Thursday, December 31, 2009

Church Praying For Strong Reds

Reading striker Simon Church is hoping Liverpool play their strongest team in this weekend's FA Cup tie at the Madejski Stadium.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez may use the Saturday evening clash to rest some of his star names, but Church is desperate to take on the likes of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

"This type of game is what you want as a player," he told the Royals' official website.

"Hopefully they will have a strong team and personally I would love to play on the same pitch as Torres.

"He is one of the best in the world and it would be an amazing experience to be on the same pitch as him."

Fernando Torres Worth The £25m Liverpool Spent - Jamie Carragher

Fernando Torres struck his 50th League goal in Liverpool colours in the third minute of added time on Tuesday evening, when Rafael Benitez's Reds sealed a much-needed win against top-four rivals Aston Villa.

The swiftness with which Torres accumulated the half ton has impressed team-mate Jamie Carragher, who claimed the Spain international has already paid back the transfer fee that Benitez paid Atletico Madrid in order to secure his services.

"Fernando is a great player, a world-class striker, and to beat people like Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Roger Hunt to 50 league goals says it all about him really," said Carragher to British tabloid The Daily Mail.

"To be top of that list shows what a great player he is and that's why we paid the money for him."

Despite struggling with injury this season, Torres, 25, has already established himself as one of the Premier League's top strikers. 'El Nino' has returned 12 goals in England's top-flight so far this term, and is in fifth place in the goalscoring charts.

Gerrard Up For Top-Four Fight

Steven Gerrard accepts Liverpool have a real battle on their hands to finish in the top four this season.

Liverpool boosted their hopes of claiming a top-four finish with a late win over rivals Aston Villa on Tuesday, thanks to Fernando Torres' last-gasp effort.

The win reduced the gap between the Reds and fourth-placed Tottenham to four points.

But Gerrard knows there is still a major fight ahead if Liverpool are to secure Champions League football in May.

"We've got to try and win as many games as we can. This means nothing. It all depends where you are at the end of the season," Gerrard told Sky Sports 1.

"We know Villa, Spurs and Man City are going to keep fighting all the way and we need to do the same.

"But it is important to keep the momentum going and build on this victory. I am sure we will gain a lot of confidence from this, like we did against Wolves.

"We've virtually got everyone back fit now so there are no excuses now. We need to go on a run of winning games.

"Can we secure a top-four spot? It is going to be difficult. There are a lot of fantastic teams about. I am sure teams will spend in January.

"It will be a race to the very end and we've got to make sure we are in it."

Liverpool Sweating On Johnson Knee Injury Scan

Liverpool’s dramatic 1-0 injury-time win over Aston Villa was overshadowed by an injury scare involving England defender Glen Johnson.

The right-back, 25, came off with two minutes left after suffering a suspected knee injury.

“We don't know, we have to do a scan – maybe he has a problem with his knee,” said manager Rafa Benitez afterwards.

Johnson has already missed three games with a calf problem as Liverpool have had an injury-plagued season – and the full-back left Villa Park on crutches last night.

That was a precaution, but Liverpool will still be sweating until the results of the scan are known.

Distraught Aston Villa boss Martin O’Neill, meanwhile, was left ruing Fernando Torres and the Premier League fixture list after Aston Villa’s top four hopes were hit.

It is a real blow to us,” said O’Neill, whose fifth-placed side lost 3-0 at Arsenal on Sunday.

“We have lost both games but tonight we should have won.

“It is hard to take as we restricted Liverpool but we will come again.

“Unfortunately we have played two games in three days and those extra hours Liverpool had might have made a difference.”

Carragher Hails Reds Statement

Jamie Carragher believes Liverpool's last gasp win over Aston Villa was a statement of intent to their rivals that they are still a major force in the battle for a Champions League spot.

