Sunday, November 23, 2008

LiverpooL 0 - 0 Fulham

Chelsea's draw and Arsenal's heavy defeat were the only things to cheer a frustrated Liverpool crowd as they saw their side waste a golden chance to take over the Barclays Premier League leadership by drawing 0-0 with Fulham.

Liverpool did not have Steven Gerrard around to save them this time after a limp performance, his torn groin muscle having a damaging impact on Rafael Benitez's side.

Fulham, with one of the best defensive records in the top flight, have never won at Anfield and rarely looked like doing so this time.

But their dogged performance claimed only their second away point of the season and also secured their third goalless draw in eight visits to Anfield.

At least they had worked out how to contain a Liverpool side who lacked ideas and inspiration. Not even the return of Fernando Torres to the starting line-up helped much.

Defenders Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland had a firm grip on Robbie Keane and Torres for most of the game, and Liverpool could not find a way through.

Torres returned to the Liverpool starting line-up for the first time since the October 5 win at Manchester City. Two appearances as a substitute at Bolton, and for Spain against Chile in midweek, confirmed his recovery from a hamstring problem.

Boss Benitez rested Xabi Alonso on the bench and brought in Alvaro Arbeloa, Lucas and Torres from the side that started the win at Bolton last weekend.

Fulham, who arrived having suffered just two league defeats in seven and won three of the last four, retained the side that beat Tottenham last weekend.

But with Gerrard out it was maybe a surprise that Benitez opted to also rest Alonso, who has been in outstanding form this season. It meant he had two holding players, Lucas and Javier Mascherano, in central midfield and a lack of creativity.

Liverpool still started at pace, but the opening exchanges produced just one decent chance. Fabio Aurelio's 40-yard cross-field pass picked out Arbeloa, and his lay back was side-footed just wide by Dirk Kuyt after four minutes.

Fulham were confident and organised, with Jimmy Bullard and Danny Murphy having plenty of the ball.

The danger signs were there when a hook from Andrew Johnson, the ex-Everton man getting a warm welcome from the Kop, forced Jose Reina into a scruffy save.

Fulham had threatened from set-plays and the movement of Bobby Zamora, before Liverpool produced the best chance of the half.

Aurelio's ball in from the left looked to deflect off Torres and Bullard before falling for Keane after 29 minutes. But Mark Schwarzer was out bravely to get his body in the way of the Irishman's eight-yard shot.

Then it was Reina that kept Liverpool level. Referee Mark Halsey played excellent advantage after 34 minutes when Aurelio clattered into Clint Dempsey.

Zamora raced away down the right, reached the line, before laying the ball back for Bullard to fire in a fine effort from the edge of the box that the Spanish keeper turned away at full stretch.

Torres had a header that went wide and a low drive from Kuyt's pass that Schwarzer held, to underline miss-firing Liverpool's problems.

Liverpool were much sharper after the break and when Keane's pass found Torres, the Spaniard curled a fine shot just over the far angle.

Then after 50 minutes Torres surged past John Pantsil to lash in a angled effort that Schwarzer palmed away.

The crowd had been calling for Alonso's introduction from the half-hour mark, and as Liverpool's drive slowed and frustration crept in, the midfielder's name boomed down from the Kop.

Benitez answered the chorus after 64 minutes, taking off Mascherano and sending on Alonso.

After 69 minutes Albert Riera's cross was met on the full by Kuyt, but Schwarzer made a fine save to his left.

Liverpool then sent on Ryan Babel in place of Riera after 78 minutes, with Nabil El Zhar taking over from Kuyt four minutes later. Fulham sent on Zoltan Gera for Dempsey after 84 minutes.

The Reds were looking ragged now, bereft of ideas, and even Alonso fired high over after being set-up by Babel.

Lucas saw a 20-yarder blocked by Pantsil and Daniel Agger saw a header clear the bar.

Rafa Defends Lucas Selection

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was somewhat rueful that his side missed the opportunity to return to the top of the Premier League and defended his decision to select Lucas ahead of Xabi Alonso.

The Reds were held to a goalless draw by Fulham at Anfield, as they lacked the thrust which has been so evident in the opening couple of months of the season.

Alonso was left on the bench and was sorely missed, as Liverpool toiled in front of their own fans.

Benitez admitted it was a disappointing showing, but felt justified in selecting the ineffective Lucas.

"It was a bad day. We weren't playing well, we didn't have enough energy and we did not pass well," said the Red's boss speaking on the club's official website.

