Saturday, December 06, 2008

Match Preview: Blackburn Rovers vs. LiverpooL

Blackburn is looking a bit desperate, with a little luck in recent weeks the team would be clear of danger at the bottom - but just about everything has conspired against it, especially with Rovers boss Paul Ince the hot favourite to be the next Premier League manager to leave his club.

Blackburn does score goals though - and as soon as it allies this with some defensive steal Blackburn will rise gently to mid-table.

However, Blackburn haven't won in the league since September and head into this game on the back of four successive defeats in all competitions, the latest coming when they were beaten 5-3 by Manchester United in the Carling Cup on Wednesday.

Only Chelsea and Tottenham have kept clean sheets against Blackburn in the last nine games so Blackburn will expect a goal at home against almost anyone.

Nevertheless, they meet a Liverpool side which is stuttering slightly at the top of the pile after two successive goalless draws at Anfield, with a fair proportion of their own fans booing them off on Monday night against West Ham.

And while plenty of people are getting excited about a first title for 18 seasons for the Reds, it's worth pointing out that they accrued exactly the same number of points last season from the 15 matches they've played so far.

With Fernando Torres sidelined until the New Year Liverpool must hope that Dirk Kuyt rediscovers his early season form or that Robbie Keane finds some boots that fit - otherwise Steve Gerrard will be expected to win the remainder of the games in 2009. Thus, Liverpool has scored just 13 goals in the last 11 games.

The prospect of Blackburn looking at Liverpool's last three games (where Liverpool has scored just one goal) and using the knowledge to grind out a 0-0 is hardly thrilling - but can't be discounted.

But Blackburn haven't managed to win a point or even score a goal against the 'big four' this term so it's impossible to make a case for them and with so many negatives surrounding this game it's not one to get involved with from a betting perspective.

Winning Mentality A Big Positive For Liverpool FC Star Albert Riera

When Liverpool went top of the league on Monday night there were no celebrations and there was no rejoicing on the pitch or in the stands.

They may have moved into the position they cherish and the one in which they would love to stay, but having drawn at home to West Ham in a game they had been expecting to win no-one in a red shirt was thinking “job done”.

For Albert Riera, the fact that Liverpool still have some improving to do despite having reached the league summit is a good thing, and he believes the winning mentality that exists at the club he joined last summer will ensure things do get better.

“We are happy at the moment because we are top of the table, but we all feel that we can improve as a team,” he said.

“If someone had offered us a form to sign at the start of the season that said we would be top of the league at the start of December we would have all signed it, no problem.

“So the fact that we have got there is very positive, but we are still disappointed because our position could have been even better.

“If you think of the game at home to West Ham on Monday night it is clear that we dropped two points because we always expect to win our games at Anfield.

“But we cannot dwell on that because we have got ourselves into a situation in which everything is about what we do – if we keep getting more points than the teams around us then we will stay on top of the table.

“So while we may be a bit disappointed that we do not have more points, the most important thing is that we are top of the league and now we have to try to stay there.

“In a sense, it is good that we feel disappointed because that means we know we must work hard to improve so we don’t have such feelings again.”

Having scored just once in their last three outings, one area in which the Reds can undoubtedly improve is their goalscoring.

Riera himself only has a single strike to his name since moving to Anfield from Espanyol in August, but the left winger insists no one at Liverpool is letting their recent barren spell get to them and he believes it is only a matter of time before they get back on the goal trail.

“Of course we want to score in every match, but it is not always easy to do this,” he said.

“Almost every time we play at Anfield our opponents are happy to just defend and we try to create chances but it can be difficult.

“Against West Ham we had 17 corners and had a few chances but we could not get the goal we wanted.

“It is also important to remember that the other team wants to win as well though. It isn’t just Liverpool out on the pitch.

“But I am sure that the goals will come. We are not worried about this.”

From the moment he made his Liverpool debut at home to Manchester United, Riera has looked at ease in his new surroundings and he has settled well into Rafa Benitez’s side.

