Saturday, December 27, 2008

Match Report: LiverpooL 3 - 0 Bolton Wanderers

Liverpool went back to the top of the Barclays Premier League with a comprehensive victory over Bolton at Anfield.

Chelsea's victory earlier in the day put the London side in pole position until Robbie Keane's double and a goal from Albert Riera ensured the Reds went back to the head of the pack.

The win meant Liverpool have completed all of 2008 unbeaten at home in the league.

Missing Alvaro Arbeloa with a hamstring injury, manager Rafael Benitez re-jigged his back line, moving Jamie Carragher to right-back with Sami Hyypia slotting into the centre of defence.

Liverpool also restored Yossi Benayoun to midfield at the expense of Lucas, who was joined on the bench by fit-again Javier Mascherano, now recovered from an illness which meant he missed last weekend's game against Arsenal.

In-form Bolton - who have won three of their last five games - made one change from the side that beat Portsmouth last weekend, bringing in battling midfielder Fabrice Muamba for Kevin Davies, who was on the bench.

Benitez today sat in the directors' box after missing the game at the Emirates Stadium while recovering at home from a kidney stone operation. And he looked to have second-guessed Bolton boss Gary Megson.

In Liverpool's win at the Reebok earlier in the season, Steven Gerrard was man-marked by Muamba.

But Gerrard was playing much deeper in an orthodox 4-4-2, away from the attentions of Muamba.

Bolton had the first chance when Kevin Nolan almost chipped Jose Reina in the opening minute, but Liverpool were soon having plenty of possession, with Riera and Hyypia both going close.

Then youngster Emiliano Insua forced a fine save from Jussi Jaaskelainen with a low drive from the edge of the box.

Riera opened the scoring when he poked in a Gerrard corner after 26 minutes.

Trailing by that single goal at half time, Bolton sent on Davies for Jlloyd Samuel and Gretar Steinsson was cautioned within a minute of the break for a foul on Xabi Alonso.

The defender then flattened Riera seconds later, and referee Alan Wiley dished out a long lecture.

But all Megson's half-time words were wasted after 53 minutes when Keane grabbed the second. Gerrard fed a fine pass into his stride and the Irishman moved on to score past Jaaskelainen.

Agger was booked for a foul on Johan Elmander after 57 minutes, and 60 seconds later Keane hit his second and Liverpool's third.

Alonso broke from his own half, fed Benayoun on the right, with the wide man playing the ball straight into Keane's path to sidefoot home.

Bolton sent on Mustapha Riga and Ebi Smolarek for Matthew Taylor and Elmander after 66 minutes.

Liverpool were able to make a number of changes thanks to their comfortable lead - Riera, Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt all taken off with Sunday's trip to Newcastle in mind.

Why Liverpool Never Doubted Robbie Keane

Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee insists the club have never had any doubts over the qualities of £20milliion striker Robbie Keane.

The Republic of Ireland international scored twice in the 3-0 destruction of Bolton today, adding to the stunning equaliser he netted at Arsenal last weekend.

Those goals have wiped away the doubts and criticism of the 28-year-old, who now has seven goals for the season.

After Albert Riera had put Liverpool on the way to victory, it was Keane’s clinical finishing which meant there was no doubt they would stay top of the Barclays Premier League.

Lee, still standing in for boss Rafael Benitez, who was in the directors’ box after recovering from a kidney stones operation, was full of praise for Keane.

He said: “Robbie Keane scored twice, that’s terrific, but I just like seeing any Liverpool player scoring goals.

“Keane, Kuyt, Hyypia, I don’t mind, just as long as they are Liverpool goals.

“We don’t feel that Robbie has been out of form, despite what people keep saying.

“He has been working hard, tirelessly for the team, and that is the measure of the lad that he has kept on going.

“People have said things about him, but we know why we brought him to the club and we have had no problems at all with him, whatsoever.

“I do not feel he has ever lacked confidence here, he has kept going and done well.

“We have had no doubts in Robbie’s ability or his work-rate, and what he adds to this club is immense.

“We know the quality of the boy, we know what he is capable of and what he is doing for us and what he adds to the club. There is no problem with him here.”