The extent of the damage was not known until the final whistle, when it became clear that other teams challenging for the top prize also fared poorly, as he explained: "We are disappointed because when we got to the dressing room we were told that Chelsea drew and Arsenal lost."

However, he defended his somewhat controversial decision to play Lucas in midfield at the expense of the more experienced Alonso, who is in a rich vein of form.

"We tried to use two or three players with fresh legs but you could see three or four players didn't have the energy. Lucas was selected as he had fresh legs."

Rafa Benitez To Rotate Stars For Champions League Clash

Rafa Benitez has assured Robbie Keane that he will be happy at Liverpool - once he gets used to playing for a big club.

The Kop boss admits that his Irish striker has been frustrated by some of his manager's rotation policies since his £20million arrival from Tottenham - and just four goals have hardly helped his cause.

If Steven Gerrard overcomes the groin injury that controversially sidelined him for England's trip to Germany in midweek and yesterday's visit of Fulham to Anfield, then Keane is likely to be back on the bench when Liverpool face Marseille in the Champions League on Wednesday.

And Benitez says it is just a fact of Merseyside life that Keane will have to come to terms with that Gerrard's partnership with Fernando Torres is key to his plans.

Benitez said: "I know Robbie wants to play every game. I know he wants to play for 90 minutes in every game.

"But he needs to understand my vision. It's different for Robbie than it was at Spurs.

Playing for a top team means there will always be excellent players on the bench. That is a fact of football.

"If you want to win trophies then you have to have a good depth to your squad. I think that if the team keeps on winning then everything will be OK.

"I speak with Robbie all the time. We speak about tactics and how I want the team to play and it is clear to me that he is a very good professional.

"Last season it was clear to see that the understanding between Torres and Gerrard was really good and there have been signs this year that it is getting better.

"Torres is back again after being injured and we hope that Gerrard will be fit enough to face Marseille.

"As a manager I don't like to single out players. But Gerrard and Torres have scored something like 54 goals between them since they began playing together, so it is clear that are both very important to us." Keane has barely been able to disguise his disappointment at times this season when he has been substituted. He arrived at Anfield believing that he would for a partnership with Torres that would hark back to the days of Dalglish and Rush.

It is clear, however, that Benitez (left) views the link between Torres and Gerrard as the most crucial aspect of Liverpool's drive for glory this season.

Keane only has to look across the Anfield dressing room to Xabi Alonso for inspiration.

Benitez would have sold the midfielder in the summer had his bid to sign Aston Villa's Gareth Barry been sanctioned.

Juventus also wanted to take Alonso to Serie A, but the Spaniard has been inspirational this season.

And Benitez said: "It is no secret that during the summer we were talking about his future, but Xabi is a good professional and it has been clear that he wants to show what an excellent player he is.

"I am really pleased and happy with Alonso. He can be a key player for us."

Liverpool To Swap Benayoun For Elano?

The latest reports from England suggest that Manchester City's unsettled midfielder Elano could be headed for Liverpool in January, with Yossi Benayoun going the other way.

According to the News of the World, the Reds are willing to offer Benayoun plus young right-back Stephen Darby to lure Elano to Anfield.

The City playmaker's future has been under cloud ever since he lashed out at manager Mark Hughes' selection policy, an outburst which earned him a £40,000 fine.

After being an integral part of Sven-Goran Eriksson's side, the 27-year-old has spent more time on the sidelines this term following the arrivals of Robinho and Shaun Wright-Phillips. The rise of Stephen Ireland has hardly helped either.

Meanwhile, on Merseyside, Benayoun has become similarly frustrated with his lack of first-team opportunities, so much so that he publicly threatened to leave Liverpool should his situation not improve over the coming weeks.

But with new signing Albert Riera in fine form on the left and a revitalised Dirk Kuyt cementing a spot on the right, the Israeli midfielder's prospects under Rafael Benitez appear slim.

Both players only arrived at their respective clubs last year: Elano from Shakhtar Donetsk, Benayoun from West Ham United.

Real Madrid Honing In On Rafa Benitez

The News of the World reports that Real Madrid have singled out Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, as their preferred replacement for the under-fire Bernd Schuster.

Schuster is hanging by a thread at the Bernabeu as his side continue to stutter in the Primera Division, which once more appears to be under the rule of an electric Barcelona outfit.

Last night's narrow win over Recreativo de Huelva keeps los Merengues within striking distance of their Catalan rivals, if only temporarily, and may well see their German coach live to fight another day.

Any further hiccoughs from here on in could see Schuster ousted, as it is believed the Real board are thought to have revived their interest in a long-term target.

