Monday, December 22, 2008

Match Report: Arsenal 1 - 1 LiverpooL

Former Tottenham striker Robbie Keane dealt a fresh blow to Arsenal's fading title hopes as he secured a point for Barclays Premier League leaders Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal had striker Emmanuel Adebayor sent off in the second half, which hampered their hopes of finding a winner after Keane's goal had cancelled out Robin van Persie's strike.

Arsene Wenger's men went into the match eight points off the pace, and perhaps more significantly they were - and remain - out of the top four following Aston Villa's win at West Ham.

Despite taking the lead through a fine strike from Van Persie after 24 minutes, it proved a false dawn as the Reds levelled before the break when Keane latched onto a long ball up-field and lashed in a thunderous shot.

Arsenal were forced to play the final 30 minutes with only 10 men after referee Howard Webb showed Adebayor his second yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa.

Liverpool were without manager Rafael Benitez, who was back on Merseyside recovering from an operation on his troublesome kidney stones.

His side could yet be knocked off top spot before Christmas by Chelsea, who play Everton tomorrow night - but for the Gunners, the new year looks set to be a hard battle to prove they have the stomach to somehow claw themselves back into contention.

Arsenal have beaten both United and Chelsea this season, but a failure to see off supposedly lesser sides has proved costly and resulted in them being overtaken by a resurgent Villa.

The leaders were, of course, set to present a stern test of Arsenal's credentials and there was a cagey opening to the game.

The first decent chance came in the ninth minute.

A long ball was knocked back by Keane from the edge of the Arsenal penalty area into the path of Reds captain Steven Gerrard, whose 20-yard effort was straight at Manuel Almunia.

Arsenal responded and a clipped ball in from Bacary Sagna on the right floated through to Adebayor, but his glanced, diving header just lacked the power to beat Jose Reina.

Arsenal then snatched the lead through Van Persie after 24 minutes.

Samir Nasri, fit again after an ankle problem, chipped a high ball through from just inside his own half towards the edge of the Liverpool penalty area.

The Dutchman collected it on his chest before turning two defenders and spinning to fire a right-footed shot into the net.

Liverpool, whose form has dipped in recent weeks, were clearly rattled after having looked quite comfortable.

However, slowly they found some composure and were level three minutes before the break.

The ball was pumped from deep inside the Liverpool half by Daniel Agger and bounced over centre-half Johan Djourou into the path of Keane.

The former Tottenham striker - barracked by sections of the home crowd - let the ball bounce again on into the Arsenal penalty area before blasting it past Almunia, wheeling away in delight at having silenced the jeers.

The Reds almost got another ahead of half-time, but Gerrard was just unable to convert Dirk Kuyt's low ball across goal when he arrived at the far post.

Almunia then produced a finger-tip save to deny the Dutchman and keep things level at the break.

Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas had sustained what looked like a knee problem in a tackle with Spanish compatriot Xabi Alonso at the end of the first half, and was unable to continue, with Abou Diaby coming on.

Liverpool started strongly, as Almunia was forced to beat away a snap-shot from Lucas.

The tempo of the match increased as the hour approached, but it was the visitors who remained in the ascendancy as Agger headed wide following a corner.

Referee Webb then caused a storm when he reduced Arsenal to 10 men after Adebayor was shown a second yellow card for a hefty challenge on Arbeloa, who fell to the ground clutching his face.

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger was incensed, but replays suggested the Togo striker had indeed gone in with a raised boot, rather than a flaying arm, and as such probably merited a caution.

The atmosphere in the Emirates was highly charged, and Van Persie was another in the book when he fouled Agger.

To their credit the Gunners responded by pressing Diaby further forwards as they looked to get back in front.

Tempers, though, were never far from boiling point as Sagna became the third Arsenal man into the book when he tripped Albert Riera.

Nasri sent a 25-yard effort wide before a deep corner was whipped across the Liverpool goal from the right.

