Saturday, December 13, 2008

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs. Hull City

Surprise package Hull City travel to Anfield on Saturday aiming to shock league leaders Liverpool.

The game is the first league meeting in 48 years between the two clubs as Liverpool play host to sixth-placed City.

The Tigers have already beaten Arsenal at Emirates Stadium and they ran Manchester United close at Old Trafford, and they will be aiming to put a dent in Liverpool's title aspirations.

The Reds have drawn their last two league games at Anfield and they will be determined to pick up all three points to cement their position at the top of the table.

The hosts are still without star striker Fernando Torres as he continues his recovery from a hamstring strain.

Robbie Keane will be hoping to get the nod to start after impressing in the midweek UEFA Champions League win over PSV Eindhoven following his omission from the starting line-up in last weekend's victory at Blackburn.

Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt and Pepe Reina are all expected to be recalled after being rested for the Champions League tie.

Fabio Aurelio misses out again with a calf problem meaning Andrea Dossena will battle it out with Emiliano Insua for the left-back slot.

Tigers boss Phil Brown has promised to travel to Anfield with a positive approach and he is set to resist the temptation to employ a defensive formation.

Marlon King is expected to lead the attack despite his off-field difficulties this week.

City will be without striker Caleb Folan who is still suffering with a knee injury.

Full-back Andy Dawson is ruled out with an Achilles problem meaning Sam Ricketts will continue at left-back.

Nick Barmby will be hoping to get the chance to face his former club, while Dean Windass will again be restricted to a role on the bench.

Long-term absentees Anthony Gardner and Craig Fagan are still a way off a return but both are expected to resume full-time training next week.

Possible starting XIs

Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Dossena, Kuyt, Alonso, Mascherano, Reira, Gerrard, Keane.

Hull: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Marney, Boateng, Ashbee, Barmby, Geovanni, King.

Torres Nearing Liverpool Return

Liverpool have been performing solidly in the absence of Spanish international Fernando Torres, as they have climbed the league ladder to the loftiest of positions.

However, the return of their superstar hitman could give the team a much-needed lift and freshness over the hectic Christmas schedule.

Torres has been kept at bay due to a problematic thigh injury, and reports suggest a meeting with specialist Ramon Cugat has been pencilled in, but the verdict for full training is expected to be green-lighted.

"I have been talking to Fernando today, and he is much better. But how long before he returns, I don't know," Rafa Benitez is reported to have said.

"He is in light training. It could be one or two weeks, but I don't want to put pressure on him."

Liverpool face a potential banana-skin of an opponent this weekend in Hull City, a side who have already beaten Arsenal away from home this term, and managed to knock three past Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Hull Boss Brown Feels Liverpool Are League's Best

Hull City manager Phil Brown says Liverpool have been the best team in the country up until this point.

Speaking ahead of his club's trip to Anfield on Saturday, the Tigers boss revealed that he rates Rafa Benitez's team as the best of the big four currently.

"They are a great side, no doubt about it," Brown was quoted as saying by Liverpool's official website.

"To be so many points ahead of Manchester United and be ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal is a great achievement at this stage of the season.

"The fact that there were boos after a 0-0 draw shows you how much Liverpool have progressed in the last four or five years under Rafa Benitez.

"They have to be the best team in England at this moment in time, the league table doesn't lie.

"The fact that they're not playing particularly well but winning is the sign of a very good side – that was the case at Blackburn last week and they won 3-1."

Despite the esteem in which he hold Liverpool, Brown has vowed to deploy an attacking formation at Anfield this weekend.

Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez In Traffic Accident

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez suffered slight whiplash injuries after his was involved in a minor collision in the city last night.

The Reds boss was travelling home from Melwood when the incident happened on West Derby Road in Tuebrook - near to the junction with Green Lane - during yesterday's rush hour.

His black BMW sustained minor damage when it was struck by another vehicle as Benitez waited at traffic lights.

After exchanging insurance details with the female driver of the other vehicle, the Reds Spanish boss was able to continue his journey home to Wirral.

Mr. Benitez reported for work today as normal at Liverpool's training ground.

I Could Never Turn Down My Big Chance - Liverpool FC Goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri

Diego Cavalieri may still be coming to terms with the language, but there are other elements of English culture he got used to in no time at all.

In a recent interview in Liverpool's matchday programme, the Brazilian goalkeeper admitted to rarely leaving the house without a waterproof coat and an umbrella due to the ever present threat of rain in his new home country.

