Saturday, November 22, 2008

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs. Fulham

Fernando Torres is expected to start for Liverpool when Fulham arrive at Anfield in the Premier League on Saturday.

The Reds welcome the Cottagers to Merseyside hoping to continue to match Chelsea stride for stride at the top of the table, with the two rivals separated only by goal difference.

And as he bids to maintain a pursuit of league honours, Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is expected to name star striker Torres in his starting XI for the first time since 1st November following the Spaniard's recovery from a hamstring injury.

Fulham, though, will have other ideas as they bid to end their host's nine-month unbeaten home record and Roy Hodgson's side will have sneakily high hopes of an upset as they sit in the top half having ended Tottenham's resurgence last weekend.

After narrowly avoiding relegation in 2007/08, Fulham were again expected to struggle, but a summer overhaul of the Craven Cottage squad is, at present, proving beneficial as Hodgson enjoys a run of one defeat in six outings.

But Liverpool will expect Torres to add the firepower to inflict a first loss on Fulham since the West London outfit were downed on their last trip to Merseyside, losing 1-0 to Everton at the beginning of the month.

Liverpool's record signing Torres is likely to partner Robbie Keane in the frontline as Benitez looks for attacking cunning to break down what is expected to be a resolute opponent.

However, Steven Gerrard is sidelined after the midfielder withdrew from the England squad which defeated Germany on Wednesday with a groin muscle tear.

Defender Martin Skrtel is making a speedy recovery from his knee ligament injury, but Daniel Agger will partner Jamie Carragher at the heart of a back four, while Alvaro Arbeloa has served his one-match suspension.

Fulham are unlikely to tinker with a rock solid defensive line of Aaron Hughes, Paul Konchesky, Brede Hangeland and John Pantsil, who have conceded only 11 goals in the league this term.

Former Everton player Andy Johnson will hope to continue an impressive run of recent form, which has seen the striker net four goals in four games since opening his account against Wigan in October.

Seol Ki-Hyeon missed the victory over Tottenham due to a knee injury and Hodgson will hope the forward has progressed, while Dickson Etuhu (knee) was also absent, however the midfielder could make his debut at Anfield.

Possible starting XIs

Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio, Kuyt, Alonso, Mascherano, Reira, Keane, Torres.

Fulham: Schwarzer, Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Gera, Bullard, Murphy, Davies, Johnson, Zamora.

Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez Confident Side Can Extend Fulham’s Anfield Nightmare

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has said his side can cope without captain Steven Gerrard in their Premier League game with Fulham at Anfield on Saturday.

Gerrard, who has failed to recover from torn groin muscle that kept him out of England’s friendly win over Germany, is also likely to be sidelined for his side’s Champions League group stage game with Marseille next Wednesday.

Benitez, whose side currently lie second in the table and have enjoyed their best start to a Premier League season since its inception in 1992, said his current squad is better equipped than ever to cope without Gerrard.

“This squad is better. So, when you don’t have Steve who is a key player for us, you lose something. But, you have to manage.

“[Fernando] Torres is fit. [Robbie] Keane is fit, because he had a problem with his shoulder.

“I think we have enough options up front and in the middle and I think we can cope [with Fulham].”

Meanwhile, the west Lodon side, who have failed to win at Anfield in their previous 21 visits, received praise from the Spaniard “We know it will be difficult.

"Fulham are playing well, their manager Roy Hodgson is doing a good job.

"They have two strikers doing well, we know all about [Andrew] Johnson from his time at Everton, and Fulham have energy and quality.

"After an international break we know, though, that things can be more difficult."

Benítez Waiting For FA Apology After 'Massive' Gerrard Mistake

Liverpool's resentment at England's treatment of Steven Gerrard was confirmed yesterday when Rafael Benítez insisted the Football Association should apologise for doubting the club's word on the injured midfielder.

Gerrard misses Fulham's visit to Anfield this afternoon with the muscle tear he sustained at Bolton last weekend and which developed into an international incident when he subsequently withdrew from the England squad to face Germany in Berlin. Despite undergoing a scan after the Bolton game, and Liverpool informing the FA on Saturday evening that Gerrard would be unavailable to Fabio Capello, the midfielder was summoned to England's Hertfordshire base on Sunday for a scan that confirmed the diagnosis of the Liverpool club doctor, Mark Waller. Waller also happens to work for the FA in his role as the England Under-21 team's doctor.

