Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Match Report: LiverpooL 0 - 0 West Ham United

Liverpool again wasted a chance to take a commanding lead at the top of the Premier League as brave West Ham produced a minor miracle of their own at Anfield.

It is 45 years since they have won at this stadium, so this first point in nine years at Liverpool was a fine achievement.

West Ham have never been known for their defensive reliability at Liverpool, but they were magnificent as they stretched an unbeaten run to three games.

At the back goalkeeper Robert Green, England defender Matthew Upson and Welshman James Collins stood defiant.

And another Welshman, former Liverpool man Craig Bellamy, came close to breaking the deadlock with a 30-yard shot which crashed against a post.

Liverpool are back on top of the table, but by only one point, and this disappointing display follows hot on the heels of an identical result achieved by Fulham here in the previous home league game.

The Reds dominated, but West Ham repelled the waves of attacks as they grabbed a crucial point in their own battle for survival.

Liverpool called in veteran defender Sami Hyypia and former West Ham winger Yossi Benayoun, keen to take advantage of Chelsea's defeat by Arsenal 24 hours earlier.

Robbie Keane and Andrea Dossena replaced the injured pair of Fernando Torres and Fabio Aurelio, with Daniel Agger and Javier Mascherano rested to the bench.

West Ham, without a win at Anfield since 1963, brought in Hayden Mullins in midfield for ankle injury victim Lee Bowyer, in the only change from the side that won at Sunderland last time out.

Mark Noble returned to the Hammers bench after a knee injury, while Diego Tristan made his first appearance in the squad since he joined on trial two months ago.

Liverpool had two early penalty appeals turned down by referee Peter Walton when both Benayoun and then Dirk Kuyt drove the ball at Herita Ilunga from close range.

West Ham had looked nervy, and after 14 minutes Green raced from his line to punch weakly away. The ball fell to Albert Riera whose shot was blocked in the six-yard box by James Collins.

Then from a right-wing corner, Hyypia rose to head narrowly over the bar. The Liverpool pressure increased and Mullins was booked after 19 minutes when he tripped Benayoun in full flow.

Two minutes later another header from Hyypia was kicked off the line by Ilunga.

West Ham's only shot until this point had been a weak long-range effort from Julien Faubert, scooped up by Jose Reina.

But Liverpool kept plugging away, showing the sort of patience in such situations that Benitez called for after the stalemate against Fulham nine days earlier.

Steven Gerrard worked his way in from the right and fired into the sidenetting, before Bellamy - on his return to Anfield after moving to West Ham 17 months ago - almost broke the deadlock.

Bellamy picked up possession and unleashed a fine, swerving drive which crashed against Reina's right-hand post and bounced across goal to safety.

Then Green made a fine point-blank save from Kuyt's header following Xabi Alonso's corner, two minutes from the break.

Kuyt and Keane both saw shots go wide as Liverpool opened the second half on the attack. But Bellamy was still a danger for West Ham, and after running past Hyypia he was body-checked by Alonso, the Spaniard being booked.

Then Green produced a stunning save to turn over a Benayoun drive, before Alonso volleyed fiercely over from a squared Gerrard free-kick.

Four minutes later the ineffective Keane was replaced by French striker David Ngog.

West Ham fancied their chances, breaking out of defence after 67 minutes and winning a corner. And when Bellamy curled it towards the near post, Carlton Cole headed inches wide.

Liverpool then sent on Ryan Babel for Riera after 78 minutes, with West Ham by that stage hanging on as the pressure mounted.

Hyypia headed just wide from a Gerrard corner, the Kop behind Green's goal demanding that Liverpool attack more.

West Ham sent on Luis Boa Morte for Faubert with six minutes left.

Green then produced another fine save from a close-range Kuyt effort following Gerrard's deep cross.

Bellamy and Parker created a chance for Boa Morte on the break, but he sliced his effort wide. Babel then broke to see a shot deflected over.

Xabi Alonso Finally Commits Future To Liverpool

The Spanish playmaker has reached a moment of clarity and has revealed he has no plans to leave Anfield.

As Liverpool battled Aston Villa to try and prise away skipper Gareth Barry by any means necessary, Xabi Alonso was left to feel very much like Robinho was by Real Madrid as they chased Cristiano Ronaldo all summer long.