Not that he is complaining though – that is clearly not in the nature of a laid back character who takes positives where others see negatives and who has become an instant hit with team-mates and staff at Melwood thanks to his naturally sunny disposition.
It's just as well he tends to look on the bright side of life though, particularly as his chances of becoming a regular in Liverpool's first team are being thwarted by a certain Pepe Reina, a keeper rated by many as one of the very best around.

Cavalieri knew this would be the case when he left Palmeiras behind for a new challenge abroad and despite having made just three appearances for the Reds so far he remains adamant that moving to Anfield as back up to the Spaniard was unquestionably the right decision.

"I knew when I came to Liverpool that it would be a really difficult job to compete with Pepe because he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world," said the 26-year-old.

"But for me it was an opportunity to sign for one of the biggest clubs in the world and I believe I will get chances here.

"I know my own capabilities and I know that if I work hard all the time then I will have a better chance of showing what I can do when I do get the opportunity to play."

One such chance arrived on Tuesday night when Rafa Benitez named a reshuffled starting XI for the Champions League clash with PSV Eindhoven and Cavalieri was given the nod in goal.

He didn't manage to keep what would have been his first clean sheet since joining the club but he certainly didn't do anything wrong either as he played his part in a commanding victory over the Dutch champions.

"It was a very important win for us because it meant that we finished first in the group," said Cavalieri.

"For me it was a very important moment because it was my first ever game in the Champions League and I really enjoyed it.

"I am very happy because it was a good night for the team and also a good night for me because I was part of it.

"I was happy with the way I played even though I was disappointed to concede a goal and now I just have to continue working hard in training every single day because it is perhaps more difficult for a keeper to come into the team without much match preparation than it is for outfield players."

Part of Cavalieri's preparation is to work on a daily basis alongside the man he is charged with ousting but that hasn't stopped him from forging a strong bond with Reina.

"I have an excellent relationship with Pepe," said Cavalieri. "He has helped me from the moment that I first came to the club.

"I knew about him before I signed because I had seen him play many times on television and it was clear that he was a very good keeper.

"But having worked with him I am now even more impressed because I have been able to see his qualities from closer up.

"So I am very happy to work alongside Pepe and with the other goalkeepers at the club."

Not having quality goalkeeping back up cost Liverpool dear last season with many commentators attributing their failure to progress in the FA Cup to the presence of Charles Itandje. The French keeper is still at Anfield having failed to complete a summer move to Galatasaray, his place as back-up to Reina now well and truly lost to Cavalieri.

That is one battle that the Brazilian has won but he knows shifting Reina from the Reds number one spot is another matter entirely.

"I know that Pepe is the manager's choice and I will always respect the manager's decision," said Cavalieri.

"All I can do is keep working hard all the time, try to get better and make the most of any minutes that I get on the pitch."

For the time being at least, Cavalieri is just happy to be part of a Liverpool squad which seems to be going places.

Top of the league in England and winners of their group in Europe, this is a season of rich promise at Anfield and there is a growing belief in the dressing room that the Reds can go on to build on the impressive start they have made to the campaign.

"I think that is true," said Cavalieri. "The players in the dressing room have a good feeling right now.

"We know that if we work as hard as we can then we will have a chance of achieving our aim at the end of the season which is to win trophies for Liverpool.

"We are doing well in the Premier League and also in the Champions League but there is still a long way to go in both competitions so now we must keep our focus and hopefully this will allow us to achieve our objectives."

He may be missing the sunshine of his native homeland but as far as Diego Cavalieri is concerned the future is looking bright at Anfield.

Stay First By New Year And We’re 80% There – Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez

Upbeat Rafael Benitez believes Liverpool have an 80% chance of winning the league if they go into the New Year still top of the table.

The Anfield manager was responding to quotes attributed to him yesterday that stated his team could only lift the title if their main rivals “messed up”.

Benitez distanced himself from the report, and instead chose to talk up Liverpool’s chances of ending a title drought that stretches back to 1990.

Liverpool, who currently head second-placed Chelsea by a point after 16 games, have historically performed better in the second half of the season under the Spaniard.

After this afternoon’s visit of Hull City, the Anfield outfit travel to fellow title aspirants Arsenal on Sunday week before entertaining Bolton Wanderers on Boxing Day followed by an away clash at Newcastle United two days later.

And Benitez is convinced his team have an excellent opportunity if they remain top after the Christmas period.

“The second half of the season is usually better for us so that is why I think we can win the title,” said the Liverpool manager. “There are important players who aren’t playing now and they could be good additions for us going for the title. We have a lot of confidence, if we can improve two or three things we will be up there.

“We are top of the table and we are doing well away, and have only made two mistakes at home. Clearly we have confidence because we have players of quality.

“If we are top of the table after the Christmas period, I think we will have an 80% chance of winning the title.

