Thursday, November 27, 2008

Match Report: LiverpooL 1 - 0 Marseille

Steven Gerrard's 30th goal in Europe sent Liverpool into the last 16 of the Champions League with a 1-0 win over Bordeaux.

The Anfield skipper returned after a torn groin muscle to continue his personal vendetta against the French side in this Group D clash.

Last season Marseille won at Anfield in this competition and started a crisis that almost cost boss Rafael Benitez his job.

Since then Liverpool have beaten Marseille three times, with Gerrard scoring four goals.

This time a first-half header gave him his eighth goal of the season, and fifth in Europe, but it was not a convincing Liverpool victory.

Marseille were the better side after the break and it needed the considerable defiance of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger to keep them out.

This game was Benitez's 66th European game in charge of Liverpool and produced his 39th victory in that run, equalling Bob Paisley's record.

As for Gerrard, there is no doubt about his love for European competition.

The man who has just passed a century of club goals - he now has 104 - has seen 30 of those in Europe from 98 games, roughly one in three. His league ratio is one in six.

Marseille needed to win to stay alive in the group, and they started with three up front - Mamadou Niang as the main attacker with width provided by Bakari Kone and Hatem Ben Arfa.

But although the French side had the right intentions, they seemed unsure about committing too many men forward.

It meant that for the opening phase, Marseille never quite got at a somewhat hesitant Liverpool, who struggled to get their own game going.

Benitez had fielded arguably his strongest available side, with Robbie Keane on the bench and Gerrard back in his supporting role for Torres.

Eventually the game spluttered into life when Torres got to the line and laid the ball back for Dirk Kuyt to see a good header fumbled away by Steve Mandanda.

And that, after 23 minutes, paved the way to Liverpool's opener. From the resulting corner by Gerrard the ball was half cleared away to Alvaro Arbeloa.

He guided the ball out to Xabi Alonso, who fired in a far-post cross allowing Gerrard - still moving into the box following his corner - to plant a firm header wide of Mandanda.

Albert Riera could have grabbed another from 20 yards just before the break, and that would have extinguished much of Marseille's desire.

As it was they still believed they had a chance and it needed a good save from Jose Reina to keep out Niang's low drive at the start of the second period.

Andrea Dossena replaced the injured Fabio Aurelio, and Yossi Benayoun was soon to take over from Riera as Liverpool sought to finish the contest.

But belief still coursed through Marseille, and Reina did well to turn away a fierce 25-yarder from Taye Taiwo, with Ronald Zubar going close with a header from the resulting corner.

And when the clever Ben Arfa's low cross flashed into the Liverpool box, Benoit Cheyrou was too close for comfort with his run into space.

Ben Arfa was now on the right to attack the erratic Dossena, and it was only inches that denied him a penalty from a lunge by the Italian.

And when Reina needed to hurl himself full stretch to keep out a swerving Ben Arfa free-kick, the alarm bells were clearly ringing.

And after 78 minutes a familiar foe arrived to give Liverpool more worries. Mathieu Valbuena had scored the winner here 13 months ago, and a knee injury was supposed to force him out for a month.

But on he trotted to replace Kone, and Liverpool continued to be under pressure. And when Javier Mascherano hauled down the midfielder, enraging the French team's players, he was rightly booked.

Niang was also cautioned for his part in the pushing and shoving that followed. Lucas replaced Kuyt as Liverpool tried to see out the game, but it was a nasty atmosphere now, with tackles flying in.

But Liverpool clung onto their victory to reach the knockout stages again.

Liverpool's Mascherano Wants His Picture On The Wall

After some re-decorating at Liverpool's training ground, Javier Mascherano wants to have his portrait painted.

The interior decoration has changed at Melwood, Liverpool's training ground, this week. Murals have been painted depicting the club's glory nights in Europe, and Javier Mascherano is impressed, but also a little jealous.

"Hopefully, in a few years, I will be here on the walls," said Argentina's new captain. "A picture of me and my teammates with the European Cup."

Mascherano is confident that this Reds side has the necessary quality and character to go far, not just in European competition, where Rafa Benitez has proved his management abilities time and again, but also domestically.

