Sunday, December 28, 2008

Match Preview: Newcastle United vs. LiverpooL

Liverpool and Newcastle United will face-off this weekend in their final fixture of 2008. While the away side are sitting pretty at the top of the Barclays Premier League table, their hosts are in decent, if not dazzling, touch themselves.

When Joe Kinnear took the reins at Newcastle in September, it appeared they were headed for an embarrassing relegation battle. In the period between Kevin Keegan’s controversial departure and the arrival of his interim successor, the Toon had sunk well into the drop zone. Indeed, only Tottenham Hotspur endured a more disastrous start to the season, when one considers that both sides were aiming for European football at season’s start.

Under Kinnear’s guidance, however, the Magpies have slowly regained confidence to the point where they might actually be called a Premier League-standard club once more. They have ground out results against dangerous and in-form teams – most notably Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge, just over a month ago – and have shown that, despite adopting a more workman-like approach than in previous years, they are still well capable of entertaining the Toon Army.

Newcastle’s Boxing Day defeat to Wigan Athletic was just their second loss in their last nine outings, and they currently sit 12th in the standings. However, they are still just two points above the relegation places, and some seven points shy of a potential UEFA Cup spot. Failure against the league leaders on Sunday could leave them brushing against the bottom three heading into the New Year, and frankly that’s a distinct possibility given both the quality of their opposition and the results of their last few encounters.

Liverpool’s recent record against the sleeping giants of Tyneside reads pretty darn well. Their last visit to St James’ Park culminated in a 3-0 win, but that scoreline doesn’t show just how comprehensively the Merseysiders beat their beleaguered and bedraggled hosts on a day that marked the beginning of the end of Sam Allardyce’s tenure. In all honesty, it could so easily have been 8-0 if Fernando Torres had brought his shooting boots.

And that was when Rafael Benitez’s job was in jeopardy amid a boardroom crisis that threatened to ruin the Anfield club. Now, circling at the summit of the standings, the Kop is rocking as they edge ever closer to what would be their very first Premier League crown, and their first English championship since 1990. They are refusing to get ahead of themselves, though, as the more seasoned Reds have seen more than their fair share of false dawns.

Nevertheless, Liverpool have a golden opportunity to claim pole position heading into 2009. They have been let off the hook by fellow front-runners Chelsea in recent weeks, as draws against Hull City and a 10-man Arsenal went unpunished. But after an impressive return to form against Bolton Wanderers on Friday, they will be pumped up and hoping to round out in style what has been their best start to a campaign in many a moon.


Newcastle United

Nov 29 Middlesbrough 0-0 Newcastle United (Premier League)
Dec 06 Newcastle United 2-2 Stoke City (Premier League)
Dec 14 Portsmouth 0-3 Newcastle United (Premier League)
Dec 21 Newcastle United 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League)
Dec 26 Wigan Athletic 2-1 Newcastle United (Premier League)


Dec 06 Blackburn Rovers 1-3 Liverpool (Premier League)
Dec 09 PSV Eindhoven 1-3 Liverpool (Champions League)
Dec 13 Hull City 2-2 Liverpool (Premier League)
Dec 21 Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Dec 26 Liverpool 3-0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)


Newcastle United

Jose Enrique injured his calf during the warm-up at Wigan and will sit out. The Spanish defender will be joined on the sidelines by fellow full-back Habib Beye (leg) and Australian striker Mark Viduka (groin).

Sebastien Bassong is suspended, meaning midfielders David Edgar and Charles N’Zogbia are likely to line up at the back.

Newcastle squad: Given, Coloccini, Gutierrez, Butt, Guthrie, N'Zogbia, Duff, Owen, Harper, Taylor, Geremi, Edgar, Xisco, Carroll, Ameobi, LuaLua, Gonzalez.


Alvaro Arbeloa will miss out again due to a hamstring injury, but Javier Mascherano is expected to slot back into midfield after suffering a bout of the flu – the Argentine battler was an unused substitute against Bolton.

The big news, however, is that Torres has been named in the travelling party and could make the bench. The EURO 2008-winning striker has been undergoing extensive treatment for a recurring hamstring problem.