“We know if we finish that period still at the top we will have a lot more chance of winning it. And with people coming back, the second period will be even better for us.

“A month ago I was saying we needed to prove something, but we are proving to everyone that we can. You cannot make too many mistakes. But we are top, it would be stupid to say we couldn’t win the title.”

Of the alleged quotes, Benitez said: “The comments were from an interview with a French magazine. I was surprised to read what I was supposed to have said. But really not surprised, because everyone in Liverpool knows about this, it was not true.”

Benitez will again be without Fernando Torres for today’s clash against high-flying Hull. Torres, who is recovering from a hamstring problem, will visit a specialist in Barcelona for a second consultation on the injury.

And Benitez believes the striker has a chance of playing again this year.

“I spoke to Fernando this morning and he’s tired, but that is because he is working so hard and he is improving,” said the manager yesterday.

“It is physical more than anything because his mentality is very good. His rehab is going well and I’m not going to put a time on it, but I think it will be one or two weeks.

“It’s important to understand Fernando’s a very important player for us, a key player, because of his goals, the way he beats players and he is always a threat.

“Obviously it’s much better with him playing but we have other players. Ngog, Babel, Kuyt, Keane, they can all score goals too.”

Torres, who finished third in the Ballon d’Or earlier this month, was yesterday named on a five-man shortlist for FIFA’s World Player of the Year.

The striker has been nominated along with Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, AC Milan playmaker Kaka and Barcelona duo Lionel Messi and Xavi for the award, the winner of which will be announced on January 12 in Zurich.

And Benitez said: “I am pleased he has been nominated, it is well deserved. To score 33 goals in your first season in England and then to win the European title with Spain shows his quality.

“There are some very good players also nominated, but I feel Fernando has a good chance.”

Madrid Boss Ramos Ready To Swoop For Alonso

According to reports in Spain Real Madrid’s new manager Juande Ramos is gearing up for a big money bid in January for Liverpool’s creative midfielder Xabi Alonso.

The 27-year-old who moved to Merseyside from Real Sociedad in 2004 has been the subject of great interest from Arsenal in recent months, with Gunners’ boss Arsene Wenger apparently making a bid for the player on deadline day on September 1st.

It is unclear at this stage whether Rafa Benitez would consider allowing the player to leave given the important role the Spaniard has played this season alongside Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano.

Known for his eye-of-the-needle passing and spectacular goals, Alonso’s profile in his homeland was further raised by his appearances for Spain in their Euro 2008 success. Real Madrid are suffering from an extraordinary injury crisis and new man Ramos has decided to act swiftly and decisively as soon as the transfer window opens.

With Mahamadou Diarra ruled out for the season and doubts lingering over the season-long sustainability of midfield Dutch quartet Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Royston Drenthe and Arjen Robben, Ramos is known to be scouring the Premier League for replacements.

This week alone the former Spurs boss has been linked with moves for Portsmouth’s Lassana Diarra and Didier Zokora, however, it now appears he has set his sights on the Liverpool man.

Benitez Won't Allow Dissent

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has laid down the law to his title-chasing squad and warned he will not allow egos to derail the pursuit of silverware.

Benitez adopted the hardline stance after insisting he would not tolerate dissenting voices within his own dressing room and ordering anyone agitating behind the scenes to stop “disrespecting their team-mates”.

Liverpool’s emergence as genuine Premier League title contenders has coincided with Benitez cutting back dramatically on the number of changes he has been making to his starting line-ups compared to previous seasons.

His decision to ditch a policy of rotation has resulted in players such as Ryan Babel, Daniel Agger and Yossi Benayoun all going public on their frustrations, while £20.3million striker Robbie Keane found himself sitting out at Ewood Park last week.

Victory at Blackburn was the first time in a month that Liverpool had scored three goals in a game and Benitez is unlikely to see the need to alter his team too much against Hull today with Dirk Kuyt having recovered from a hamstring problem.

That would mean no place again for Keane or Agger, while Babel faces an anxious wait after back-to-back starts following his antics in trying to negotiate a loan move back to Ajax.

It promises to be a fresh test of their patience, with talks on a new deal for Agger proving a problem and Tottenham waiting in the wings should Keane get itchy feet.

Benitez highlighted the fortunes of Vladimir Smicer, who made just two starts in 2004-05 but ended up scoring in the Champions League final success over AC Milan, as why his players need to be patient.

“Rotation has been a topic of conversation for a long time, and the players all know they will get chances in the team,” said Benitez. “They will all get opportunities, and the chances are they will be involved in important games.

“Just look at what happened with Vladimir Smicer. He was hardly getting a look-in, then suddenly he was playing in the Champions League final and scoring one of the goals that helped us win it.