Mascherano knows that the true test for this Liverpool team is to recapture the league title that the Anfield side hasn't held for 19 long years. But he thinks he and his team-mates have every chance of ending the supporters' long wait.

"We are towards the top of the table in the Premier League, which is positive, and we are also going well in Europe," said the 24-year-old.

"The most important thing is the team and we know our target at the start of every game is to win our battles in all areas of the pitch. It doesn’t matter if you are playing away or at home, you have to try to play the same way and impose our game on our opponents.

"Our confidence is also good because we have not lost many games. This is good for all of the players."

He also feels that key to their success has been the way his hard, defensive qualities have complemented Xabi Alonso's assured passing game at the axis of Liverpool's midfield, although the Red's strength in depth in the central positions is a bonus.

"Xabi is playing really well at the moment and I enjoy playing with him," Mascherano added.

"It is not a surprise, though, because he is such a good player. He is one of the best midfielders in the world. We have been playing together for almost two years now so we have a good understanding with each other.

"The manager has different options and he can choose whichever players he needs for each game."

The return to full fitness of Fernando Torres is seen as a massive boost by Mascherano, who feels that the Spaniard adds valuable quality to the team and creates even more competition for places.

"It is good for all of us to have Fernando back. He played against Bolton and then a full game against Fulham. He is playing well, working hard all the time, pressing the opposition and doing well for the team," the midfielder explained.

"I think we are stronger than last season – maybe we have more options now.

"We have players who can play in different positions so the manager can move them around. Everyone is working really hard in training to be named in the side.

"We have improved our team. We are stronger now and working hard to progress. We have a number of players who have been together two or three years so the understanding is much better and we are showing this on the pitch."

And Mascherano concluded by praising Liverpool's match-going fans, who create a superb atmosphere on which the players thrive.

"When you feel your supporters behind you like they are here it gives you a lot of confidence. It makes you want to win every single game."

If Liverpool can just win the ones that matter, maybe Mascherano's portrait will be on the walls at Melwood sooner than even he expects.

Xabi Alonso Not Closing Door On Serie A

Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso talked about the club he almost joined last summer, Juventus, and does not exclude joining a Serie A club one day.

Last summer Liverpool star Xabi Alonso was very close to joining Juventus, but mostly due to economic reasons, the move did not go through. Today the Spanish international spoke to Sky about what happened and also sent message to

"Juventus were interested in me last summer, they even came to Liverpool, but they were normal summer negotiations," he said. "I generally don't give much importance to negotiations, until it's not certain anything can happen. In the end I stayed at Liverpool, which was my first choice anyway."

He then commented on Juve's current form: "Juve have gone through difficult times, but now they're doing much better, both in the league and the Champions League. They are a solid, compact team. That's their strength. And they also have extraordinary players, who can be decisive at the right times."

When Juve were struggling, some fans felt that the failure to sign Alonso was sorely felt.

"I did not know that some Juve fans felt my absence," he said on that. "In football it often works like that. When a team struggles it's normal to think about players who did not come or who left in the previous years.

"[Claudio] Ranieri said I'm slow? There's no problem, I respect his opinion. But I have a lot of confidence in my qualities, thanks to which I am playing with the national team and Liverpool. I don't think I'll ever be the fastest player in a team, but I have other qualities which are important for my role in the team."

On the eventuality of playing in Serie A, Alonso said: "I have not closed the door in Italy, I could also return to Spain, or I could end my career with Liverpool. We'll see in the future, but for now I have to think about the present and Liverpool."

Keane Could Be Heading For The Anfield Scrapheap - Rush

A man who knows a thing or two about scoring for Liverpool fears for the Anfield career of Ireland's captain as he struggles to hit the back of the net.

Liverpool goalscoring legend Ian Rush fears that Robbie Keane could be heading for the Anfield scrapheap, as the Irishman fails to live up to expectations at the club.

Keane set the Reds back a cool £20 million in a summer switch from Tottenham Hotspur, but has only managed two Premier League goals in almost four months of action.

Both his strikes came against bottom side West Bromwich Albion at Anfield, and the Ireland captain has only managed another two in the Champions League for a grand total of four in 19 outings.

With Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard both fit again for Rafa Benitez's side, the oft-substituted Keane may be facing the prospect of starting on the bench for tonight's clash with Marseille.

Rush believes that Keane needs to rediscover his goalscoring touch, or face being cast out by a club with high expectations.

He wrote in the Liverpool Echo: "Robbie Keane is finding out the hard way just how different it is to play for Liverpool.

"Playing up front for a club like Liverpool is totally different to playing for Tottenham, and I don’t mean any disrespect when I say that. The pressure is completely different.

"At a club like Tottenham you can get away with playing well in three of every six games. At Liverpool you have to perform five in every six. That’s the kind of pressure Robbie Keane is discovering for the first time, and he has to learn to live with it.

"The number of chances he is missing is now starting to be commented upon and that will only add to the pressure he is feeling. Some players have been unable to live with those unique pressures.

"I’m thinking of strikers like Craig Bellamy, who was a great player for Blackburn but struggled at Anfield, Fernando Morientes who couldn’t reproduce his Real Madrid form in the Premier League and Emile Heskey, who is still England’s first choice centre-forward, but couldn’t live up to what was expected of him at Anfield."

Gerrard Happy To Renew Torres Link-up

Steven Gerrard saluted Fernando Torres after Liverpool booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a 1-0 win over Marseille.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez chose to play Gerrard in an advanced position just behind Torres and the move paid off as the England midfielder scored the Reds' winner after 23 minutes.

After the game, Gerrard said he had enjoyed playing alongside Torres and hoped Benitez would continue with the tactic in the future.

"He (Torres) is the key. Playing behind him is great for me," Gerrard told Sky Sports 2. "His runs are great. Tonight I scored the goal but I'm sure if the manager keeps playing us together I will provide him with a few."

Despite dominating the first half, Liverpool had to endure a nervy second period before they sealed the win.

Gerrard said he was disappointed with the second-half performance, but was glad the Reds had ensured their passage to the knockout stages of the competition.

"It was a nervy match but still a job well done. We wanted all three points and a clean sheet and we got both of those," he said.

"It was a frustrating second half for us. We lost control a bit and there are a few things that need looking at.

"They are organised and fighting to stay in the competition. We knew that it would be a difficult tie but we stuck together and hopefully in a few days the second-half performance will be forgotten."

Benitez admitted he was relieved to see his side come away with the victory. "The second half was a bit scary and it was definitely not the best game of football but the most important thing is that the job is done," the Spaniard told Sky Sports.

"We were a bit scared but we knew we had the quality to win and go through.

"We were giving the ball away too easy in the second half and we were failing with the final ball."

The Reds now travel to Eindhoven for their final group match against PSV in the knowledge a win would see them top the group.

Benitez refused to say whether he would field his first-choice side for the match.

"We know we have the quality to win the match," said Benitez.

"It's just about finishing the job now. I'm not sure what side I will play. We have won the group before and lost in the second round to Benfica so you never know."

UEFA To Study Reports After Missiles Thrown At Liverpool Skipper Gerrard

UEFA will today study reports on the missile-throwing incident involving Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard at Anfield last night.

Gerrard was hit by missiles thrown from the Marseille fans' section as he waited to take a corner in the first half of Liverpool's 1-0 victory that took them into the last 16 of the Champions League.

UEFA last night confirmed the incident will be included in Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca's report as well as the report from UEFA delegate Svein Johannessen.

Gerrard, who scored Liverpool's winner in the 1-0 victory over the French side, looked to have been hit by a small metal object.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez praised Gerrard's restraint in a month that has seen Chelsea's Didier Drogba punished by the FA for throwing a coin back into the crowd when the west Londoners lost in the Carling Cup to Burnley.

A Liverpool spokesman said: 'The UEFA delegate is aware of what happened to Steven and it is now in his hands.'

A spokesman for UEFA at the game said: 'The incident will be included in both the match delegate's report and the referee's report.

'UEFA are aware of what happened and any further comment will now come from them.'

It is also believed UEFA are aware the missiles came from the Marseille fans' enclosure, and any action will not involve Liverpool.