Liverpool squad: Reina, Carragher, Agger, Hyypia, Insua, Alonso, Mascherano, Kuyt, Gerrard, Keane, Cavalieri, Darby, Babel, Benayoun, Lucas, Ngog, El Zhar, Torres.


Michael Owen (Newcastle United)

Even if he wasn’t facing the club with whom he rose to fame as a teenager, there’s no denying that the England exile would draw more attention than anyone else on the home team. He has netted seven times this season, although he will need to put on a fine display if injury-hit Toon are to hold off the table-toppers.

Robbie Keane (Liverpool)

Is the impish Irishman finally finding his feet with the Reds? Keane followed up his superb strike against Arsenal by bagging a Boxing Day brace against Bolton, and it would be far from surprising if he continued that scoring run on his trip to the North East.

Leader Liverpool Halfway To19th English Title

Liverpool is halfway toward ending the 19-year wait for its 19th English title. The Premier League leader just needs to stave off Chelsea and Manchester United for another 19 games.

The Reds began to look like credible champions again Friday by comprehensively beating Bolton 3-0 to end a run of three draws at Anfield that had elicited jeers from the home fans.

Cheers returned as the freezing supporters were warmed by the continued resurgence of offseason recruit Robbie Keane, who's two goals helped put Liverpool in pole position at the season's midpoint for the first time since 1996.

The Ireland striker's double came five days after he secured a point at Arsenal that helped quiet suggestions he would be sold by Liverpool in January after poor form led to him being benched by manager Rafa Benitez.

"It was a convincing win and I was pleased with the manner in which we played, moved the ball quickly and went forward," Keane said after taking his goal tally to seven since joining from Tottenham. "Now it's important we keep going. We've got a tough game against Newcastle. We'll go there with a lot of confidence after this win and hopefully we can come back with the three points.

"Newcastle are a good side and they've been on the up lately."

Liverpool will be hoping Keane maintains his form Sunday at Newcastle as Fernando Torres is still absent with a hamstring injury and Chelsea remains just a point behind in the standings.

"We know that at the halfway stage the hard work's still to come," Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard said. "We're ready for that and we believe we can make significant improvements where they need to be made.

"We know we have to do it all again in the second half of the season and we have to improve against the other teams in the divisions."

While the Reds have been dropping points recently, they have been aided by Chelsea matching their inconsistency. Likewise, Chelsea beat bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion ahead of a two-mile trip across west London to face Fulham.

Striker Didier Drogba is expected to recover despite being removed with a thigh complaint after scoring in the 2-0 victory over West Brom, but Frank Lampard is prepared for a testing encounter against the league's third tightest defense Sunday.

"The fact they are not conceding many has got to be testament to their manager," Lampard said. "Roy Hodgson is very experienced, he has been all over the world, and he has got them organized not to concede but they have got threats up front as well."

Arsenal's fading title aspirations seem far-fetched after throwing away a 2-0 lead in stoppage time to draw at Aston Villa, which has a three-point lead over Arsene Wenger's side in fourth place.

The Gunners must bounce back against Portsmouth to remain ahead of Everton in the UEFA Cup qualification spot.

Everton hosts Sunderland after makeshift striker Tim Cahill scored again at Sunderland to produce a second win in three matches.

Also Sunday, West Brom could close the gap on Tottenham to just two points by upsetting the London club, Mark Hughes returns to Blackburn with a Manchester City side buoyed by thrashing Hull 5-1, Bolton faces Wigan in a Lancashire derby, and Stoke is at West Ham.

Manchester United, which is seven points off the pace with two games in hand, hosts Middlesbrough in Monday's only match. TV schedulers have given Aston Villa and Hull the longest time to recover from Friday's full program of matches by selecting their fixture for Tuesday night.

Rafael Benitez Goes Cool On Idea Of Bringing In Michael Owen To Boost Strike Force

Rafael Benitez maintains that new contracts for himself and his players come before possible January arrivals in his thinking but it appears that any funds that are made available in the new year will not be spent on bringing Michael Owen back to Anfield.

Owen's Newcastle contract expires in the summer, when he will be available on a free transfer, and one area where Benitez clearly needs extra options is attack, an issue that has been brought into sharp focus by Fernando Torres' injury problems.