Gerrard missed a day's treatment as a result of the eight-hour, 400-mile round trip, and while Benítez insists he has no personal issue with Capello there is disquiet at Liverpool over the FA's instant demand to assess the midfielder and, by implication, to question Waller's opinion. Not every England player who pulled out of the Germany squad was required to visit the FA's medical staff but Gerrard, who underwent a groin operation when England faced Andorra and Croatia in September and made a substitute appearance against Manchester United in Liverpool's next fixture, was called along with Chelsea's Frank Lampard.

"Stevie is not fit to play against Fulham," said Benítez. "That means someone at the FA has made a massive mistake. It would be nice if someone rang to apologise, but I'm not expecting a call. He may have a chance to play in the Champions League [against Marseille] next week. He's working hard with the physios and I have the feeling he'll be OK for Wednesday."

Benítez, who spoke to Capello about Gerrard on the Saturday evening, added: "There is no problem between me and Fabio Capello, I am not unhappy with him. But the best news for me now is that there are no internationals until March."

Even better news for the Liverpool manager came from Gerrard himself. The 28-year-old celebrates the 10th anniversary of his Liverpool debut next week, and admits he wants to sign a new contract when his current deal ends and intends stay at the club for the rest of his career.

"I do not know what is going to happen over the next 10 years but certainly for the next five or six I hope I am playing in Liverpool's first team," he said. "I have two and a half years left on my contract and hopefully I will sign another one and stay for the remainder of my career.

"The last 10 years have been the best of my life. I have lived the dream doing something I have always wanted to do."

Gerrard Wants New Deal As Benitez Tips Him For Anfield Role

LIVERPOOL captain Steven Gerrard has told the club he wants to sign a new contract when his current deal ends and intends stay at Anfield for the rest of his career.

Gerrard made the announcement as he approaches the 10-year anniversary of his Liverpool debut next week.

Currently injured with a groin muscle tear and out of today's home league match with Fulham, Gerrard's comments came on the same day manager Rafael Benitez tipped the 28-year-old as the man who could one day replace him as manager.

Gerrard is back in training and battling to be fit for Wednesday's Champions League home clash with Marseille but his clear indication that he never wants to leave Anfield will delight the club's fans.

"I do not know what is going to happen over the next ten years but certainly for the next five or six I hope I am playing in Liverpool's first team," he said. "I have two and a half years left on my contract and hopefully I will sign another one and stay for the remainder of my career.

"We will have to wait and see about management but I certainly want to get my qualifications to enable me to coach and manage."

He added: "Whether I will be interested in the Gary Ablett (reserve coach] type role, the Sammy Lee (assistant manager] role or the Rafa Benitez role, I do not know. I just want to get all my badges and then we will see.

"But I have a lot more football to play before we get to that stage and that is what I want to focus on at the moment. All I can say at this stage is the last 10 years have been the best of my life. I have lived the dream doing something I have always wanted to do and if my working life carries on being with Liverpool then I will be very happy."

Benitez said: "Maybe he will be here for another 10 years, certainly five or six. I am really pleased to have kept Gerrard here, and maybe he will one day be the manager to replace me.

"There are more important things than money in Steven's mind. He has great passion for the club, he loves the club and the city. That is the key as far as he is concerned, and hopefully he will take over from me."

Gerrard was forced to drive to Watford last Sunday to join the England squad and have his injury assessed by coach Fabio Capello's medical experts, to the annoyance of Liverpool.

Benitez noted tersely: "There's no problem between me and Fabio Capello, I am not unhappy with him. But the best news now is that there are no internationals until March."

Spanish Stars Highlight Liverpool's Importance - Benitez

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez is bursting with pride after seeing his players winning more caps for his native Spain in midweek and has tipped his countrymen to lead the Reds' title charge.

Rafa Benitez has built a squad at Anfield with a real Spanish flavour. In fact, many have cited the confidence gained from La Furia Roja's Euro 2008 win in the summer as the spark that has ignited Liverpool's Premier League resurgence.

Now, after watching Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa and Albert Riera help Vicente del Bosque's men to shrug off Chile to the tune of 3-0 in midweek, the beaming boss only hopes that they're not too fatigued.

"It was good to see so many of our players involved, because it shows how important Liverpool are," he told the club's official website. "I was especially pleased for Arbeloa and Riera, because they are getting their reward for working hard and doing a good job for a good club.

"Hopefully the players will come back and be fit and ready for the game against Fulham, because that is the most important thing for us now."