Los Blancos' neglect of their own has cost them dearly. The Brazilian left the Spanish champions and is now realising his full potential in a more prominent role in a Manchester City side that will have unlimited resources with which to strengthen the squad to launch an assault on the Champions League qualification spots and announce themselves on the world stage.

Liverpool got a little luckier. Xabi Alonso was certainly eager to leave and on several occasions, albeit subtly, talked up the interest from Italian giants Juventus. However, as the Reds failed in their bid to buy Barry, Xabi showed a little more faith than Robinho did at Madrid and, instead of forcing his way out to make a point, stuck with the club and has since had a promising return to form this season.

With Xabi on form, Liverpool have a chance to go three points clear at the top of the league this evening with a win over West Ham United. A much more at-ease Alonso spoke exclusively to Setanta Sports and revealed he had yet more good news for Reds fans. "At some stage my future was not clear, I was wondering what was going to happen because there were propositions, but I prefer to move on," he said.

"Of course the fans’ backing was a massive boost because they let me know they wanted me to stay.

"Of course I can see myself here for more years to come.

"I have a lot of very good examples to follow – I am very close friends with Sami Hyypia, he is a foreigner having a great career at Liverpool, and Didi Haman became important as a Liverpool player as well."

The Euro 2008 winner underlined his belief in this current squad and their ability to win Liverpool's first league title in almost two decades. "The team is in a good shape, is being consistent, which is what we wanted, but we have a lot of things to do still," he continued.

Is this Liverpool's best chance at league glory since Alonso has been at the club? "Yes absolutely," was his defiant answer.

"We have never been closer to the top at this stage of the season, this is probably the best Premier League start I’ve ever had at Liverpool, but you have to be conscious and think about West Ham."

Alonso signed for Liverpool from Real Sociedad in 2004, as one of Rafa Benitez's first new recruits upon his appointment as Reds manager.

Andrea Dossena: I'll Keep Working To Prove Myself At Liverpool FC

BY his own admission – and pretty much everyone else’s for that matter – Andrea Dossena has not enjoyed a dream start to his Liverpool career.

When he was signed for a club record fee for a defender in the summer, hopes were high that the £7m man would make the left back position his own and give the Reds a whole new dimension in that position.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that though. Not so far anyway.

Up to now, the positives have been outweighed by the negatives as Dossena has struggled to adapt to a new style of football and repeat the kind of form which makes him a fixture in the Italian national squad and which encouraged Rafa Benitez to bring him to Anfield.

There are those who have written him off already as an expensive mistake that Liverpool could ill afford to make in a season in which they were expected to challenge for the title, but the man himself is refusing to give up and firmly believes that his form will improve as soon as he gets used to English football.

“The thing that I have discovered is that the game is much, much quicker here than it is in Italy,” said the 27-year-old.

“In Serie A, you get more time on the ball, there is more time to play and the game is more tactical, but in the Premier League as soon as you get the ball there is a player trying to take it from you.

“The pace of the game does take some getting used to and that is what I am trying to do by working hard in training and in games whenever I get the chance.”

Dossena certainly cannot be faulted for his attitude, nor can he be accused of lacking the heart for a battle. Things may not be going as well as he would have wanted, but that does not mean he has given up hope of turning his Anfield career around.

But with Liverpool looking to cement their place at the top of the table, Benitez has not been able to give Dossena the playing time he needs if he is to be able to find his feet.

Fabio Aurelio has made the left back spot his own and Dossena has increasingly had to settle for a place on the subs’ bench.

That was until last Wednesday, when the Brazilian’s fragile calf muscle again failed him and Dossena was given the entire second half to stake his claim for a place in the side.

Though disappointed for his injured team mate, the former Udinese man was delighted to get some time on the pitch and is hoping Aurelio’s injury will lead to him being given another chance to make a positive impression in tonight’s clash with West Ham at Anfield.

“I was happy to play against Marseille and I was happy with the result that the team got and also with our qualification to the next round of the Champions League because that was the most important thing for us,” he said.

“But it also gave me a chance to improve my feeling within the team and that is important for me.