Benitez has been on his former employers' radar ever since leading Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005 - perhaps even earlier, as he led Valencia to a pair of La Liga crowns prior to his England switch.

The Spaniard has rebuffed the Blancos' advances thus far as he is determined to see out his vision at Anfield, which encompasses a complete overhaul of the youth and reserves teams.

And with the Reds currently flying higher than they have ever flown during the last decade in the Premier League, it would be a huge shock if Benitez jumped ship to rejoin Real.

However, contract talks are yet to enter full swing after months of discussion, and Rafa's relationship with Liverpool's American owners remains tense.

A dodgy offer from Tom Hicks and George Gillett could see Benitez heading straight to John Lennon Airport, but certainly not until the end of what appears a hugely promising season.

Bilbao Plan Liverpool Loan Deal For San José - Report

The defensive woes of Athletic Bilbao are no secret at the moment and in a bid to shore up things at the back the Basque side are planning on asking Liverpool in January if they can loan former player Mikel San José.

Athletic Bilbao might have beaten Osasuna last weekend but they are still struggling this season and coach Joaquín Caparros seems keen to fix the defensive problems his side have encountered.

The Basque outfit have let in twenty goals so far this season and according to AS they will be asking Liverpool if they can loan back former player Mikel San José.

The young defender joined the English side two years ago and whilst he has shown promise, he has yet to merit a first-team call-up. Now, with the player reportedly interested in joining back up with Bilbao, a loan deal could be done as soon as January.

The Spanish side are believed to be targeting a contract which has an option to buy clause in but Liverpool may not be willing to let this happen. The player currently has a contract until 2010 with the Reds and has an option to extend when that expires.

Liverpool Want Adriano - Italian Media

According to the febrile Italian media, Liverpool are preparing a January bid for Inter's troubled star Adriano.

Brazilian striker Adriano has been a square peg in a round hole at Inter Milan for some time, and his future at the San Siro is not being measured in years. But is he the sort of player who would fit into Rafa Benitez's title-chasing Liverpool squad?

It seems unlikely; yet that is what some sections of the Italian media are speculating this morning.

The question of the looming January transfer market is exercising the media, and according to Italian radio, Liverpool are ready to enter the race for the 'Emperor' with an £8 million bid.

Leaving aside whether or not Adriano is the 'right' player for the Reds at the moment, given the excellence of Fernando Torres and the summer's heavy outlay on striker Robbie Keane, there is the issue of Liverpool's apparently strained finances.

The club's American co-owners may succeed in getting a six-month extension on their debt repayments, which some sources say could make some £20 million available for the transfer kitty. Adriano, though, would swallow up a hefty chunk of that when his wage demands are factored in. After all, the lifestyle he has to support is not exactly that of a monk.

Still, Inter clearly want to offload him, and it is claimed that at least five clubs are interested, including Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid.

However, it is understood that the relationship between Inter coach Jose Mourinho and Adriano means a quick sale could be concluded, with the striker having the casting vote on which club he joins.

It still seems unlikely that Liverpool would be sufficiently interested to enter a bidding war. Then again, stranger things have happened.

Alonso Defends Liverpool’s Style

Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso has leapt to the defence of his club and insisted that winning games is more important than an entertaining style of play.

Liverpool share the top spot in the Premier League with Chelsea but have come in for criticism from some quarters for their conservative approach to games this season.

However, speaking to The Sun the Anfield club's Spanish midfielder, Xabi Alonso, has hit back at this criticism whilst also revealing his club’s desperation to claim a first Premier League title.

“We will play our style and try to win the title in our own way,” he said. "We are so obsessed with winning the league this season that it is almost dangerous.”

The former Real Sociedad man also insisted that his team’s results this season proved his point.

“I know that some people try to put us down and say that we are too defensive or not as attractive as other sides,” acknowledged Alonso, “But everything we have achieved this season disproves that nonsense.”

Despite their lofty position in the league, the Reds have been outscored by the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Aston Villa - and trail Chelsea by a goal difference of 15.

Yet Alonso insists that winning is the most important consideration and that his side need to play effective rather than entertaining football.

“We do not need to play super-elaborate football like Arsenal or Barcelona,” he claimed, before adding, “If Liverpool was such a defensive or sterile team as some people seem to claim then we would never have won as many matches as we have this season.”

Alonso almost left Anfield in the summer and reports still circulate that he may leave Merseyside this season, yet he insists he is an important member of the first team. He concluded: “I knew even when it looked like the club were on the verge of selling me to Juve, that if I actually stayed then not only would I be useful to Liverpool but that I would be a first-team starter.”