The 26-year-old says this is testament to his team mates and believes there is more to come from him as the season wears on.

“The most important thing is the team,” he said. “All players depend on the team as a whole and the players around them.

“If the team is not playing well, every individual suffers. You may be able to do well up to a point but to be at your best you need the team to do well.

“The team started the season really well, we are top of the league and we have already qualified for the next stage of the Champions League so this means that we are doing a good job.

“This has made things easier for me to settle in and I am enjoying my football here, but I know that I can still do better because you can always improve.

“Another thing that has helped me is that I have come into a dressing room with a winning mentality.

“This means that even after we have won a game and played really well that you still demand that you do better the next time.

“We want more and more all the time. That is the mentality of this club and it is one that I really like.”

Today, Liverpool visit Blackburn Rovers, who currently lie second from bottom of the Premier League, a full 18 places behind Rafa Benitez’s side.

But experience has taught Riera that teams at the bottom enjoy nothing more than beating those at the top and he is expecting a tough encounter at Ewood Park.

He said: “It will be a really hard game because the nature of this league is that when a team is at the top the other ones want to beat them.

“I have been on the other side of this because when I was at Manchester City and Espanyol we would try as hard as you possibly could to beat the teams at the top.

“That is just the way football is and because of this you have to be ready for every opponent, no matter where they are in the table.

“We will have to concentrate and work very hard because they will be doing that and this will make it difficult for us.

“We respect Blackburn, just like we respect every team we play, but we also know that we have enough quality and enough confidence to take all three points.

“I don’t like to talk about the opposition because if we do the right things then I am sure we will win – it is all about us and what we do.”

Ince Helped Me At Liverpool But I Won't Do Him Any Favours At Blackburn, Warns Carragher

Jamie Carragher admits he looked up to Liverpool's former captain Paul Ince when he was beginning his Anfield first-team career.

But Carragher will be aiming to heap more woe on the Blackburn boss when Liverpool visit Ewood Park on Saturday intent on maintaining their slender hold on the Barclays Premier League summit.

Carragher made his Liverpool debut a few months before Ince joined the club from Inter Milan in 1997.

He said: 'Paul was one of the players in the team when I first started and he was a great help to me.

'He gave me a lot of advice and he was someone I looked up to when I started to become a footballer. Hopefully he does really well, after Saturday.'

Ince is going through a tough baptism in Premier League management, with Rovers in the relegation zone as well as being knocked out of the Carling Cup quarter-finals at Manchester United on Wednesday.

But Carragher and Liverpool cannot afford to be sentimental over his former captain's plight.

Having only drawn 0-0 at home to West Ham on Monday, Liverpool have just a one-point lead over Chelsea at the top of the table.

That setback means they cannot afford to slip up at Ewood Park, where they have more than 7,000 fans - their biggest away allocation of the season.

Carragher says: 'We normally take a good crowd to Blackburn, which is virtually a local game for us and hopefully we can get a good result.

'They have had a few bad results lately and it is the type of place that we normally do okay. Hopefully that will continue.'

Liverpool will also have reunions with old boys Stephen Warnock and Robbie Fowler.

Striker Fernando Torres is still out with a hamstring injury, and after visiting a specialist in Spain this week, he may not play again until after the Christmas programme, the initial tentative comeback date had been the visit to Arsenal on December 21.

That means Robbie Keane will continue up front, intent on improving a scoring record of just two goals in his last eight appearances.

Javier Mascherano and Daniel Agger, both rested against West Ham, are expected to return.

Javier Mascherano Victory Vow

Javier Mascherano today insisted Liverpool must get back to winning ugly after back-to-back draws.

The Argentinian midfielder is set to return to the starting line up at Blackburn tomorrow having sat out Monday night’s stalemate with West Ham and is keen for Liverpool to show they have not lost their winning edge.

Rafa Benitez’s side are top of the Premier League and hold a one point lead over Chelsea but Mascherano knows it is vital they build on their advantage by taking all three points as often as they can.