Almunia saved bravely at the feet of Kuyt as the visitors pressed for a winner.

Agger fired a 25-yard strike just over as both teams had to settle for a point.

Arsene Wenger Brands Emmanuel Adebayor Sending Off 'A Joke'

Emmanuel Adebayor has accused Alvaro Arbeloa of going down "as if I put a knife in him" following his controversial sending off in Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Liverpool.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has also risked Football Association disciplinary action by describing Howard Webb's refereeing as "a joke" and claiming the official had employed two different sets of rules.

Adebayor received a second booking for a challenge on Arbeloa when he raised a foot to step over the ball and then lifted an arm to shield the ball. "He threw himself on the floor as if I put a knife in him," said Adebayor. "Of course I'm annoyed. I cannot say he cheated but what he did wasn't fair play. I hope when the referee goes home and watches it on the TV, he will see it was a foul but I didn't deserve a card. It was a mistake. He said it was for the leg but if I don't put my body in there I would never score a goal. We have to protect the ball."

Wenger, whose frustration was compounded by a knee injury to Cesc Fabregas, was also furious. "I would love to have sendings-off like that at home when we get kicked off the park," he said. "It was very soft. The first booking wasn't justified either. It is just unbelievable. If he sends Adebayor off, he has to send [Robbie] Keane off in the first half. We have two different rules.

"Every week, when we play away from home, you say: 'People get in your faces and you cannot cope.' Have you seen anybody sent off? Do you want me to show you our players after the game? It's a joke. We would have won. They [Liverpool players] know Adebayor didn't touch him. I can't tell you what I said to the fourth official at the end. It would be good for your newspapers, but not for me."

FA rules do not allow an appeal for a second yellow card, meaning Adebayor will miss the Boxing Day match at Aston Villa. Wenger is also waiting to discover the extent of the medial knee ligament damage to Fabregas following a challenge with Xabi Alonso. "It is difficult to assess – It could be one week or three weeks," he said.

Rafael Benitez's Team Lack Belief In Title Race

The case for Liverpool winning their first league title since 1990 may have been given credibility by a satisfying result in North London, but it worsened the more you studied the detail.

Top of the table is never a bad place to sit, but you do wonder how Rafael Benítez’s side are still there after drawing four of their past five Barclays Premier League matches. And you pondered how they expect to remain there unless they resolve the attacking side of their game; an issue that is not purely a question of getting Fernando Torres fit but one of attitude.

The league leaders had the opportunity to push for victory in the second half at the Emirates Stadium yesterday. Arsenal had lost Cesc Fàbregas to a knee injury at half-time and then Emmanuel Adebayor, inset, to a second booking (both cautions easily justifiable despite the boos) with almost half an hour to go.

Here was the chance for Liverpool to apply pressure to a team with obvious defensive vulnerabilities, even with 11 men and, significantly, to record a result that would have been noted as far away as Japan, where Manchester United were involved in the Club World Cup.

Such pressure failed to materialise and if it was understandable that Robbie Keane should start alone up front, it seemed odd that no one should be shoved up alongside him in a bold push for victory. The obvious switch would have been to move Dirk Kuyt alongside the isolated Keane but the Dutchman came inside with only nine minutes to go and ended up playing off the teenage David Ngog.

None of these changes amounted to an attempt by Liverpool’s bench to swing the momentum of the game away from an Arsenal team fired up by what they perceived to be the unjust dismissal of Adebayor.

We must assume that Liverpool would have been no more adventurous had Benítez been sat on the sidelines rather than recuperating at home from surgery to remove kidney stones. Television on, phone clasped to his ear, the Spaniard yabbered away to Xavi Valero, the goalkeeping coach, for the entire afternoon, directing operations from his armchair. If he wanted two centre forwards, he need only have said so.