“I work hard every day and I have been waiting for the manager to call on me, so when he did I was very happy.

“Now I hope I will get another chance but for that to happen I know I will have to work hard in every training session and try to improve my understanding with my team mates so I can improve and feel more confident on the pitch.”

There can be no doubting Dossena’s commitment to the cause and the Italian international insists he is content with life on Merseyside.

“I am very happy at Liverpool,” he said. “I like football in England and I believe that I can adapt to the Premier League.

“At the start of the season I found it very difficult because never before had I played so many games in such a short space of time. But now I talk regularly with the boss and with the physios and I am doing some things differently to try and improve my level.

“There are different demands on me here than I have ever had anywhere else. At Udinese, my place in the team was secure but at Liverpool there is so much quality in the squad that this cannot be the case. But I remain happy here and I will fight for my place.”

If selected for the visit of the Hammers, Dossena will come across a couple of familiar faces that he knows well from his time in Italy.

Recently appointed West Ham boss Gianfranco Zola needs no introduction but Valon Behrami, a former team mate of Dossena’s at Verona, is less known in this country despite the positive impact he has made at Upton Park in his debut season in English football.

Last week, Behrami scored the winner as West Ham recorded their second away win of the season and Dossena is hoping to follow his friend’s example by finding his feet in the Premier League.

He said: “Behrami is doing a good job for his new team and that is what I am trying to do at Liverpool.

“We know that West Ham will not be an easy game because there is no such thing in the Premier League.

“We saw this against Fulham and against Wigan. They were low down in the table but gave us very difficult games and with West Ham being in mid-table it will probably be even more difficult

“But we are Liverpool and we must win every single game.”

He may not have got to grips with English football yet, but Andrea Dossena clearly understands what is expected of a Liverpool player.

Rafa Benitez: Ryan Babel Must Work Harder For Liverpool

The injury to Fernando Torres has handed two other Liverpool strikers very different opportunities at Anfield last night.

Robbie Keane will be expected to return to the forward line against West Ham, hoping to add to his two Premier League goals this season, while Ryan Babel will be praying for the chance to show he deserves a regular run in the side, with just one Premier League start this season.

The Dutchman has figured as a substitute a number of times, but boss Rafa Benitez underlined today what he must do to secure a starting berth.

“In terms of his physical condition he can play 90 minutes,” said the Reds boss “that is not a problem.

“He is a very, very quick player so to keep the consistency, to keep the high tempo, to keep the intensity is not easy. These kind of players are normally less consistent.

“He can improve. He has to train really hard to be ready, and if he plays and plays well he will keep his place, if he plays as a substitute he has to show something and then if he has an impact he can be considered for the next game.

“He just has to work harder and try to be ready.”

Keane will almost certainly start tonight, but Benitez explained that there was no extra pressure to score goals in Torres’ absence.

“We were talking before about who will score without Torres and we have Gerrard scoring goals and Kuyt scoring goals, so we have enough quality up front,” he said.

“Clearly Robbie wants to score, and everybody is talking about it, so that creates a little bit more pressure, but he has experience and he can manage.

“He is working very hard for us. If I said I was happy with his record in front of goal clearly that is not true, but if he could score two or three goals that would be a massive difference for him and for us. He knows this and in terms of his work rate he is doing well. Hopefully he can score and we can talk about goals and work rate together.”

Another player who needs to improve his performance level is Andrea Dossena, and Benitez admitted the Italian was trying too hard to impress.

“You could see from his performance the other day that he is a little bit anxious,” he said. “He wants to impress and he was going forward with a lot of energy and determination, but he was making some mistakes in defence.

“But he made two good blocks, so he was really good in some situations defending. Going forward he did well, but his defending has to improve.

“But he is training very hard and for me that is the best thing. Remember Dossena has just arrived. When Daniel Agger arrived, people were not sure, but six months later he was one of the best centre-backs in the country. Dossena will need time and it will be easier for him in the team.

“When you want to impress, when you want to show you are good enough you can be a little anxious.

“How can you control this? With the help of your team-mates. He has played the last two seasons more as a wing-back than a full-back. He was a full-back originally, but now he has to learn again the movement of the position, different team-mates and a different manager. It’s not easy.”