The Cottagers visit Merseyside on Saturday, with the Reds hoping to keep pace with Chelsea.

Liverpool Could Take Advantage As Chelsea And Manchester United Face Injury Problems

Liverpool could go clear at the top of the table this weekend, given Chelsea's injury problems; and Manchester United could drift further off the pace. None of the top three have suspension concerns ahead of the weekend.

Liverpool go into this weekends fixtures with one or two injury worries themselves, but at Anfield against a perpetually travel sick Fulham outfit Liverpool should be able to shrug off their three injuries and one doubt. Robbie Keane is the doubt, but he should recover (if needed); Steven Gerrard should be available for next week’s games.

Leaving just Martin Skrtel (posterior cruciate ligament tear) and Philipp Degen (metatarsal fracture) unavailable - and both around a month away from returning. The position for Liverpool's main title rivals is less encouraging.

Firstly Manchester United have five absentees and three doubts to contend with. The loss of Wes Brown and Gary Neville suggests that Rafael could well get a run at right-back (unless the manager persists with O'Shea) - but elsewhere there is worse news.

Dimitar Berbatov picked up a hamstring/high injury on international duty and will probably be replaced by Carlos Tevez. With Wayne Rooney remaining a doubt following a virus, Danny Wellbeck or Manucho could get a start.

In central midfield, Darren Fletcher's knee injury is a further blow to add to Owen Hargreaves season ending knee operations and Paul Scholes medial knee ligament twang. The central midfield will probably pick itself with Carrick and Anderson available; and Darron Gibson as back up.

Rio Ferdinand is another doubt at the back with Jonny Evans likely to deputize. With United travelling to fifth placed Aston Villa this is a bad time to be missing half a team.

But Chelsea are the hardest hit club in the division; only three players are definitely missing but another six are doubtful. The problems are mainly defensive. Definitely out are Essien and Alex; but Ashley Cole, Ricardo Carvalho, Juliano Beletti and Petr Cech are all doubts.

Carlo Cudicini, Branislav Ivanovic and Wayne Bridge are standing by, but don't rule out a recall from Wolves of Michael Mancienne. Other injuries for Chelsea include Frank Lampard (rib), Franco Di Santo (hamstring) and Joe Cole (foot/ankle).

Liverpool Owner Pulls Montreal MLS Bid

Financial uncertainty has prompted Liverpool owner George Gillett to withdraw his bid for a Montreal team to join Major League Soccer, the league said Friday, boosting the chances of a Miami franchise backed by Barcelona.

"They're out for the next round of expansion,'' MLS commissioner Don Garber said.”I don't think it's gone forever but it's gone for now.''

The withdrawal leaves Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Vancouver, Ottawa and Portland, Oregon as the cities bidding to be among two yet-to-be-announced teams in the MLS expansion from the current 14 teams to 18. Seattle will join the league next year, and Philadelphia in 2010.

Garber said Montreal's bid team - led by Gillett and Joey Saputo who founded the Montreal Impact team in North American football's second tier - had informed him within the past week of possible trouble.

"Montreal has had to evaluate what kinds of private capital they needed to refinance their stadium to fund the expansion fee, and what kind of public support would be available,'' Garber said. "I'm not sure they were able to come to terms in this economic environment.''

Financial considerations had also prevented Liverpool from making a long-delayed move to a new stadium, while some fans had agitated for American co-owners Gillett and Tom Hicks to stand aside and allow a takeover by a Dubai-based company.

Garber spoke positively about the Miami bid, which is supported by Spanish Liga giant Barcelona. The Miami Fusion played in MLS from 1998 to 2001 before disbanding.

"If we go back to Miami, we'd better be sure we get it right,'' Garber said.”Barcelona could make investments in lots of different countries. But they believe in this country and in developing the sport here.''

Garber spoke positively about Ottawa and Vancouver's bids, while remaining cautious about further expansion in Canada after 2006's inclusion of Toronto.

"We don't have a lot of commercial businesses in Canada today. The more teams we add there, the more it takes away out from growing our footprint and our television ratings in the United States.''

Garber said the possibility of having a potential rivalry between neighboring Portland, Seattle and Vancouver was intriguing.

"We believe in this conference-rivalry concept,'' he said.

In other news, Garber said that the reserve division would be eliminated and each team would be able to carry 18, 19 or 20 senior players on its roster. Teams could have many as four developmental players. No new quota on international players was announced.