Perhaps, from a couple of hundred miles away, he did not sense that this was a chance for Liverpool to make a statement, but Wenger appeared as mystified as the rest of us by Liverpool’s lack of adventure. “Were they tired or scared to push on?” the Arsenal manager asked, pointing out that a couple of Liverpool players were suffering from fatigue. “I am convinced that Liverpool will drop many points. Why? Because they already have. They have four draws at home so they dropped eight points there. Why won’t they drop those again in the second half of the season?”

The expected return of Torres, perhaps as soon as Boxing Day, is one riposte. The Spaniard not only brings goals but also a more expansive way of playing. Yesterday Liverpool relied largely, and successfully in the case of Keane’s spectacular equaliser, on balls over the top.

With only one league defeat, fewer than any of their rivals, Benítez might consider that his team remain on course for the trophy that players such as Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard covet above all others.

But after the frustration of draws against Fulham, West Ham United and Hull City, this was another game when you were left to wonder if Liverpool are capable of closing the deal — not only in these matches but in the championship race itself.

Do they have the belief that victory can be theirs? Are they, to borrow a phrase from Sir Alex Ferguson, “ready to win”? In the specifics of one afternoon, and in the broader sweep of things, you would have to conclude that they are probably not.

Comment: Robbie Keane Proves It Was Business As Usual

Would Rafael Benitez have as much influence from the sofa as he would from the dugout? Well, Robbie Keane was taken off before the end so there’s your answer.

As Sammy Lee said, his presence would be missed. But as his assistant also said, it would be business as usual.

Unfortunately for Keane, that’s exactly what it was.

Maybe goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero’s phone ran out of battery (perfectly conceivable given the amount of time he spent on it) and Lee took a wild guess at what his manager would be thinking with nine minutes left to play against 10 men in a game there to be won.

Or maybe Benitez had left to put the kettle on in time for his half-time brew and missed a rare glimpse of what Keane is really capable of.

Because in that moment, he showed his true worth – and showed why he needed to be on the field for the duration of the contest.

Keane proved he has the ability to sniff on scraps like a hungry rat and gobble them up with just as much ferocity.

And in times when there’s no Fernando Torres to call on, that is an invaluable weapon to have at any stage of a football game.

Especially, you would think, in the final 10 minutes of a finely-balanced encounter.

Before the equaliser, Liverpool were a bit like the hoof forward by Daniel Agger that set the goal up – heading nowhere and hoping for the best.

But it was the best possible response from Keane, who watched all (count them) two of its bounces all the way on to his right foot and the half-volley was unstoppable.

So why is he not capable of producing something like that in the later stages? Why would he not, particularly with the confidence coursing through him on making such a stunning impact on his return to north London, be able to compose himself and execute such skill during a late chase for a winner?

The type of questions that Benitez was able to avoid yesterday. He would have been only too happy to face them if he had been there, of course, and would have had his considered replies and responses at the ready.

And to be fair to him, has Keane’s replacement Nabil El-Zhar’s glancing header crept in, that would have been the most emphatic answer of all.

But after deciding that his £20million signing wasn’t good enough to be one of his three substitutions in the search for a winner against Hull, the willing soldier was once again been excluded from the final battle yesterday.

And there will be disbelief that Keane spent part of the afternoon cupping his hands to his ears and revelling in the silence, yet ended it with an over-riding feeling of disappointment.

Not just over his personal experience, of course, but over the fact that Liverpool missed another great chance.

Not the one Steven Gerrard slid in to fire wildly wide not long after Keane made it 1-1, but the one that means they have again failed to ease further away from the chasing pack.

Adding a point to the lead may be an outcome that was seen as acceptable before the game because away to Arsenal is still a tough ask, despite the somewhat limited squad currently under Wenger’s guidance.

But that extended lead will be wiped out completely if Chelsea record their 12th successive victory on the road tonight. Rarely have Everton, especially in modern times, had such universal support across Merseyside.