George Gillett In Surprise Visit To Anfield

George Gillett yesterday visited Anfield for the first time since September.

The reasons for his surprise visit are unclear but Liverpool's co-owner spent several hours at the stadium before leaving this afternoon.

Gillett was last in Liverpool three months ago for the Reds clash with Manchester United.

On that occasion, the American watched the game from the director’s box and he was again in the box for the match between Liverpool and West Ham.

Meanwhile, reports today emerged in the USA suggesting Gillett is struggling to refinance $75m of personal debt.

The Sports Business Journal claims Gillett borrowed the money from Mill Financial in January this year and is due to be repaid next month.

The report also claims that Springfield Financial Company, which Mill Financial is a branch of, is trying to sell the debt and there has been interest in it from at least one suitor who is interested in acquiring Gillett's stake in Liverpool Football Club.

The Journal believes Gillett himself is trying to buy the debt with the help of investors.

Rafa Benitez Urges Liverpool Fans To Cut The Boos After West Ham Draw

Misfiring Liverpool blew their chance to turn up the title heat last night. But Rafa Benitez told fans to cut the jeers and instead enjoy being top of the league.

His men edged ahead of Chelsea by a point after this drab stalemate with a determined West Ham.

But a second goalless draw in a row brought boos from the Kop at the end. Hammers supporters joined in by chanting, "Top of the league, you're having a laugh".

Despite dropping two points on a night when Steven Gerrard marked his 10th anniversary in lacklustre fashion - one of his attempts on goal saw him miss the ball completely - Benitez said: "The crowd can be disappointed after a draw at home, but we're top of the league.

"We've a point more than Chelsea and if we win at Blackburn we stay top. If we win all of the time, the other teams have to win too."

Liverpool made little impression against a Hammers side who defended doggedly and who came nearest to scoring when Craig Bellamy hit a post.

Yossi Benayoun had a shot superbly saved by Robert Green as Gianfranco Zola's side kept a third successive clean sheet.

Hammers defender Matthew Upson said: "It's a massive result, another clean sheet and we could have nicked something.

"He (Zola) stuck to his beliefs. He was under a bit of pressure to change things.

"He has us more organised and drilled."

Liverpool Will Not Move For Michael Owen In January, Says Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has ruled out making a move for Newcastle's Michael Owen in the January transfer window.

Owen is out of a contract in June and speculation of a move back to Anfield has been rife over recent weeks. But Benitez made no hesitations after his side's goalless draw against West Ham to set the record straight.

"We will have Fernando Torres back soon," he said. "And I can assure everyone that clearly we are not going for Michael Owen. Clearly."

The Owen issue put to rest; Benitez did admit that despite being top of the league, his side were suffering a crisis of confidence. Having only scored six goals in their last six home matches, the Spaniard said: "There is a lack of confidence in front of goal from some players.

"We need to keep creating chances. It's a question of confidence.

"I'm sure if we score the first goal in this kind of game we'll score a lot of them, but you have to keep on creating the chances."

With club co-owner George Gillett at Anfield for the match against West Ham, Benitez was inevitably asked how talks regarding his contract are going.

"There is no news yet on the contract," he said. "George Gillett is here, we are waiting for further communication, we do not have that yet.

"We will finish our conversations soon and start thinking about football."

Rafael Benitez Awaits Liverpool Contract Talks

Rafa Benitez is getting itchy as he anticipates the long-awaited talks over his contract extension.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has been trying to force contract discussions for some time now, as he wants his Anfield future secured before Christmas.

Now, he seems to have been granted his wish, as co-owner George Gillett was at Anfield on Monday evening, joining Tom Hicks in the director’s box.

Although the dire 0-0 draw with West Ham United could end up being costly in the title race - 'Pool could have gone three points clear of Chelsea at the Premier League summit - Rafa now fully expects to sit down for talks.

The boss affirmed after the match: "George Gillett is here, but there is no news yet on the contract.

"We are waiting for further communication; we do not have that yet. We will finish our conversations soon and start thinking about football."

It's true that an air of uncertainty hangs over Anfield at the moment. The contract talks with Liverpool's controversial owners and the club's activity in the January transfer window could calm a few nerves, though.