The Reds closed the gap on fourth placed Tottenham to four points, and are now only two behind Villa, after Fernando Torres scored his 50th Premier League goal for the club in the third minute of injury-time.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez reiterated his "guarantee" of finishing in the top four in the aftermath of the Villa Park encounter.

And Carragher is confident they can now put together a decisive run of results in the New Year.

He said: "It was a big result. That brings us a lot closer to Aston Villa. If they had beaten us, it would have been a big points difference so the one game can make a difference.

"We realise what would have happened if we had lost. People would have said we were miles away and 'that was it' for the top four so we have given ourselves a fighting chance.

"I haven't looked at the table for a while so I am not sure how far or how close we are. When it's not going well, there is no point.

"But if we can win the next game against Tottenham as well, that can put us right in the mix. We've had a lot of ups and downs this season and hopefully we can go on a good run now."

Carragher added: "We've been up there for a long time. There are always people wanting to shoot you down, other teams.

"Over the last few years Villa have been one of those teams around the top six alongside Everton.

"But this time around Manchester City have really come on and Tottenham have done really well and I think they are all looking at us as the team they can take the place of.

"So it was more than just the three points at Villa. It was a statement to everyone that we are still fighting for that place."

The only worry for the Reds was a knee injury to defender Glen Johnson, with the Reds anxiously awaiting the result of a scan on the England player.

Villa were left to reflect on a dismal festive period which had also seen them beaten at another of their top four rivals in Arsenal.

But defender Luke Young is confident Villa will not suffer a long term hangover from their double setback ahead of FA Cup third round and Carling Cup semi-final meetings with Blackburn in the next week.

He said: "Everyone was disappointed in the dressing room but we can't let the last two results ruin the great run we've had.

"It's time to regroup now and look forward to the tough month we've got coming up. Let's get over this one and look forward to the weekend.

"We've got to look forward. If you start dwelling on results like the Liverpool one, it's the worst thing you can do. You can start beating yourself up.

"We've seen in the league this season that teams are taking points off each other left right and centre.

It's going to go all the way down to the end for this final Champions League spot and we hope to be right in among them. We want this to make us stronger."

Villa will be hoping striker Emile Heskey has recovered from illness in time for the first meeting with Sam Allardyce's side on Saturday.

Villa boss Martin O'Neill said: "Emile was ill on Sunday at Arsenal and he came off in the game and still wasn't feeling so bright so we didn't include him. We will see how he is."

Juventus Set Sights On Rafael Benitez & Javier Mascherano Of Liverpool

Juventus are following Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez, and midfielder Javier Mascherano with plans to entice both men into swapping Anfield for the Olimpico in Turin.

Il Corriere Dello Sport claims the Old Lady is ready to rekindle an interest in the currently injured Mascherano, and will hope to sign him in the summer.

They are planning early to avoid disappointment after having missed out on the Argentinian last summer. The report suggests Mascherano, whose contract expires in 2012 and entitles him to €1.6 million per season, is eager to quit the club.

His will to leave will be strengthened even further if the Reds continue to endure a troubled season and fail to qualify for next year's Champions League.

Juve, who are reportedly searching for a coach to replace the under-fire Ciro Ferrara, have also been linked with Benitez. Should the Spaniard arrive in Turin, a move for Masherano would be easier to execute.

Enthusiastic market rumours suggest the coach may even arrive as soon as January, but planned moves for both men for next summer seems more likely.

Despite the report, Juventus have recently made it clear on a number of occasions that they are not looking to replace Ferrara, despite their recent slump in form and exit from the Champions League.

Benitez Shock At Reaction

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez angrily explained his surprise at the reaction to his guarantee of a place in the top four of the Premier League this season.

The Reds boss saw his side grab a dramatically late victory at Aston Villa on Tuesday as Fernando Torres added another twist to the race for UEFA Champions League football with his 50th English league goal coming deep into stoppage time.

A narrow 1-0 win moved Liverpool to seventh position in the table and the Merseysiders now sit just two points behind Villa and four points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham, who travel to Anfield on 10th January.