Bolton boss Gary Megson saw, in his words, his team “cut apart like a knife through butter”.

Bolton had won three of their previous five league games, but were never in with a shout at Anfield.

Megson said: “That was a very disappointing result. We had set out to keep things tight early on, and hoped to catch them on the break.

“But we only troubled them in the opening few minutes. I was concerned by the manner of the goals we conceded.

“One came straight from one of our own corners, it went from their ’keeper to the back of our net in about six seconds. To concede a goal like that is not acceptable at this level.

“We set up to flood midfield with players, but changed that system when it clearly wasn’t working.

“But we did not want to play 4-4-2 at Anfield, because Liverpool go through you like a knife through butter when you do that.

“And that is what happened a few times in the second half when we did try to push more men forward.”

Rafa Given Large Grin And Tonic

Forget a spoonful of sugar – it was a bucketful of chances that helped the medicine go down for Rafa Benitez yesterday.

And it was just what the doctor ordered for the Liverpool manager when he returned to Anfield following a kidney stones operation.

Medics had told him to keep calm and he obeyed their instructions to the letter, resisting the urge to patrol his customary technical area.

Instead, after missing last week’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal, he sat back to watch the action in the relative comfort zone of the front row in the directors’ box.

And the sight he witnessed must have gladdened his heart with his side dominating their near-neighbours throughout in a match where the home team could – and should – have won by an even more convincing margin.

But win they did, leaving Benitez smiling as his team enters the second half of the campaign on top of the Premier League pile.

And the hopes of Kopites everywhere that Liverpool could be on course for their first title triumph since way back in 1990 are at last looking to have some foundation.

Bolton, on the other hand, never looked to be at the races in a game that Liverpool dominated throughout.

True, they did try harder in the second half – no doubt following an interval rollicking from manager Gary Megson – but it was all too little, too late.

And the scoreline could have been bigger if Liverpool had converted more of their chances and had Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen not pulled off late stops from Yossi Benayoun and substitute David Ngog.

It was striker Robbie Keane who made Rafa’s Anfield return much less of a worry with two goals that gave the clear impression that he is rediscovering his ability to beat keepers.

Keane followed up his goal against Arsenal last week by rifling in another in the 53rd minute.

He was the recipient of an inch-perfect through pass from his skipper Steven Gerrard – and the rest was simplicity itself.

The Irishman took a few paces forward before clipping a left-foot shot between Jaaskelainen and the post.

Five minutes later it was Keane again who put Liverpool further ahead after gratefully accepting a pass from Benayoun inside the penalty box.

This time he used his right foot to steer the ball home and put the game beyond any doubt with his fifth league goal of the season. Albert Riera had earlier set the Reds on their way when he pounced brilliantly in the 26th minute to turn Liverpool’s ninth corner of the game into a goal.

And the Spaniard did it, too, after moving over to the right wing from his customary position on the left flank!

He caught Johan Elmander ball-watching and breezed across him to prod the ball past Jaaskelainen from two yards out for his third goal of the season.

It was just reward for the Merseysiders who had spent the previous 25 minutes huffing and puffing but failing to blow the visiting defence down.

Riera had earlier given a warning of things to come, firing one particularly fierce low shot at goal from just inside the penalty area after 11 minutes in their first real breakthrough after non-stop attacking from the kick-off.

Then, after Benayoun had rolled the ball into the path of Dirk Kuyt 20 yards out from goal, the Dutchman failed to connect cleanly and what looked like being a great goalscoring chance evaporated.

Benayoun, restored to the first team at the expense of Leiva Lucas, really did look sharp and certainly keen to prove a point.

His right wing runs invariably ended up with a cross that so frequently posed problems to a Bolton defence that was regularly on the ropes. Emiliano Insua even moved upfield from his left-back slot to fire in a powerful shot which caused all kinds of problems.

And that was generally the theme of the game with Liverpool attacking at will and Bolton dropping back in numbers to defend.

Even the second-half introduction of striker Kevin Davies failed to give Bolton the kind of lift they so desperately wanted up front.

But for Liverpool in general, and Benitez in particular, it was just the kind of pre-New Year pick-me-up they needed.