But that’s what it’s come to. Hoping they can get a first win for eight years against Chelsea and hoping that David Moyes can lift his threadbare squad to a result he has never achieved against them.

It is possible of course, but wouldn’t have been necessary if Liverpool had made the most of their chance to guarantee being top over Christmas.

If they had really gone for broke when Emanuel Adebayor’s rash second booking reduced Arsenal to 10 men. If they had put more men in front of the ball and not acted as if the Gunners, without their main target man, were somehow more of a threat.

If Keane had been allowed to complete a game, maybe?

“Nothing,” was Arsene Wenger’s response when asked what a point means in the title race. And he has a point too.

But it will certainly have meaning if Chelsea break the pattern of this most unpredictable of Premier League seasons and actually pounce on a rival’s slip-up.

Then this will be another occasion when Liverpool pay the price for a game in which more points are dropped than are gained.

And that definitely can’t be dismissed as meaning “nothing”.

Sammy Lee: Arsenal Draw Is A Missed Opportunity For Liverpool

SAMMY LEE admitted Liverpool had missed an opportunity to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League after being held by 10-man Arsenal.

Robbie Keane’s equaliser three minutes before half-time earned the visitors a 1-1 draw at the Emirates after Robin van Persie had given the Gunners the lead midway through the first half.

But the game’s main incident came in the 63rd minute when Emmanuel Adebayor was controversially dismissed by referee Howard Webb for a second bookable offence.

With Rafael Benitez having not travelled as he recovers from last week’s operation to remove a kidney stone, assistant manager Lee assumed control at the Emirates.

And he revealed Liverpool’s players were disappointed not to have made their numerical advantage tell and open up a four-point lead on second-placed Chelsea.

“We’d have settled for the point beforehand, but the way the game went the lads are a little it disappointed,” said Lee.

“Part of the disappointment was that we couldn’t open them up when they went down to 10 men. Arsenal, to their credit, made sure they couldn’t succumb to our control we had at the time. They kept their shape and stayed compact.

“We tried to make the most of the numerical advantage and we don’t think that we did that, which is why we feel disappointed.

“We had to make sure we went forward without getting caught out at the back. Our lads did well. Arsenal are very well organised but so are we.

“There’s no question we weren’t trying to win. This is Liverpool and we try to win every game.

“Great credit must be given to Arsenal for the way they responded to going a man down. But credit must also go to our lads who came from behind and made sure that we got a point out of the game,” Lee added.

The result means Chelsea can leapfrog Liverpool and go a point clear at the top of the table at Christmas with victory at Everton this evening.

A convalescing Benitez watched the game on television at his Wirral home, and kept in constant contact with the dugout through the mobile phone of goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero.

And Lee added: “Rafa was in contact throughout the game, so he’ll have run up quite a big phone bill! The way technology is these days, there was never going to be a problem staying in touch.

“He was in contact before and during the game. It’s a great testament to his professionalism. He has been in a lot of pain. I hope he can settle down now and get himself ready 100% for the games over the Christmas.

“He said he was pleased for the boys, and was very, very positive. He realised what a good point it was because we consider Arsenal to be a very, very good footballing team.”

Keane’s goal was only his third league strike of the campaign, and came just a week after contentiously being kept on the bench as Liverpool laboured to a 2-2 draw at home to Hull City.

And Lee said: “Goals always give you confidence. But Robbie has not been lacking in confidence, and if you saw him today you could see he wasn’t lacking in any confidence.

“We’ve mentioned it before, but when Rafa and ourselves sit down and pick a team, we do so taking into account everything for every single game.

“We are fully aware of the programme ahead of us and we have to use all out players. It’s a long arduous season, a gruelling campaign and we have to make sure we have everybody ready.”

Of Adebayor’s sending-off, Lee said: “I haven’t seen it since. It might be Arsene Wenger’s line but it’s not bad to copy him.

“It was a foul, to be honest. However that was translated is down to the referee.”