The win came as a major feather in the cap for Benitez, who has maintained throughout the campaign that his under-performing side will qualify for 2010/11's European Cup, and so he was shocked when his promise was questioned post-match.

His reaction was not on a par to last season's infamous 'Rafa rant', but it was almost as cold as a snowy night in the Midlands, as he told Sky Sports 1: "The manager has to have confidence in his team so he has to say that we will finish in the top four.
"I have to be the first one to believe so they (the players) will believe.

"I was really pleased because we couldn't give something to our fans when we played against Portsmouth so I am really pleased for them because it was bad weather and I think that they will come back to Liverpool and enjoy today."

When pushed further on his guarantee of a place in the top four, he said: "What do you have to do? As a manager of the team you have to believe in the players.

"I was really surprised a lot of people are talking about it like, 'oh Rafa is taking the pressure off his players'. You have to do it like this because I am the manager."

When asked about suggestions he would resign if Liverpool do not qualify for the Champions League, he said: "I don't see any journalist making a mistake and resigning, so every time that you ask me the same, I will ask you the same."

Torres still did not appear to be at full fitness following his long-standing groin injury, but Benitez was in no doubt regarding the predatory brilliance of his record signing.

The Liverpool boss said: "He is a very, very good player, a key player for us. His record is amazing so I am very pleased for him and very pleased for the team."

Rafa Benitez In Bid To Sign Ruud van Nistelrooy On Loan From Real Madrid

Liverpool are trying to thrash out a deal with Real Madrid to land Ruud van Nistelrooy on a six-month loan next week.

Rafael Benitez’s side, who beat Aston Villa in a snowstorm at Villa Park on Tuesday night, are keen to bring in an experienced striker after seeing their season crumble during Fernando Torres’s frequent stints in the treatment room.

Van Nistelrooy, 33, is keen to head to Anfield to prove his fitness for Holland ahead of next summer’s World Cup. But boss Benitez is worried about the Dutchman’s troubling injury record and has already ruled out paying £3m to take him on a permanent basis.

He is also refusing to agree to Real Madrid’s demands to pay the striker’s £100,000-a-week wages for the rest of the season if he joins on loan.

Benitez has limited funds available as a result of his inability to find takers for Dutchman Ryan Babel, Ukraine forward Andriy Voronin, Swiss right back Philipp Degen and Italian left back Andrea Dossena in the transfer window.

Instead, Benitez has asked the Spanish side to pay the majority of Van Nistelrooy’s wages during his time at Anfield.

But Madrid are holding out in the hope that another Premier League club make contact and force an auction for the ex-Manchester United forward.

Babel’s agent, meanwhile, says Liverpool are only interested in straight cash deals for the Dutch winger. Tottenham, Birmingham, Sunderland and Besiktas have all expressed interest but Benitez will not allow him to simply go out on loan.

Babel’s agent Winnie Haatrecht said: ‘It will be difficult for him to focus and remain focused. He will not be loaned.

‘I don’t know if he will be sold, I have had no contact about that. The only thing I know - no loan. There has been no talk about a sale.’

Dossena, meanwhile, is holding talks over a possible switch to Atletico Madrid.

Agent Slams Tabloid ‘Lies’ About Liverpool Star Alberto Aquilani

The representative of Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani has rushed to stop the rumour mill after English tabloids alleged the 25-year-old had flown to Belgrade to receive treatment from ‘placenta doctor’ Marijana Kovacevic in a bid to put an end to his seemingly endless series of injury setbacks.

“So many lies have been told of late and the last one was the story about the sorceress…” agent Franco Zavaglia told

“I stayed in England for ten days and travelled between Liverpool and Manchester. Alberto is on the right path to a full recovery.

“He endured eight troubled months because of his ankle injury. But we are not discovering Aquilani’s value today. He is a quality player with great potential.