Liverpool FC's Nabil El Zhar Is A Lucky Charm

He may be regarded as something of a lucky charm by supporters, but Nabil El Zhar is determined to make a more substantial contribution to Liverpool’s championship challenge.

The 22-year-old Morocco international gained his reputation after a succession of substitute appearances earlier in the season coincided with some notable late revivals from Rafael Benitez’s side.

Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Standard Liege and Wigan Athletic were all only beaten once El Zhar was thrown on from the bench to add devilment and the element of surprise to the Liverpool attack.

His cameo performances were enough to impress Benitez and he has since become a regular feature in the matchday squad.

Another substitute appearance earlier this month at Blackburn Rovers helped turn what was a frustrating goalless stalemate into a comprehensive 3-1 success.

El Zhar was handed his biggest assignment yet at Arsenal last Sunday, and almost snatched all three points with a header that flashed narrowly off target in the final minute.

“It’s not easy to come to Arsenal and win but I think we played a decent game,” he says. “I had a good chance at the end, but it was a good performance. It’s good to be at the top at the moment.

“I feel as though I am more at home at the club now. I’ve been gaining more confidence by coming on more, and now I just have to keep on going, work hard and try and get more games under my belt.”

El Zhar was signed from French side St Etienne in October 2006, and announced his arrival on the Anfield stage a year later when scoring a blistering 25-yard thunderbolt into the Kop end on his full debut in the Carling Cup win over Cardiff City.

The winger was a key member of the title-winning reserve team last season and has broken into the full Morocco team, again scoring on his debut against Belgium.

Despite the vote of confidence from Benitez this season, El Zhar has yet to start a Premier League game for Liverpool.

And the youngster acknowledges that represents the next step in his development.

“The manager has said to me that he wanted to give me more chances in the first-team this season,” says El Zhar. “He told me that I had to work hard and listen to advice and take my opportunities when they come.

“He hasn’t said anything in particular to me. I just know what I have to do, stay focused and take my chance.

“I feel that I’m doing okay, but I know I can do better. I am getting more confident and I am improving with every game, then we will see if I can start games.”

El Zhar arrived at the club having impressed as a support striker but, having been employed on both flanks with Gary Ablett’s reserve side, has fashioned a role as a wing man for Benitez.

“I used to play as a second striker but I’ve played on the left and right hand side at Liverpool,” he says. “I think I’m better down the right because I am right footed, but I will play anywhere in the forward line.

“I hope to play more games this season and prove myself. When you are playing with world class players like Steven Gerrard you can only improve.”

The 1-1 draw at Arsenal and Chelsea’s failure to win at Everton the following day meant that Liverpool were top at Christmas for the first time since 1996.

And while El Zhar reckons Benitez’s side have shown they have the quality and determination to remain ahead of the pack, he accepts the Anfield outfit must stop dropping points at home.

“I’ve no doubt that we can keep going on at the top of the league,” he says. “Liverpool are a top team, and we all know that we have to work hard. The whole squad knows that they have to be playing well and working hard to get into the team and stay there.

“By beating United and Chelsea, and the draw at Arsenal, we’ve shown that we can do well against the other top teams. But we’re going to have to start winning more games at home if we want to remain contenders for the title.

“There’s a long way to go, so we have to stay focused and try to stay at the top. As a professional you have to keep your focus for every game, and now we’re just thinking about the Newcastle game.”

And Lee says: “There are never any easy games in the Premier League. People talk about our home form, but there are opposing teams who are organised and prepared.

“We just have to make sure we are better prepared and better organised and we can impose our game plan on them.

“We are all working extremely hard to maintain where we are at the moment.”

Lee adds: “Everyone else is talking about winning the league. For me, we just have to talk about winning the next game.

“Whenever I have been involved here the mentality has been a winning one and it is all about togetherness.

“We feel being top at Christmas is an achievement, but we won’t blow our own trumpet. We are always optimistic and our aim is to win things and be at the top.

“I don’t want to sound conceited about that, but we are in a position where we expect to be in.”

Liverpool Target Emile Heskey In £4m Deal

Liverpool are to make a £4 million bid to bring Wigan striker Emile Heskey back to the club.