Benitez now prefers to use Dirk Kuyt on the right flank, while Robbie Keane has struggled for goals and looked uncomfortable at the top of a 4-2-3-1 since arriving for £20.3 million from Tottenham in the summer and French youngster David Ngog is not ready to start in the Premier League on a regular basis.

The Spaniard attempted to sign Owen, who has fallen out of favour with England coach Fabio Capello, when he returned from Real Madrid in the summer of 2005 but was only able to offer around half of the £16 million Newcastle were prepared to pay.

Given his contractual situation, Owen, 28, would be available at a fraction of that fee - possibly even £2 million - but he will have to look elsewhere to kick-start his career as Benitez has no interest in taking him to Liverpool in the new year.

New strikers remain a strong possibility but Andrea Dossena remains determined to prove that Benitez does not need another to bring in another left-back.

That has been an area that Benitez has always struggled to fill and he had hoped that finally dedicating significant money would solve the problem when he paid Udinese £7 million for the Italian Dossena, 27, in the summer.

Dossena, however, has failed to convince and had lost his place to Fabio Aurelio before the Brazilian suffered a hamstring problem in last week's 1-0 Champions League victory over Marseille. But Dossena is adamant he can adapt to the English game and prove a success at Liverpool.

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

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

Torres Confident Of Real Victory

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres is confident his side will overcome Real Madrid in their Champions League last 16 clash.

Torres faced European heartbreak last season as Liverpool were knocked out in the semi-finals by Chelsea.

The Reds are unbeaten in this year's competition but now face a tricky test against the reigning La Liga champions.

However, Torres believes his team will book their place in the quarter-finals.

"We all realise that it is going to be a tough tie against Real Madrid," he wrote on his personal site.

"I don't like talking about a possible favourite, but I am sure that we are going to qualify for the next round."

However, the former Atletico Madrid player admitted he has not had much luck against the Spanish giants previously.

He said: "When I was playing my football in Spain, I used to score a lot against Barcelona, but found it harder when playing versus Real Madrid."

Torres also looked back on a fantastic first season for Liverpool and is hoping for more of the same in the new year.

It has been a mixed start to this campaign for the 24-year-old who has been blighted by injury.

However, Torres will have been buoyed to see his team sitting pretty at the top of the table and the Euro 2008 winner admits that the Premier League remains Liverpool's priority.

"I'm a bit sad to be coming to the end of this year," he wrote.

"The first nine months were unbelievable and at the end, even though I could not play regularly because of injury, there was recognition in the form of awards and nominations, like the PFA's, L'Equipe and being a finalist in the FIFA World Player award.

"I have said before that this has been my best year as a professional footballer.

"I adapted to Liverpool far quicker than expected, and to end the 2007-08 season winning Euro 2008 was a perfect finish.

"I hope that at the end of 2009 we can say the same celebrating another title.

"I hope to avoid injuries and that we win the Premier League title; it is the dream of every 'Red' - fans, coaching staff and players.

"And it would be great to sign off the season lifting the Confederations Cup with Spain in South Africa."

Michael Owen Desperate To Entice Rafael Benitez

For any club after a proven goalscorer, slightly shop-soiled, runs reliably if well-looked after, St James' Park today is the perfect place to pick up a bargain.

With just hours left until the chaos of football's January transfer bazaar, Michael Owen could not have hoped for a better pitch from which to hawk his wares.

On television, he has a captive market to prove why England should remember its forgotten man. No doubt the eagle-eyed scouts and battle-hardened hagglers of a host of Premier League clubs will be in attendance, too.

Manchester City are ready with a £6 million bid. Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal are all in need of added firepower. But the one man Owen would dearly love to entice will likely greet any evidence of his undimmed predatory instincts with fury – visiting Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.

It was Benitez who was forced, against his will, to kowtow to Owen's demand to move to Real Madrid when he first arrived in the summer of 2004. It was Benitez who refused to stump up the £16 million Newcastle offered when, his Spanish adventure failed, Owen returned to England, desperate to join the then-European champions.

Now it is Benitez who offers Owen hope for the future. He has just six months left on his contract at St James's Park. Newcastle will cash in should they receive an offer tempting enough, rather than lose him for nothing but a host of what-ifs in June.