“He just wants to play regularly now so that he will realize his dream, which is to go to the World Cup.

“If Alberto will be fit, it’s unlikely the Nazionale boss will do without him.”

Aquilani underwent ankle surgery last May before joining Liverpool from Roma and was only handed his first Premier League start last week as the Reds defeated Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 at Anfield. Last night he featured in the Reds' 1-0 win at Aston Villa.

'April Start' For New Liverpool Stadium, Says Council

Work on Liverpool's new stadium in Stanley Park could begin as early as April 2010, the leader of Liverpool City Council has told the BBC.

Warren Bradley said Liverpool have told the council they are "very close now to securing the finances".

He added it would be "in April that hopefully, fingers crossed, we'll see some activity on Stanley Park".

Bradley also revealed the council would hold talks with Everton about their plans for a new stadium on 11 January.

The government rejected Everton's plans for a 50,000-seater stadium in Kirkby, with Liverpool City Council one of the opponents of the plan.

Development of Liverpool Football Club's proposed new ground has been a casualty of the unstable global financial situation.

Construction on the new site in Stanley Park, which is next to the Reds' current Anfield Stadium and has a planned 60,000 capacity, was frozen in August 2008 after preliminary work because of the financial conditions.

But in September Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks insisted it would go ahead once the financial situation improved, and Liverpool City Council leader Bradley says the club is now confident of securing the required cash in the first three months of 2010.

"What they've said is they'll secure the finances in the first quarter, so that's between January and March," he told BBC Radio Liverpool.

He added that work on Liverpool's new stadium, which is part of England's proposed 2018 World Cup bid, could then begin in April.

"We've been pressing Liverpool Football Club to ensure that they deliver the stadium and if they're not going to deliver it, to come clean with the council so we can look at other options," said Bradley.

"Liverpool Football Club have come back to us and said they're very close now to securing the finances and they want to move on as quickly as possible, not only for the World Cup bid but also for Liverpool Football Club, who see a new stadium as being the heart of the business plan."

Everton To Meet Liverpool City Council To Discuss New Stadium Plans

Everton will enter into new talks with Liverpool City Council over a new stadium. A date of 11 January has been set aside for the two sides to meet following the rejection of a planning application for a new stadium in Kirkby.

That proposed £400m development of a 50,000-seater stadium, in partnership with Tesco, collapsed last month. Liverpool City Council was opposed to the project. It will send a high-ranking delegation to the 11 January meeting, which was promised after the Kirkby decision. It is considered that redeveloping Goodison Park is too expensive.

Everton's head of public relations, Ian Ross, said: "Throughout the Destination Kirkby process, Liverpool City Council always made it clear that if the project was to fail they would step forward and seek to help us. As a consequence, a working group is to be formed and meetings held to actively explore all the options and possibilities which are open to Everton.

"Despite the disappointment of seeing our proposed move to Kirkby collapse we as a club remain convinced that a move to a new home is not only the right way forward but the only way forward.

"Of course, it does remain to be seen if the City Council can provide us with the level of help and assistance which we will require if we are to [re]locate to any new stadium within the Liverpool boundaries but we will enter these preliminary talks with a measure of optimism."

The City Council leader, Warren Bradley – who is an Everton fan – said: "We have got a meeting with Everton where we will put all our cards on the table.

"I will be there as will be council chief executive Colin Hilton and executive director of regeneration John Kelly. We want to make sure that we can facilitate things for Everton."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Match Report: Aston Villa 0 - 1 Liverpool

Fernando Torres scored an injury-time 50th Premier League goal for Liverpool to give his side a Champions League lifeline against Aston Villa.

The Spaniard drilled a low shot across Villa keeper Brad Friedel in the 93rd minute to become the fastest player in Reds history to score a half century of league goals.

It means Rafael Benitez's side are only two points behind Villa and four adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham in the race for European places.