Under-18s Held By Stoke City

Liverpool Under-18s let a two goal lead slip as they were held to a 2-2 draw away at Stoke City.

Goals from David Amoo and Lauri Dalla Valle had put Hughie McAuley's team in the driving seat but Stoke battled back to earn a share of the spoils.

McAuley's preparations were not helped at the start when Alex Kacaniklic felt his hamstring in the warm-up and James Ellison came back into the starting XI.

Then after five minutes left back Alex Cooper was forced to leave the field with concussion and Under-16 defender Carl Claire made his Under-18s bow.

"It was disappointing to only get a draw because we created enough chances to have won the game," said McAuley.

"We could easily have gone in at half-time 4-1 up but we let them back in the game when they scored just before the break.

"They got an equaliser from a set piece and they were very direct and played a lot of long balls against us.

"It was a very windy day and conditions were difficult but again, we created some great chances to win it in the second half. Thomas Ince had two openings and Amoo and Dalla Valle could have scored again."

Liverpool Under-18s team: Dean Bouzanis, Jack Metcalf, Alex Cooper (Carl Claire 5), Andre Wisdom, Joe Kennedy, Michael Roberts, David Amoo, Adam Pepper, Lauri Dalla Valle, James Ellison, Thomas Ince. Subs unused: Deale Chamberlain, Jordan Tucker (U15).

Rafa Benitez Now Happy To Concentrate On Coaching And Training Liverpool FC

What a difference a year makes. Exactly 12 months ago today, Rafael Benitez was edging precariously close to an Anfield exit after exposing the discontent behind the scenes by informing everyone he was merely concentrating on coaching and training his team.

Now the Liverpool manager finds himself in a much stronger position, with talks concerning a new contract having started and his team enjoying their best-ever start to a Premier League campaign while well placed in the Champions League.

There is one aspect that hasn’t changed, however.

Benitez continues to eschew waxing lyrical over his players, instead concentrating on the coaching and training of a squad that has given genuine hope of ending a championship drought that stretches back to 1990.

Asked about his continued reluctance to drum up Liverpool’s title chances, Benitez says: “It has to be like this. It’s very difficult to win the league and to win every competition.

“You have to think about my idea. One game at a time. It’s the only way. If you talk too much, you lose energy. It’s better to concentrate on winning.

“It’s a better situation than 12 months ago, clearly. Everything is better.

“The most important thing is to win games. We are at the top of the table, in a good position in the Champions League, so it’s a much better position overall.”

It begins an inviting month of Premier League fixtures for the Anfield outfit before the December 21 visit to Arsenal, with Benitez’s side also hosting West Ham United and Hull City and travelling to Blackburn Rovers.

“When you are at the top of the table each game is really important,” says Benitez. “Just one point can be a massive difference because we are in a very good position with enough confidence and playing well, I don’t think we will lose too many games, touching wood.

“The team has quality, the depth of the squad is for me good enough to win games. We will lose some games maybe but we should be in a good position come Christmas.”

However, Liverpool have become notorious for dropping easy points during this time of the season.

And Benitez adds: “This year we have to change that. People are talking about winnable games that we have coming up, and we have to show that they are winnable. We have to respect all the other teams and try to do things in the way that we are doing now.

“It’s an important period for us. We had some problems during this period in the past for various reasons. Now, I think the situation is good so we have to keep on doing the right things properly and we will keep on winning games. I have no doubt about this.”

Benitez’s side drew at Aston Villa and beat Manchester United in the only two league games Gerrard has failed to start this season.

And the Liverpool manager says: “We have shown we can win without Steven. We have the quality, we can change players and have different options.

“That is positive when you talk about a long race to win a championship.

“The squad is better, and although Steven is a key player for us, very important and you always lose something when he is not playing, we have players with different qualities who can come in.”

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

The 28-year-old, who is back in light training, made the announcement as he approaches the 10-year anniversary of his Liverpool debut next week.

And Gerrard says: “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.

“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. Then I will have to decide what I want to do.”

Gerrard adds: “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.”

Of his relationship with Benitez, Gerrard reveals: “Rafa is the type of manager where you finish the game as man of the match, having scored three, but he won’t mention it.

“He’ll mention that you never used your left foot at a certain point! Which is why he’s the manager he is, one of the best. Managers are changing and going towards Rafa’s way of things. Years ago it was all about pats on the back, man-management. Now the game’s more technical and tactical.

“I’m in my last five or six years, I want the manager to keep driving me on. I don’t think I’m going to get another 10% or 20% better as a player, the challenge is to maintain standards.”