Benitez said: 'Gerrard was really good in that incident, maybe the UEFA delegate will notice what happened. Steven did well not to react.'

Skrtel To Stay

Martin Skrtel yesterday reassured Liverpool fans he has no plans to leave Anfield.

Skrtel’s future was brought into question earlier this week following quotes attributed to his former Zenit St Petersburg team-mate Kamil Contofalsky.

The goalkeeper claimed Skrtel was “lonely” in “boring” Liverpool, was unhappy because “the local paparazzi follow him all the time” and wanted a return to Russia.

But the 24-year-old centre-back, currently sidelined with a knee injury, yesterday said: “I am very happy here at Anfield. It was always my dream to play here in England and I’m with one of the biggest clubs in the world.

“I spoke to my friend in Russia and we talked about Zenit. I have great friends there but I never said I am not happy here, and I never said I didn’t like the city.

“I didn’t say the city is boring. That’s just not true and I’d like to repeat I am very happy here.

“This is a special club and a city with a lot of history. I have been made to feel very welcome here at Liverpool. I enjoy life in Liverpool.”

Skrtel is hopeful of a return to action before Christmas as he recovers from the knee injury suffered towards the end of Liverpool’s 3-2 win at Manchester City.

And the Slovakia international added: “The Liverpool fans are one of the best in the world.

“When I’m out in the city they always come up to me to shake my hand and wish me all the best in my recovery.

“I just want to get back as quickly as possible to help the team win trophies and repay the supporters faith in me.”

Meanwhile, on-loan Andriy Voronin has signaled he would like to stay at Hertha Berlin – provided his wage demands can be met.

Striker Voronin was shipped out to Germany until the end of the season after failing to impress at Anfield since arriving on a free transfer from Bayer Leverkusen 18 months ago.

And of a possible permanent switch to Berlin, he said: “Of course money is very important. I am not a 20-year-old kid anymore, anyway I have a long career ahead of me.

“If Hertha want to keep me, an agreement is possible. The aim remains qualifying for the Uefa Cup, which would be a massive success. But of course everyone wants to play Champions League football.”

Of the Bundesliga, Voronin added: “It is much slower and full of cry-babies compared to The Premier League. In Germany you can hear the whistle, but in England you are already bleeding.”

Tommy Smith: Liverpool Fans Were Right To Vent Their Feelings

No-one likes to hear boos ringing around Anfield. Myself included.

But I would fervently defend those Liverpool fans who made their feelings known during Saturday’s game with Fulham.

They were very frustrated and disappointed and clearly for once just couldn’t hold back.

What they saw, having paid their £36 or so, was a poor game of football and with it a chance to take three points against a side we should have beaten go down the pan.

The Liverpool fans have been absolutely brilliant over the last 50 years and very rarely do they have a go at what they are seeing on the pitch.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Clearly, a lot of the frustration was over the performance – and, quite frankly, the selection – of Lucas Leiva in midfield.

The fans don’t have a right to pick the team – that’s what the manager is paid to do. But there were widespread concerns before kick-off, with Steven Gerrard being injured, at seeing Alonso also left out in favour of the young Brazilian.

But Lucas didn’t show the energy, the tenacity or the drive that is absolutely vital in the engine room of a title-chasing side in the Premier League.

The football here is so much faster and tougher than the game in Brazil and maybe he is finding it difficult to adapt.

There must be ability there, but all Liverpool fans have long since been hoping to see it.

Certainly, the least they expect is a player showing the passion that comes with pulling on the shirt in the first place.

Maybe Lucas’ confidence is a bit fragile, but my advice to him would be to stop worrying and next time he gets a chance, go out show people what he’s made of, and finally prove he is far better than this.

He may be still only 20 but he has got to take the bull by the horns now and really get much more involved.

That said, the lad must not be made a scapegoat for Saturday’s display. Very few players had good games and Robbie Keane was again far from the player we hoped to see for £20m.

So the frustration was in the air all afternoon, and the boos which came from all sides of the ground were probably aimed at the bench as much as in the direction of the players.

It doesn’t happen often, thankfully. And, as I say, no one likes to hear it.

But I’m not going to criticise the best supporters in the world for making their feelings known. They have every right.