Liverpool keeper Jose Reina had earlier produced two crucial saves to deny Villa who were searching for their first home win over the Reds for nearly 12 years.

The Spaniard somehow kept out a close-range volley from Stewart Downing in the first half and then denied Villa's top scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor after he had broken clear midway through the second period.

And Liverpool appeared to have strong first half claims for a penalty after a challenge by Villa central defender Richard Dunne on Dirk Kuyt.

Villa lacked sharpness and perhaps having a day less than Liverpool to recover from their opening game of the festive program - a 3-0 reversal at Arsenal - may have taken its toll.

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard tried to inspire his side in conditions that became increasingly difficult underfoot.

But it was Torres who produced the moment of magic after capitalising on a loose pass from former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock.

Villa, 3-1 winners at Anfield in August, made a promising start in the blizzard-like conditions.

Downing lined up a shot just outside the Reds box but his fierce drive was blocked by Alberto Aquilani.

Torres failed to make proper contact on an overhead kick from a deflected Gerrard centre.

Luke Young was out quickly to block a shot on the edge of the Villa box from Lucas Leiva after Dunne had headed clear a Gerrard corner.

Reina was called into meaningful action for the first time after 14 minutes in blocking a header at the far post from Dunne following another Downing corner.

Gerrard tried his luck with a 30-yard free-kick but his shot deflected off the Villa wall and out for a corner.

But it needed a fine save from Brad Friedel to deny Liverpool from taking the lead after 17 minutes.

Torres teed up Gerrard just outside the Villa area and his curling first time shot was tipped over the bar by the former Liverpool keeper.

Reina got his body behind a low drive from James Milner.

Villa skipper Stiliyan Petrov was off target with a bicycle kick after Nigel Reo-Coker had played the ball into the Liverpool area.

However, it needed a magnificent reflex save from Reina to prevent Downing from giving Villa the lead after 31 minutes.

Milner's corner was met at the far post by Downing and he could not have struck his volley more cleanly but Reina somehow managed to fist away his shot from close range.

Dunne became the first player to be booked after 41 minutes for a challenge on Lucas.

Then Lucas followed the Villa defender into the referee's notebook for a foul against Agbonlahor.

Liverpool appealed in vain for a penalty after a challenge by Dunne on the recalled Kuyt eight minutes before the interval.

Liverpool, unbeaten at Villa Park since February 1998, enjoyed the majority of possession at the start of the second period without seriously threatening the home goal.

There was a three minute delay wile Reina was allowed to change his footwear, much to the annoyance of the Villa fans in the Holte End.

Gerrard was on the receiving end of a knee high challenge from Carlos Cuellar just outside the Villa box but Aquilani's free-kick dipped over the bar.

Villa suddenly came to life with Reina producing his second excellent save of the night to deny Agbonlahor after he had shaken off the challenge of Jamie Carragher.

From Milner's inswinging centre, John Carew was inches wide of the far post with a flick header.

But that was effectively the end of the goalmouth incidents until Torres' dramatic finale.

Alberto Aquilani Giving Rafa Benitez A Headache For Aston Villa Clash As £20m Man Struggles To Fit In

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez admits he must assess the risk of using Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani in tonight's critical Barclays Premier League clash at Aston Villa.

The £20million summer signing from Roma finally made his first league start in Liverpool's 2-0 victory over Wolves.

He has struggled with fitness and injury all season and had to be substituted with six minutes to go on Boxing Day complaining of a hamstring problem.

Benitez is aware that although Aquilani adds flair and creativity, he has been considered too lightweight at times for the English game during his opening months at Anfield.

Benitez said: 'Aquilani did well against Wolves, but he needs match fitness. He was trying to be involved, passing and creating chances, but the Premier League is difficult and he will settle down little by little.

'It is a difficult decision with the Villa game coming so quickly. Some of our players were very tired after the Wolves match, while some had little injuries. We will need to assess them all.