He said: “Sometimes it is important to win even though you haven’t played as well as you can because you have to show that you can find solutions when it is not easy.

“We have done this before and we know that we can do it again because the points are the most important thing.

"We are not worried though. We have to improve but we also know that we have the players to do that.

“The main thing in this league is just to win and keep on going.

"We are top of the table and we have been doing a good job but we can do better.”

Meanwhile, Mascherano’s Anfield team mate Yossi Benayoun is fully committed to Liverpool, according to his agent.

The Israeli international has been linked with a move to the continent on several occasions this season with speculation suggesting several Russian clubs are looking to acquire him.

And Benayoun recently told Israeli TV that he might have to consider leaving the Reds unless he was given more playing time.

But his agent Ronen Katsav has now dismissed such thoughts, insisting his client is happy at Liverpool and is not looking to depart at a time when the Anfield outfit are looking to get involved in the title race.

“I don’t understand where they’re getting this from,” said Katsav.

“Yossi is happy at Liverpool, he played the full 90 minutes on Monday against West Ham.

“Benayoun wants to remain in the best league in the world, with Liverpool, to continue to battle for the title, which this year the club is closer than ever to winning.”

Benitez Dismisses Agger Exit Talk

Liverpool defender Daniel Agger is determined to remain at Anfield according to manager Rafael Benitez.

The Reds boss also denied contract talks had stalled with the Danish 23-year-old because of wage demands.

Agger has only played six Premier League games this season, but Benitez said: "He is very happy here. He is not playing badly, but he can do better.

"He knows he has not been playing at the same level he achieved last season, but I am still pleased with him."

Agger joined Liverpool in January 2006 and impressed in his first season, but missed much of last season through injury. In the current campaign he has struggled to make the starting line-up with Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher impressing at the back.

Despite reports that Agger's representatives were looking to double his current salary, as well as speculation over a possible move to AC Milan, Benitez insisted the player was committed to the club.

"is new deal is not a problem. He has an agent (to deal with that) and Daniel can concentrate on football," the Spaniard added.

"He is very competitive, and his only concern is how he can improve. His commitment to the club is 100% and he does not want to leave."

Torres Is On Track For Festive Return From Injury, Insists Liverpool Boss Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has dismissed claims that star striker Fernando Torres's injury is worse than first feared.

Reports had emerged from Merseyside that the Spain international would not make a first-team return until the New Year, but Benitez is confident his talisman will return before that.

Although unwilling to set a date for Torres's return, it is expected that he will be available for the festive period.

'I was surprised at suggestions that Torres would be out for much longer than we first thought,' said Benitez.

'He has had a second opinion from a specialist in Spain and the reports were good, everything is going well.

'The player is happier and he is progressing. The timetable for his return has not changed much, if at all. He may even be back quicker, but he will not be rushed back too soon.

'We know what is wrong so we know the solutions. We will not put the player under any pressure.'

Rafa Benitez To Rest Robbie Keane For Liverpool's Clash With Blackburn

Robbie Keane will be spared further misery today, as Rafa Benitez finally begins to lose patience with the £20million striker.

The Ireland international has played in 22 of Liverpool's 24 matches this season, but has managed only two league goals, and has cut an increasingly isolated and desperate figure in recent weeks.

Liverpool boss Benitez has hauled Keane off in all but three of his matches, and now it seems he will go one step further by resting him for the visit to Blackburn.

That plan will no doubt increase what has been growing speculation around Merseyside that the Irishman could even be offloaded in the January transfer window if he doesn't start delivering. Benitez won't go that far, but he gave the front-runner a fairly blunt message that he wants him to stand up and be counted.

The 28-year-old will be consigned to the bench at Ewood Park today, DESPITE the injury to Fernando Torres, which is likely to keep the Spanish striker out until the New Year.

"There are six months of the season left so I can pick Robbie lots of times, but I cannot guarantee a position to anyone," he said. "We can talk about players costing £15-20m at other teams and they are on the bench every week, but people are not talking about them.

"We have two players in our squad of this value so people talk about them.