“We will have a lot of games, and injuries are bound to kick in, so everyone will be involved. You can be sure of that. Harmony in the squad is vital, the atmosphere in the camp is very good and positive. It isn’t always easy keeping a large squad happy, but all I would say to the players is that they must respect the rules.”

“They have to accept there is a right way of doing things, and that means having respect for your team-mates and what we’re trying to do.

“Don’t show disrespect to your colleagues. That’s a very important principle.”

Players Happy To Have Stayed At Liverpool FC

Given the rate at which players are being linked with moves away from Liverpool, it would be easy to assume the Anfield outfit were struggling to avoid the drop rather than being a point clear at the top of the Premier League.

And a puzzled Rafael Benitez has just two words for those growing restless among his squad: Vladimir Smicer.

Both Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun have recently expressed their growing frustration at bit-part roles, while the future of Daniel Agger is far from certain with contract talks still ongoing and Real Madrid lying in wait.

Babel, desperate for first-team action, even went as far as to encourage Benitez to allow him to return back to Ajax on loan for the remainder of the season.

With Liverpool enjoying their best-ever start to a Premier League campaign and safely through as group winners to the knockout stages of the Champions League, the last thing Benitez expects is players wanting out.

And the Spaniard cites Smicer as an example of how every squad member can prove valuable.

During Benitez’s debut Anfield campaign in 2004-05, Smicer had made just 15 previous appearances – only two of which were starts – during the season when he replaced an injured Harry Kewell in the Champions League final.

The Czech schemer went on to score in both the game and the penalty shoot-out to help Liverpool win the European Cup and etch his name in the annals of Anfield folklore.

And Benitez says: “My players will all get chances, they know they will play in important games for us. I always use the example of Smicer. He wasn’t playing but ended up scoring in the Champions League final.

“We may have players who aren’t playing too many games for us at the moment, but in the end they could be crucial for us.

“It is just a question of them having to keep working hard. You usually have a few injuries, so everyone will be involved.

“But I can guarantee the atmosphere is really good and the mood is really positive. If the players respect the rules and each other there is not a problem.

“They understand the rules, they understand our way. How can you prove you are good enough to be playing? By working harder.”

Benayoun has started Liverpool’s last two league games, while Babel was a goalscorer in Tuesday’s 3-1 Champions League win at PSV Eindhoven.

And Benitez admits: “It is more difficult for the players who are not playing. Ryan Babel has been linked with a move away, but it was Ajax who approached me.

“They were selling (Klaas Jan) Huntelaar and wanted Ryan on loan, and I said no. He will stay with us; he can be a very important player for the rest of the season.

“The problem Babel has is the form of Albert Riera. If it was the other way around, Riera would have a problem. But that is what it is like at the very top.”

Liverpool will aim to maintain their lead over second-placed Chelsea when they take on surprise package Hull City at Anfield this afternoon.

Only the top two and Everton can boast an away record better than Phil Brown’s sixth-placed side, who have already won at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and went down fighting to a 4-3 defeat at Manchester United last month.

Hull have never beaten Liverpool in 12 previous meetings, with the last league encounter at Anfield, in the old Division Two back in 1959, ending in a 5-3 home win.

And Benitez says: “They have a good mentality, they try to get forward and score and aren’t scared of the name of the other team.

“They’ve been scoring goals against Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham. It will be difficult but we know we have enough in the team, in the squad, to beat anyone.

“If we play well and create chances we have to take them, but also have to be patient.”

Patience is something Liverpool supporters have had to show with Andrea Dossena. By his own admission, the left-back has struggled to adapt to the English game since his £7m summer arrival from Udinese.

However, the Italian posted noticeably improved performances against West Ham United and PSV in the last fortnight.

And Dossena believes the upturn has been a result of staying behind at Melwood to put in the extra hours on the training ground to help his game.

“I have asked to work even harder because I want to find my best form,” he says. “I have been doing extra running and work in the gym as well as other things that are open to all of the team. I have been staying after training to do this.

“Working with Rafa Benitez has been very good. He focuses on the details, which helps you to improve.

“Every day he gives you advice, and also during the match. He does this with every player.”

Dossena adds: “It has not been easy at the beginning but I think things are better now.

“It’s very different from Italian football but I am getting used to it.

“The game is less physical there. There is more pressure when you are on the ball in England. And another thing is that the pitches are always wetter here!

“I would like to improve defensively. I am only just starting to reach my best level and I hope fans will see that soon.”

Dossena is likely to continue at left-back with Fabio Aurelio having only just returned to training after a calf problem. Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt, all rested in midweek, will come back into contention.