'We will have to manage them carefully but clearly if Javier Mascherano is not available for the next three games through suspension, then Aquilani will obviously have more chance of time on the pitch.

'But against Wolves he was worried about his hamstring, he was concerned and I wanted to protect him. That is why we took him off."'

Benitez would prefer to utilise two holding midfield men in what promises to be a tough match against Villa.

Lucas was troubled by a stomach upset ahead of the Wolves match and Liverpool looked weak in midfield at times. Benitez could solve that problem by playing Steven Gerrard in a deeper role.

The Spaniard said: 'Maybe we would normally have two holding players for such a game, but we have options. Gerrard can play in that role, we will see.

'Lucas was tiring against Wolves, he was not well, but now we must see how he recovers and whether he can have more energy now. It all depends on how the players feel and react after the Wolves game.'

Inter Plan Summer Swoop For Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard - Report

According to today’s edition of the Corriere dello Sport, Italian champions Inter are plotting a sensational move for Liverpool star Steven Gerrard.

The newspaper alleges that Liverpool’s troubles this season – the Reds have crashed out of the Champions League and are lagging behind the top four in the Premier League – are likely to further compound their reported financial woes and the club directors might have to cash in on their prized asset next summer.

Inter boss Jose Mourinho has always had a penchant for the England international and has advised the Beneamata's powers that be to get a head start on negotiations in case the Anfield supporters’ worst fears are truly realised.

Inter are expected to invest heavily to strengthen their midfield deaprtment next summer and Gerrard definitely fits the bill.

But the Nerazzurri will face fierce competition from Spanish heavyweights Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have also been alerted to Gerrard’s potential availability.

Liverpool Do Not Deserve This Season's Woe - Alberto Aquilani

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani feels that fate has been unkind to the Reds so far this season and only hard work will see things improve.

The Italian made his first Premier league start for the Reds in the Boxing Day win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, following his summer move from Roma.

He is delighted to be in action at last after his long spell on the sidelines and is looking forward to building his fitness and helping Rafa Benitez's side climb the table.

"The team does not deserve its current low standing. We’ve had difficulties, but we will come out of this," Aquilani told The Liverpool Echo.

“On my part, I am happy as I had been out so long. It’s important to play, so I can get back to my best condition.

“I have a good relationship with Rafa Benitez and all my team-mates, champions like Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, who welcomed me and helped me merge into this group. It is important we do well from now on.”

Dossena Linked With Spain Move

Andrea Dossena's agent has claimed the defender is close to moving to an unnamed Spanish club.

The Liverpool full-back has been the subject of constant speculation and seems certain to leave Anfield during the January transfer window.

Dossena has failed to live up to his £7million price tag since joining the Reds from Udinese 18 months ago and a return to his native Italy had been touted as the most likely scenario.

However, one of Dossena's agents, Federico Pastorello, has labelled a move to Serie A club Napoli as 'impossible'.

"A move to Napoli is impossible," he told "The negotiations for a possible move for Dossena to Napoli are over.

"If I was to make a prediction I would say that Andrea will not return to Italy.

"We are in negotiations with several foreign clubs, with a very important Spanish club who are not in European competition - the deal is even at an advanced stage."

The 28-year-old Italy international is keen to move away from Anfield as he looks to secure his place in the Azzurri squad for the 2010 World Cup.

Liverpool To Spend £10m On Galatasaray Star Arda Turan Once Ryan Babel, Andriy Voronin And Andrea Dossena Are Sold

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez will hope to snap up Galatasaray winger Arda Turan after the Turkey midfielder revealed he wants to move to Anfield.

The 22-year-old is reported to be a target of Arsenal but is only interested in one Premier League team.

He said: 'When I've finished my business at Galatasaray, I will be happy to move on.

'I most want to play at Liverpool because of the culture of the club and the fans.'

