to rule out further signings in the final few hours of the transfer window.

But with Gerrard and Torres now out of their country’s World Cup qualifiers while they begin their recuperation, Benitez is hoping that, if they do miss the United game, they can regain fitness for the opening Champions League group game in Marseille the following Tuesday.

“We will have to wait and see what the scan says, and then wait and see over the next seven, 10 days,” said Benitez after his side kept up their unbeaten start to the Premier League season to draw level on points with Chelsea at the top.

“It is a positive thing that we have this international break now.”

The lingering bad feeling over the Gareth Barry transfer saga led to Benitez receiving a torrent of abuse form the Villa fans.

But the Spaniard quipped: “I have been told the Birmingham accent is the hardest one to understand so I couldn’t tell what they were saying.”

Liverpool turned in another disappointing attacking display at Villa, creating only a handful of chances to break the deadlock. But with returning Olympic medallists Javier Mascherano and Lucas back in midfield, plus a solid defensive performance, Benitez did take some positives from the game.

He said: “I think it was a tough game but we could have won it and we also could have lost it, so at the end of the day a point is good for both teams.

“Clearly when you are without Gerrard and after you lose Torres it is always a problem but the team was always working hard and it’s a credit to the players.

“It was a pity because we could have won the game so it could have been better but it’s not bad to get a point here.

“We could see that Mascherano and Lucas are fantastic players with a very good mentality after returning from the Olympic Games. That’s the positive thing for us,” he added.

Benitez also backed Robbie Keane as the £20million man’s wait for his first Liverpool goal continued.

After being through on goal, a challenge from Nigel Reo-Coker seemed to prevent the Irishman getting in a clean strike, but claims for a penalty were turned down by referee Martin Atkinson.

Keane was then substituted for Yossi Benayoun in the closing stages of the game, but Benitez said: “Robbie was working really hard. I was trying to use another player with fresh legs like Yossi for the final 15 minutes.

“Robbie did a very good job for the team. He started the game on the left side in the first half and then I put him through the middle as a second striker. He was always working well for the team and trying to make things happen for us.

He added: “After watching the replay it could have been a penalty. The position of the referee wasn’t the best and it happened so quickly. It could have been a penalty but I’m not complaining.”

Meanwhile, Espanyol will today decide whether to include Finnan as part of the Riera deal. The 32-year-old right-back has not figured in any of Benitez’s squads so far this season and is free to find a new club before the close of the transfer window today, as are Jermaine Pennant – set for a switch to Stoke – and Andriy Vorornin.

“The (Riera) deal is nearly done and hopefully it will be on Monday,” Benitez added. “I have confidence. It will be good for us because he is a good player and he will give us balance. In terms of bringing in other players if we can do a deal then we will try.”