Liverpool Fail To Seize Title Initiative

Having already beaten Manchester United and Chelsea this season, a point against Arsenal at the Emirates would usually be viewed as a great result for a Liverpool team going for the league championship.

But when Arsenal went down to 10 men early in the second-half with the score at 1-1, I expected Liverpool to go over the top, create some chances and go for the win.

It didn't happen, though, and the end result was another draw – Liverpool's fourth in five league games. All of the top teams are dropping points at the moment, especially at home, but the simple fact for Liverpool is that they could have been nine or 10 points clear of the pack by now. But they failed to beat any of Fulham, West Ham or Hull at Anfield, teams you would have expected them to put away.

If Chelsea fail to win at Everton tonight, then Liverpool will spend Christmas at the top of the Premier League. On that basis alone, you would have to admit that the half-term report would say they have done brilliantly, but they have more to do to show that they will ultimately be genuine title contenders.

They could have made a real statement by putting more points on the board. Let's be fair, they aren't the only club to fall into that category because the title race would have been over by now had Chelsea not dropped so many points at Stamford Bridge.

But the real winners with the way things stand at the moment are Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

They went to the Club World Cup in Japan last week with the prospect of being some distance behind the leaders on their return to England.

They now lie seven points behind Liverpool, but with two games in hand. Sir Alex would have worried that, with United's schedule and slow start to the season, there would have been no way back by now. His big bonus, though, is that they could be right back in it after Christmas.

Liverpool are obviously missing the goals of Fernando Torres at the moment, but the baffling thing for many people, myself included, is the Robbie Keane situation.

Against Hull last week, Rafa Benitez chose to keep Keane, a £20 million striker, on the bench as his team attempted to get a winning goal. Keane scored a wonder goal against Arsenal, but was then taken off instead of being given the full 90 minutes to make something happen.

That's 16 times now that he has been taken off this season. Rafa can point to the fact that he has started 19 times, but if a centre-forward is judged on his goals, he needs to be on the pitch to get them.

There has been talk of Emile Heskey returning to Liverpool from Wigan in January. Heskey is a great player, but I'm not convinced that he is the answer. If he is, then why was he sold in the first place?

The perfect answer would be Didier Drogba, but I'm not sure iverpool would be able to get him from Chelsea. Liverpool do lack height, though, and the one thing that Drogba offers is the knowledge that, whatever is hit down the middle, he will get a head to it.

Liverpool can play it out wide and also use the pace of Torres through the middle, but teams need variation and height is the one thing they don't quite have at the moment.

Because of the way Rafa wants his team to play, Liverpool are cautious and they don't really go after teams, so the fans have had to be educated into understanding the style of play.

People will accept it when you are top of the league, but that won't be the case when you are struggling.

The league title is the thing that matters most to Liverpool supporters, however, and everybody on the red half of Merseyside wants to see the team where they are right now.

Winning the title has never been easy, though. When you are top, the pressure to perform never goes away, but if Liverpool think the pressure is on now, just wait until March and April because they can multiply it by 100 then.

Once you get the Champions League games and league fixtures coming at you thick and fast, it becomes much more difficult.

But Liverpool are top of the league right now and they have at least given themselves their best chance of finishing up as champions for the first time since 1990.

Arbeloa Reacted Like I’d ‘Put A Knife In Him’ – Adebayor

Angry Emmanuel Adebayor has accused Alvaro Arbeloa of acting as though the Arsenal man “had put a knife in him” following a stormy encounter at the Emirates.

Adebayor was sent off for a second bookable offence on 63 minutes of the 1-1 draw after clashing with Liverpool defender Arbeloa.

The Arsenal striker had already been cautioned during the first half for a foul on Emiliano Insua when he challenged strongly on Arbeloa. And an unhappy Adebayor believes the Spain international’s reaction influenced referee Howard Webb into sending him off.