It is thought Owen's representatives will use Liverpool's visit to St James's to try to engineer a meeting with both Benitez and Rick Parry, who controls the comings and goings at Anfield, although already there are those within the Liverpool camp who need no persuading as to Owen's merits.

"Michael Owen is still a terrific goalscorer and he will be a terrible threat to us," said assistant coach Sammy Lee. "He's someone we'll have to keep our eyes on when we play them. We know exactly what qualities Michael Owen has got."

Those qualities may not be enough to ensure the return of the prodigal. Owen's refusal to sign an extension have been interpreted as a stalling tactic to smoke out interest from clubs with better prospects.

The quality of Liverpool's prospects is not in question. The Reds were top of the tree at Christmas for the first time since 1996, arguably the last time they looked anything like title challengers.

But Steven Gerrard, Owen's close friend and no doubt a powerful ally should he want to bend Benitez's ear, knows the hard work is just beginning.

He said: "We know that, at the halfway stage, the hard work is still to come.

"A lot has been said about this Liverpool side in the past, about how we perform against the top sides in the league. Well after three games, and two of those were away from home, we are unbeaten against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

"That should have silenced some of our critics, but we know we have to do it again in the second half of the season. And we know we have to improve against the other teams in the division as well."

The Liverpool line, in the absence of Fernando Torres, will be led by Robbie Keane, finally starting to find his feet, and his shooting boots, after a difficult start to his time at the club he supported as a boy.

He said: "I enjoyed the position I played against Bolton, up front on my own. That's my best position and where I have played for the last 10 years, I enjoy it. But wherever the boss wants me to play, I will do it for the team, that's the most important thing."

Such positivity contrasts starkly with the black mood which has shrouded Newcastle for much of the season.

After a fillip in form which saw Joe Kinnear lead his side to six games unbeaten, defeat at Wigan and an ever-growing injury list have presented the much-maligned caretaker with a headache ahead of today's clash.

He said: "We've got about eight injured, so it's not looking good. We've got to get back on track even though a million and one things went against us in the Wigan game.

"We've been on a great run and we'll pick ourselves up. There's no doubt that whatever team I put out we'll give it our best shot."

Robbie Keane Hails Reds’ Spirit

Two-goal hero Robbie Keane today praised the "outstanding" team effort which helped table toppers Liverpool end their seven week wait for a league win at Anfield.

Having drawn consecutive home games against Fulham, West Ham and Hull, the Reds went into yesterday's clash with Bolton knowing that they needed to take all three points if they were to retain top spot.

After Albert Riera had given them a first half lead, Keane scored a superb second half double as Liverpool recorded their second 3-0 home win of the season.

Despite having produced arguably his finest performance in a red shirt since moving to Anfield in a £20m summer move from Spurs, the Irish striker refused to take the credit, preferring to spread the praise throughout the ranks.

And he also acknowledged the importance of Liverpool getting back to winning ways in front of their own fans.

"It was a good performance by the team from start to finish," he said. "It was important that we took all three points, especially after the last few games at home when we haven't got the results we have been looking for.

"But the best thing about it was that it wasn't just a win, it was a convincing win and it sets us up nicely for the Newcastle game later today."

Keane hailed Riera's opener as the catalyst to Liverpool's dominant display and believes grabbing a goal in the first half made life easier for them in the rest of the game.

With title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea both winning as well, the battle at the top of the Premier League is becoming increasingly fierce, but Keane remains adamant Liverpool should focus only on their own form and no one else's.

"We can't afford to concentrate on what anyone else is doing," he said. "All we can do is focus on our own games and I thought we were outstanding from start to finish against Bolton.

"They've been on a decent run of late but I can't remember them having a shot on goal and that shows how well we did.

"It was important for our confidence.

"We've been drawing games that we should have been winning but sometimes games aren't always as easy as people might think.

"Because of that it was really important that we got the first goal. That helped open Bolton up a bit and from that point on we were attacking them more and more."

Liverpool have no new injury worries ahead of today's game at Newcastle and having watched the victory over Bolton from the directors’ box, Rafa Benitez is hopeful of being back in the dugout.

John Aldridge: I’d Love To See Michael Owen Returning To Anfield

There’s been a lot of speculation about Michael Owen’s future recently and I must admit I would love to see him back at Anfield.