Heskey has been linked with a host of Premier League clubs in the January transfer window, with Tottenham also known to be keen admirers of the 30-year-old England international.

However, should Heskey press for a move from the JJB, Liverpool is thought to be his prefered destination.

Manager Rafa Benitez is desperate for forward reinforcements to cover Fernando Torres, who is developing a history of hamstring problems.

Heskey's contract at Wigan expires at the end of the season, allowing him to move on a free transfer, and as such Wigan manager Steve Bruce is likely to cash in rather than see the striker leave for nothing.

Bruce will not permit Heskey, who spent four years at Liverpool before exiting in 2004, go on the cheap, but a £4m offer would be tempting, and help make Amr Zaki's loan move from El Zamalek permanent.

Liverpool currently sit top of the Premier League table by one point from Chelsea.

They are unbeaten at Anfield this campaign. However, they have recorded only five home wins, with four draws, and midfielder Javier Mascherano has called on his team-mates to ensure they consistently pick up three points at Anfield.

He told the Sun: "We have to win at home because we need to get the confidence of the team back.

"We have had many good performances away from home and we need to try and reproduce that at Anfield.

"We can't use how teams play at Anfield as an excuse. We know a lot of sides come to defend but we need to find spaces and a way we can beat them."

Lucas Leiva: Liverpool Are Slipping Into Top Gear

The last time Liverpool faced Bolton Wanderers, Lucas Leiva was given just a six minute run out towards the end of a convincing 2-0 win for the Reds.

That victory came just over a month ago at the Reebok and though Lucas would settle for the same when the two sides meet again at Anfield today, he is hoping that his recent upsurge in form will be rewarded with a little more time on the pitch.

“I can remember that game well because Dirk Kuyt and Stevie Gerrard both scored good headers,” he recalled.

“Then, when I came on I had a chance to make it 3-0 but I was not able to take it but I was still happy with the result and with the three points that we won - even though I was a bit disappointed that I had not been able to score.

“The result was the most important thing and if we got the same result today I think we would all be happy.”

A lot has happened to Lucas since the last meeting between Liverpool and Bolton, some of it best forgotten and some of it providing much happier memories for the Brazilian.

In the league game that followed Liverpool’s most recent victory over Gary Megson’s side, the Reds faced Fulham at Anfield and in a disappointing draw sections of the home crowd made it quite clear that they were not happy that Rafa Benitez had selected the 21-year-old central midfielder ahead of Xabi Alonso.

If that was a low point for Lucas, his recent performances have provided much more promise with a man of the match display at PSV and a more than decent game in Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal on Sunday being the highlights.

He does not wish to dwell on the bad times though, preferring to look ahead to what he hopes will be even better days in a red shirt.

“I have had some bad times, especially after the game against Fulham,” he admitted.

“But I am trying to improve with every game and even though I thought I made some mistakes against Arsenal I thought that I did okay.

“Hopefully I will be able to show my quality because I want to have a role at this club, especially at a time when we are all fighting so hard to stay at the top of the league.”

On paper, Liverpool’s draw at the Emirates is far from being a bad result, especially as Arsenal had already tasted victory against Man United and Chelsea.

But the way the game panned out, with the Gunners being reduced to ten men and Liverpool being territorially dominant for long passages of play, there is a sense of disappointment they were unable to take all three points.

Lucas readily admits this is the case but knows full well the Anfield outfit cannot afford to take any negative vibes into their latest League game.

“We are disappointed that we did not manage to get all three points against Arsenal because we went there to win,” he said.

“But now we must only think of the next game and focus on Bolton because we cannot change anything.

“Bolton are playing well at the moment andhave had some good results so we know they will be difficult opponents but we are playing at Anfield in front of our fans so will be looking to win.

“This is the first of two games over a few days and if we can take all three points in this one it will give us more confidence when we go to Newcastle on Sunday.

“Like every game, there were positives and negatives about our performance against Arsenal.

“We have to learn from the things that we got wrong and improve on the things that we could have done better but we can also take confidence from what we got right.