“The defender threw himself on the floor as if I had put a knife in him, “said the forward. “Of course I am annoyed. We are all here to play and if you win or lose then you want to do it with 11 players on the pitch.

“I cannot say the defender cheated but what he did was not fair play at all.”

Adebayor accepted the tackle was a foul but added: “I hope when the referee gets home and watches it on the television, he will see it was a foul but I did not deserve a card. I was at risk from him. The referee said it was for the leg but if you don’t put your body in there then I would never score a goal in this league.

“We have to protect the ball which is normal and that’s what I tried to do.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was similarly angered by the decision to dismiss Adebayor.

“It was a very soft sending-off,” said Wenger. “Whenever we play away from home, we’re told that teams will get in our face and that we are up against it and we just have to deal with it. It’s a joke. I don’t think either of the bookings were justified. It is unbelievable. If he sends Adebayor off then he has to send Keane off earlier on.

“Ask Arbeloa what he did to him. They know he didn’t touch him.”

Wenger added sarcastically: “I have seen Arbeloa after the game and he has a blue face everywhere.”

Despite still being eight points behind leaders Liverpool, Wenger believes his team can still win the title because the Anfield outfit will drop “a lot of points” between now and the end of the season.

“The title is won in May and it’s only December,” said the Frenchman. “Mathematically we will fight until the very end. I believe that Liverpool will drop many points, I am convinced of that. Liverpool have already dropped lots of points, four draws at home, that’s eight points. Why should they not drop eight points again in the second half of the season?”

Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee, deputising for the absent Rafael Benitez, also believes Arsenal remain championship contenders.

“We haven’t knocked Arsenal out the title race,” he said. “I don’t know anything that has been won and lost in December. Arsenal are a great football team and have great quality throughout and it would be remiss of me to say they are out of the title race.”

As well as seeing Adebayor dismissed, Wenger revealed Cesc Fabregas was forced off at half-time with a medial knee ligament problem following a tackle by fellow Spaniard Xabi Alonso, that could sideline the midfielder for several weeks.

And of the game, Wenger added: “We had a nervy start and we weren’t in control enough. In the second half we played higher up and you could see we got much more control of the game, we could have won the game.

“It’s very disappointing. We had great spirit and great strength and great commitment. I’m not happy with the defending for their goal.”

Robbie Keane Was 'Superb' For Liverpool - Lee

Little Sam has heaped praise upon the Reds' struggling striker after his encouraging showing against the Gunners at the weekend.

Robbie Keane went some way toward silencing his critics on Sunday as he struck Liverpool's leveller against Arsenal in a frenetic encounter at the Emirates.

The Irishman has been under the pump lately. A lack of goals and playing time has led to rumours of a swift return to Tottenham Hotspur, the club he left in a £20 million deal only last summer.

But the 28-year-old's thumping half-volley into the roof of Manuel Almunia's net reminded everyone of the brilliant, instinctive finisher who scored over 100 goals in six seasons at White Hart Lane.

Rafa Benitez's right-hand man, Sammy Lee, was thrilled with Keane's showing, which was especially impressive given he was again played out of position as a lone striker in Fernando Torres' absence.

"Goals always give you confidence but Robbie Keane has not been lacking confidence. He looked superb today," Lee told the press.

Nevertheless, there are doubts as to how central a figure the former Inter Milan striker will be once Torres returns to action. Benitez seems to prefer Steven Gerrard playing behind the front-man, for the most part, rather than using a traditional strike-pairing.

But Lee hinted that Keane should be given plenty of opportunities as the season progresses: "We know the program we have ahead of us and some players will play some games, and some will play in other games."

Sammy Lee: Arsenal Ain't Out Of The Race

The Reds' stand-in gaffer has dismissed the notion that last night's draw at the Emirates has eliminated the Gunners from title contention.

Robin van Persie and Robbie Keane each struck in the first half to give Arsenal and Liverpool a share of the spoils in a heated affair at Ashburton Grove.