Each team will play a 30-game schedule in 2009, taking on every other team in a home-and-away format, with two extra games against close conference rivals. For the playoffs, the top two teams from each conference will qualify automatically, followed by four teams with the best records regardless of conference.

Rafa Benitez: 'Diego Maradona Right Over Javier Mascherano'

NEW Argentina captain Javier Mascherano has been guaranteed a place in his national team – even though the Liverpool midfielder can’t be certain of a place in the Liverpool starting line-up!

Argentine boss Diego Maradona said: “Taking Mascherano aside, nobody has a place secured in my team. It doesn’t matter what his name is.”

But club boss Rafa Benitez was less reassuring today.

“I can understand why Maradona would say that,” said Benitez.

“Javier is a very good player who gives them a great balance.

“But for me, Javier has to fight for his place because in his position we have a lot of quality like Lucas, Xabi, Damien Plessis and, of course, Steven Gerrard.”

Ironically, Mascherano is almost certain to start against Fulham tomorrow, with skipper Steven Gerrard unlikely to recover from the groin strain which ruled him out of England’s midweek friendly in Germany.

Benitez is still unhappy with the way his word was doubted by the England set-up and his player forced to travel to the England training camp for a second opinion on his injury.

“We have one more training session before the Fulham match, but I don’t think Stevie will make it,” added the Reds boss.

“That means someone at the FA has made a massive mistake.

“Under normal circumstances it would be nice if someone rang to apologise, but I’m not really expecting a call.”

Fernando Torres is expected to start his first home match for the Reds since October 1 as Liverpool go gunning for their best ever start to a Premier League season.

Victory would give the Reds 35 points, three more than their previous best start to a Premier League season after 14 games, which was set in 2001-02.

Fulham have the best away defensive record in the division outside the top four, conceding just six times on their travels.

The Cottagers travel to Anfield with the pressure off after consecutive home victories over Newcastle and Spurs.

Their former Everton midfielder Simon Davies believes the Londoners are in the mood to make life difficult for the Reds.

“A couple of teams have been close to getting something up there this season – Wigan pushed them very close,” he said.

“We’ve had a couple of good wins so we’re not desperate to get something up there, so if we nick a win or get a draw then it will be all the better for us.”

Steven Gerrard Could Miss Liverpool's Champions League Tie With Marseille

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard trained on his own today but will not be fit for the club's home game with Fulham on Saturday.

And Gerrard is already considered doubtful for Wednesday's Champions League group stage match with Marseille at Anfield.

Gerrard worked away from the first-team squad at the club's Melwood base - with the aid of a personal fitness coach - as he battles to recover from a torn groin muscle.

Liverpool have privately this week been annoyed with the Football Association and the England set-up who insisted Gerrard travel to London last Sunday to be assessed by the international squad's medical experts.

Gerrard had already undergone a scan on the injury, sustained at Bolton last weekend, and the damaged muscle was confirmed and he was ruled out by the club for the midweek friendly with Germany.

However, England wanted to assess the injury themselves, and Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez is known to be upset that Gerrard was unable to have treatment on the injury for 24 hours while making what turned out to be a fruitless 400-mile trip to the national squad's hotel in Watford.

England then also confirmed the injury and Gerrard returned to Merseyside. However, the incident has left Liverpool feeling that their word was being doubted.

Gerrard has had treatment all week, but has no chance of facing Fulham at Anfield. And there is only a 50-50 chance that he will be fit to face the French side next week.

Benitez had claimed that Gerrard "would be out for between seven and 10 days."

Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez Rules Out Yossi Benayoun Sale

Rafael Benitez wants Israel midfielder Yossi Benayoun to stay with Liverpool until the end of his contract.

Benayoun has been quoted, while away on international duty this week, as admitting he is unsettled because of his lack of opportunities this season.

But the Reds boss insists he has no intention of letting the midfielder go saying: "If he stays here until the end of his contract I will be very pleased. We want Yossi here."

Benitez has dismissed claims that both Benayoun and defender Martin Skrtel, out following a knee operation, are unhappy at Anfield.

He added: "If you are asked whether you want to play more, then obviously you say yes. If you are asked if you are unhappy not playing, then you say yes.

"Then if you are asked that if a bid comes in and you are offered lots more money, you will probably say you'd be interested.

"But I have been speaking to Yossi and he is happy here. He is a player I like, he can change games. He scores goals and he has a lot of assists.

He added: "But if he does not want to stay here, okay, we will find a solution to the problem. But now he is okay and ready for playing. I will not want to see any offer for him."