There’s no doubt we need another striker and I think he would be ideal for us.

He’s had a frustrating few years with injury setbacks but we’ve seen recently that he is getting back to his old self.

Owen has been around for years but he’s only just turned 29 and still has a great deal more to offer.

The Reds have done remarkably well to cope without Fernando Torres for so long this season but we are lacking goals.

We’ve missed Peter Crouch and if we had kept hold of him I believe our points tally at this stage of the season would have been better.

When you look at Manchester United’s trio of Tevez, Rooney and Berbatov, they’ve got better striking options than us.

There aren’t enough match-winners in our squad and that’s why we’ve drawn so many home games. Someone of Owen’s calibre would fit the bill and give us another option to Torres and Robbie Keane.

Owen is obviously in no rush to sort out his future and I don’t blame him for that. There’s an offer on the table from Newcastle and he obviously wants to see who else is interested as he is out of contract next summer.

Making a move for him would make sense but unfortunately I don’t believe it will happen.

I think there’s some previous between Owen and Rafa Benitez going back to when he left to join Real Madrid in 2004. But whether it’s Owen or not we need another option up front.

Rafa should get a close look at Owen at St James’ Park tomorrow and we’ve got to be wary of him.

He gets into good areas and has grabbed some real poacher’s goals recently.

He’s got nothing to prove against Liverpool because he did fantastically well for the club but I know the striker is desperate to get his England place back and will want to show Fabio Capello what he’s capable of.

We’ve done really well at St James’ in recent years but Newcastle are a different proposition now compared to a few months back.

Joe Kinnear has given them a bit of belief and the Reds will need to be at their best to get maximum points.

Robbie Keane Happy To Fit In Around Fernando Torres

Robbie Keane’s three fine goals in the last two Liverpool games have swept away the doubts over the Irishman’s qualities.

But the 28-year-old will step out at Newcastle tomorrow aware that Fernando Torres is hovering in the wings.

Torres, who wore all-white furs, hat and scarf in the Anfield directors’ box on Boxing Day to watch the Keane-inspired 3-0 demolition of Bolton, is not far from his comeback from a hamstring injury.

He could even be involved at St James’ Park and, when the Spaniard does return to Liverpool’s title chase, Keane’s problems could start all over again.

Fitting into a system with Torres up front and Keane in a deeper, support role, caused the Irishman immense difficulties earlier in the campaign.

His equaliser at Arsenal and two fine strikes to sink Bolton, have come with Keane in the roving, lone striking role he loves. And that is the position Torres will take up when he is fit again.

For now, Keane is just happy to have started to score regularly, but the fact that only one of his seven this season have come while Torres has been on the pitch, suggests a problem for boss Rafael Benitez when he returns to the dug-out after his kidney stones operation.

That too could be later today on Tyneside, the manager having also watched from the directors’ box on Boxing Day.

Keane diplomatically says: “I enjoyed the position I played against Bolton, up front on my own. That’s my best position and where I have played for the last 10 years, I enjoy it.

“But wherever the boss wants me to play, I will do it for the team, that’s the most important thing.”

Keane at last looked comfortable and confident in his role as Bolton were swept aside, Albert Riera grabbing the first with Keane’s double coming in four blistering second-half minutes.

He said: “I have always said that I know I will score goals, for me it has not been a problem.

“But it was good to see my first one go in. But even before that we had not been playing badly, we’d had them under a lot of pressure.”

Liverpool go into the Newcastle game top at this stage for the first time since 1996, and with a growing belief in their play.

Assistant boss Sammy Lee said: “It is good to still be top, and we hope to still be there going into the new year.

“It will be tough against Newcastle, a very difficult task, but on this form we are looking forward to it.

“What was pleasing was the quality of our play, and the patience we showed in possession.

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

But he warned: “It is only December, nobody should be getting carried away. But being top of the table shows the improvement this season.

“The players have never lacked belief, and we could hear the fans signing about being top, but there is still a long way to go.

“We have got 42 points from 19 games, it is still only half-way, and we must just keep working to get the maximum from every game.

“But the boys are enjoying their football, the desire and commitment has always been there, and we aim to keep it going.”