It was billed as a do-or-die clash for the Londoners, with pundits all across the country declaring that anything but victory would shatter their hopes of claiming a fourth Premier League crown.

But Sammy Lee, who deputised for the unfit Rafael Benitez as Reds boss, has warned that Arsene Wenger's men are not done with yet.

"I don’t think we have knocked Arsenal out of the title race," Lee, who won three league titles during his playing days at Anfield, told the press.

"They have great quality throughout and would not want to say that. I have too much respect for Arsenal as a club to say that."

Gunners boss Wenger criticised Liverpool's less-than-ambitious approach during the second half, particularly after Emmanuel Adebayor was controversially sent off.

Lee admitted that his charges were upset at not claiming all three points, and he insisted that they never stopped playing for the win.

"There are all kinds of cliches about a game like that but you would have settled for the draw before the game," he said.

"But the players are disappointed. To come to a place like Arsenal and draw is a good result.

"Being Liverpool we always go out to try and win the game and so we are disappointed — especially when against 10 men — but you have to give a load of credit to Arsenal."

Christmas Shopping: Who Should Liverpool Buy?

Many hope for Christmas to come early, but in football it comes a little late. What should Liverpool do in the January transfer window?

Liverpool have enjoyed their best start to a season in many a year. They currently sit top of the Premier League table, leading Chelsea by a point, and are eagerly awaiting a Champions League last 16 showdown with Real Madrid. Nevertheless, there are queries aplenty as to whether the most drought-stricken of England’s 'Big Four' can sustain their push for a first EPL title – and, most of all, whether they boast the required quality of personnel to hold off their rivals.

While Liverpool have failed to mount anything resembling a title challenge in recent memory, little of the blame can be laid at their defenders’ feet. Pepe Reina picked up his third consecutive Golden Glove award last season and is well in the running for number four; Jamie Carragher, despite his recent blooper against Hull City, still marshals his back-line with aplomb; Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel are two of the most promising centre-halves in Europe, while the Reds could not ask for better cover than Finnish legend Sami Hyypia.

There is some uncertainty over Agger’s future, however. The Danish defender has been targeted by a number of clubs, including Real Madrid and AC Milan, since the summer, and it was thought he could scoot off after losing his starting spot earlier this season. Furthermore, delays over a new contract have kept alive the Rossoneri’s hopes of landing the talented 23-year-old. But Skrtel’s long-term injury has seen Agger settle into the first team once more, and it is most unlikely that manager Rafael Benitez would let the player leave at this point in time.

The core of the Kop rearguard is solid and sorted, but the same cannot be said for the wide areas. Alvaro Arbeloa has been consistent at right-back, but in truth the Spaniard has had to deal with absolutely no competition for his place since Steve Finnan left for Espanyol during the summer. Philipp Degen has been injured much of the time after joining from Borussia Dortmund on a free transfer in the off-season, and expectations were relatively low anyway, after his indifferent spell in Germany.

Much more disappointing has been Andrea Dossena. There was a bit of buzz surrounding the Italian international when he completed a €9 million move from Udinese, where he had established himself as an aggressive, attacking wing-back of considerable quality. But the 27-year-old has made no impact whatsoever in England, and he is being heavily tipped for an immediate return to Serie A. Whether that eventuates remains to be seen, but Rafa is known for his ruthlessness where flops are concerned (ask Mark Gonzales, Jan Kromkamp and Josemi, to name but a few).

As for fresh faces, England wing-back Glen Johnson is thought to have caught the Kop’s interest with his excellent form for Portsmouth; he could provide a more attacking alternative to Arbeloa. Perhaps the left flank is of more concern, but Benitez may opt to entrust Argentine youngster Emiliano Insua with the job of covering the injury-prone Fabio Aurelio. However, Real Madrid’s Gabriel Heinze has been mentioned in the press this month.