“We scored a really good goal and created some other chances while Pepe Reina was not given that much to do so the job we did must have been a good one even if we feel it could still have been better.”

Anyone who was at the Reebok on November 15th would have been stunned had they been told following Liverpool’s comfortable win that the Reds would take just seven points from their next five matches, particularly with fixtures that included home games against Fulham, West Ham and Hull.

But that is exactly what has happened as Rafa Benitez’s men have stumbled, at home especially, with vital points being dropped.

Looking at the season so far as a whole, though, gives Lucas belief that Liverpool have fully earned their right to be there or thereabouts at the top of the league and that they are there on merit.

“We have shown quality,” he said. “You cannot be towards the top of the league having played so many games unless you have done this.

“After 18 games we have lost only once and this proves that we are difficult to beat.

“We would have liked to have won more games and got even more points but we cannot be too disappointed because we are competing at the top of the table and that is where we want to be.

“Obviously, Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and now Aston Villa are all up there with us but we have to be confident in our chances and believe in ourselves.”

If they are to continue to fight it out at the top, Liverpool’s recent home form must improve dramatically and Lucas is hoping that the testing Christmas period will get off to the best possible start with a win over Bolton.

He said: “Having just one day to recover between games is not ideal but it is a tradition in this country and I know that it is something that the fans enjoy.

“All we can do now is focus on Bolton then think about Newcastle once that is out of the way.

“We have drawn our last three games at home against Fulham, West Ham and Hull so we know that we need to get back to winning ways at home.

“But Bolton will come to Anfield and try to make things difficult for us so we must be ready for them and do everything we can to get the three points.

“We are waiting for a win at home because Anfield is such a special place for everyone at Liverpool – the fans, the coaching staff and the players.

“We know it will help our chances of staying at the top if we make Anfield an even more difficult place for teams. That is what we will be trying to do.”

Liverpool Winger Pennant Eager To Revive His Real Madrid Deal

The surprise transfer of Jermaine Pennant to Real Madrid could be resurrected today when Juande Ramos meets the Spanish champions’ money men to insist he still wants the deal to go ahead.

Pennant, 26, has expressed a desire to join the Spanish club rather than become a free agent at the end of the season, and believes he can force himself into the starting line-up, alongside some of the biggest names in European football.

Sportsmail revealed how Real had agreed to pay Liverpool £3.5million for the former Arsenal winger.

A Madrid source confirmed: ‘Pennant interests our coach because he is quick and can provide crosses. He’s the type we’re looking for — and at the right price. If terms can be agreed, there’s a chance a transfer may happen in January.’

The deal appeared to have collapsed because Madrid insist on a non-negotiable salary of around £30,000 a week. But sources close to Pennant last night stressed he has not priced himself out of any transfer.

‘Jermaine has not made outrageous demands,’ said a friend. ‘It is wrong to say this — he is a player with much to offer and is keen to see what’s available.’

Pennant’s agent Sky Andrew is due for initial talks with Real, if Ramos can convince the club to pay the fee and salary package.

Figures of £60,000 a week given to the club relating to Pennant’s wage demands did not come from Andrew, who remains confident his negotiating skills mean a deal is still possible.

Pennant has only started two Barclays Premier League matches for Liverpool this season and a loan transfer to Stoke or Wigan is also an option.

Wigan winger Antonio Valencia remains a target for Madrid, but the asking price of at least £15m is beyond the budget of the Spanish giants, who recently captured Lassana Diarra from Portsmouth.

Liverpool FC Get Flight To Madrid

Airline Ryanair has announced a one-off return flight to Madrid for Liverpool FC fans travelling to the Spanish capital.

Usually, the route is available only in the summer, but the airline has bowed to popular demand.

Large numbers have called the Ryanair telephone lines inquiring about flights to Madrid for the Reds Champions League away match on February 25.

The special flight will depart Liverpool at 9am on February 25 and return from Madrid on February 26 at 1pm.

Seats are strictly limited, and fans are advised to visit the airline’s website as soon as possible with fares starting at £120.

Ryanair’s Stephen McNamara said: “We will operate a special Champions League flight to ensure that Liverpool are well supported and help fans get to the match and back safely.”