For me it is not a question of the price tag, he is just another player.

"I think Robbie's working hard, he has a good mentality and he has enough confidence in himself. After that we must decide about team selection as we have to pick the best players for each game."

Clearly, Benitez has been unimpressed with Liverpool's goals record in recent weeks, especially in the absence of Torres.

They have scored a paltry 13 goals in their last 11 matches, which is hardly title-winning form.

"Robbie has played 22 games out of 24, and has started 18 games," added the manager.

Direct Approach May Solve Liverpool's Goal Problem

The game at Blackburn today has got all supporters wondering which particular Liverpool side will turn up.

Will it be the side that won with little fuss at Chelsea, or will it be the side that battered Spurs but managed to lose the game?

We’ve huffed and puffed lately, especially at home and without the threat of Torres it seems we are a bit toothless.

Against West Ham last Monday we had lots of possession but it looked like we could have played until midnight and not scored. Sometimes it’s worth just getting the ball into the box and looking for knock-downs.

We don’t seem to have that option and maybe certain teams have worked out how to stifle us.

Maybe we will be better away from home. Blackburn is another must-win.

For the first time for years we are approaching the Christmas games with a lead in the championship race. Blackburn are also struggling and Paul Ince is under pressure to get a result.

Another old boy in the shape of Robbie Fowler may also lie in wait to give us a lesson in the art of finishing.

How valuable would a Fowler in his heyday be to us now?

Blackburn have scored the least amount of home goals in the Premier League this season.

Visiting keepers have picked the ball out of the net just four times so far, so you would think that even a misfiring Liverpool should have enough to come away with a much-needed win.

Robbie Keane Told By Rafa Benitez To Start Delivering

Rafael Benitez has issued Robbie Keane a thinly-veiled warning to start delivering for Liverpool – while hinting the striker could be dropped this afternoon.

The Republic of Ireland international has under-whelmed at Anfield following his much-vaunted £19.6million move from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer.

Keane has scored only four goals this season and was substituted for the 15th time in 18 starts on Monday following another disappointing performance in the goalless draw at home to West Ham United.

Benitez has been keen to give the 29-year-old the same public backing that was offered to a similarly struggling Peter Crouch three years ago, with Keane having appeared in 22 of Liverpool’s 24 games this season.

However, the Liverpool manager, who earlier this week admitted the striker has not yet demonstrated his true worth, yesterday declared no player had a guaranteed place in the starting line-up.

And the clear inference is that, despite the absence of the injured Fernando Torres, Keane will now be taken out of the firing line for today’s Premier League trip to Blackburn Rovers.

“Robbie is working hard in training as always,” said Benitez. “The best way to support him is by talking about how he can improve.

“We have to analyse everything because we have to think about him and the team. There are six months of the season left so I can pick him lots of times, but I cannot guarantee a position to anyone.

“We can talk about players costing £15m-£20m at other teams and they are on the bench every week, but people are not talking about them. We have two players in our squad of this value so people talk about them.

“For me, it is not a question of the price-tag of the player, he is just another player. I think that he is working hard, he has a good mentality and he has enough confidence in himself.

“After that we have to decide about team selection because we want to win every game and we have to pick the best players for each game.”

Benitez added: “Keane is a normal player, another player. As a player you have to work hard and try and do the things we are practising in training.

“But again I would say we cannot guarantee a position to anyone. We have to win.

“He is in the same situation as the rest of the players. He has played 22 games out of 24, 18 games he has started. Can I guarantee the position of Agger, Hyypia, Aurelio, Dossena, Carragher? No. The players have to play the best that they can every week and then afterwards you decide.

“We have enough quality in attack to manage with the players that we have, so hopefully if we can create good chances and clear chances the strikers will score. If not, then we have to score from other areas on the pitch.”

Should Keane be benched, it could pave the way for a recall for Ryan Babel in attack. But Torres remains sidelined along with Fabio Aurelio (calf), Martin Skrtel (knee) and Philipp Degen (foot).