In the centre of the park, few teams in Europe boast the sort of talents Liverpool possess. Uncertainty over Xabi Alonso’s future has died down - rumours concerning Arsenal, Juventus and Gareth Barry linger, but have yet to regain their former momentum - and the Basque playmaker is quite possibly the Premier League’s form midfielder this season. Javier Mascherano continues to cement his reputation as one of the world’s best holding players, while Steven Gerrard’s importance goes without saying.

There have been some grumblings about young Lucas Leiva, though, as the Brazilian is yet to deliver on the huge promise he showed while at Gremio. Boss Benitez has faith in the former Bola de Ouro winner, but even that hasn’t completely quelled rumours of a potential sale. Manchester City’s Michael Johnson has been put forth as a possible replacement, albeit very tentatively.

However, the bulk of the focus is again on the Merseysiders’ flanks. While Albert Riera has settled well since joining from Espanyol in the summer, and Dirk Kuyt has been as indefatigable as ever in his new role on the right, the rest of Anfield’s wide-men could be on their way. Yossi Benayoun has made it clear that he will leave the club if his first-team prospects don’t improve, but the Israeli should stick around until season’s end. Ryan Babel is similarly frustrated, and the Dutch forward recently confessed that he attempted to wangle a loan return to Ajax only to be thwarted by Benitez & co.

Then there is Jermaine Pennant. The English winger has plummeted down the pecking order at Liverpool, so much so that he finds himself behind even Moroccan reserve Nabil El Zhar. The 25-year-old knocked back moves to Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers during the summer, but now he seems certain to leave Liverpool sooner or later.

Tottenham Hotspur have registered an interest in Pennant – Spurs boss Harry Redknapp tried to take him to Portsmouth in the last transfer window – and it is thought a swap-deal involving Aaron Lennon has been put on the table. The Reds have been repeatedly linked with the 21-year-old over the last couple of years, and his ability to tear up either wing with his pace and guile could give them an extra edge going forward.

Less than six months into his Liverpool adventure, Robbie Keane could be headed for the scrapheap. So much was expected of the Irishman when he joined from Spurs; his record at White Hart Lane was impeccable, after all, particularly during his last two seasons there. But his nervy performances have failed to justify his €20 million price tag, and already rumours have sprung up of a return to North London – even though Premier League law rules out that possibility. The ex-Inter man should be given until at least the end of the campaign to turn things around, but Benitez may nevertheless draft in another striker next month.

Fernando Torres’ hamstring trouble has exposed the somewhat one-dimensional nature of the Reds’ attack, as they have struggled since his latest setback. Keane and Kuyt have been rotated through the centre-forward slot in El Nino’s absence but neither have found any great consistency, although Dutchman Dirk has had some good moments. French youngster David N’Gog has earned mixed reviews when given a chance, while Babel remains curiously under-used up top.

So a new body may be required, and that could mean a surprise return to Merseyside for Emile Heskey. The Wigan Athletic targetman spent over four seasons with Liverpool before his ignominious departure in 2004, and he is back in fashion after a string of scintillating showings for Fabio Capello’s England. The 31-year-old’s contract expires at the end of the season, and Benitez is thought to fancy him as an ideal back-up for Torres, who is reportedly in Man City’s sights.

Heskey is not the only ex-Red on Rafa’s radar, though, as Michael Owen could finally return to Anfield after leaving for Real Madrid four years ago. The 29-year-old is embroiled in a contract dispute at Newcastle United, and Liverpool are one of several clubs eager to make use of his inimitable goalscoring talents.

While much of the transfer gossip has centred on the playing squad, there are also a few questions concerning the manager's position. Benitez is yet to finalise the contract extension he was promised last season, as the club's American owners have been as hesitant to sit down at the negotiating table as to free up transfer funds. But recent reports indicate that a new deal has been agreed and needs only to be inked, meaning Juve and all other suitors should start looking elsewhere.