Benitez will offload at least three players to fund the £10m move for Turan, with Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena and Andriy Voronin all set to be shown the exit door next month.

Turan has scored 55 League goals in 88 appearances for Galatasaray and has five in 34 starts for Turkey.

Liverpool's Andrea Dossena Would Like To Work With Roma Boss Claudio Ranieri - Agent

The agent of unsettled Liverpool left back Andrea Dossena, Federico Pastorello, has told the press that the former Udinese star would prefer a move to Roma.

"Andrea Dossena has always liked Ranieri, although I haven't heard from anyone [at Roma]," he revealed to

"Roma tried to acquire Andrea before he moved to Liverpool, but preferred [John Arne] Riise. My client, over the past year, has had several requests, including from Napoli. Ranieri tried to take him to Juventus, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was still among his favourites."

The player's representative explained that the 28-year-old is still hoping for a place in the World Cup squad, after featuring for the Azzurri last summer in the Confederations Cup.

"At Liverpool he is just collecting appearances on the bench. The Reds are asking about €5 million for his signature," he continued.

"Lippi has called him up several times, the next few months will be vital for South Africa."

Rafa Benitez: Dani Pacheco's Premier League Debut A 'Real Positive' For Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez may have his fair share of problems at Anfield at the moment, but he has hailed the first-team progression of a young player as a positive for the Reds.

Dani Pacheco made his Premier League debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers last week with a late cameo from the bench.

Benitez is delighted that the 18-year-old has built on his Champions League appearance against Fiorentina earlier this month.

"Dani is a player with quality who has played really well for the reserves," Benitez told his club's official website.

"He was going forward and is not scared to go against the defenders. It was a real positive because he has shown he has quality."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Match Preview: Aston Villa vs. Liverpool

Aston Villa will be without suspended winger Ashley Young for Tuesday's Barclays Premier League visit of Liverpool.

Young has started all 19 of Villa's league games to date this season but will have to serve a one-game ban after collecting his fifth yellow card of the campaign against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

Villa boss Martin O'Neill has hinted he may make changes, particularly with Liverpool having an extra 24 hours to recover following their Boxing Day victory over Wolves.

The likes of John Carew, Nigel Reo-Coker, Habib Beye, James Collins, Steve Sidwell and Fabian Delph will come into the equation for possible starts against Rafael Benitez's side.

O'Neill believes Liverpool are capable of repeating the feat of Arsenal last season and rescuing a Champions League spot via a long unbeaten run during the second half of the campaign.

The Villa boss recalls how his side were in pole position to claim a top four place before the Gunners hit top form in the final third of the season to overhaul them.

Now a similar challenge is confronting the Reds after a below-par opening half of the season and O'Neill believes they are capable of the same sort of feat.

O'Neill, whose side won 3-1 at Anfield in August, said: "Liverpool have lost a few games more than they would have thought. Last season they were terrific.

"They went through the whole season and lost two games. After three games of this season, they had lost two games, but they are getting a bit of momentum again.

"It was a big win for them at Anfield against Wolves at the weekend. We've got to be right ourselves, but they are still in there.

"I heard Arsenal were supposed to be imploding last season, just about February time, when I think they were in the middle of a 22-game unbeaten run!

"They finished the season very, very strongly and Liverpool are capable of doing the same thing. They are capable because it's Liverpool Football Club.

"Look at Arsenal now. Four weeks ago they were being written off for the title and now they are right bang in there. That's what can happen with the top clubs.''

Reds boss Benitez must decide whether to continue with Alberto Aquilani.

The Italian made his first Premier League start in Saturday's 2-0 win at Wolves but came off late in the game with a minor hamstring problem.

Benitez will also consider a recall for Holland forward Dirk Kuyt, who was rested for the Boxing Day victory, while Javier Mascherano misses out for the second game of a four-match suspension, while continuing his recovery from a knee injury.

Benitez admits Liverpool's brittle confidence will be on the line at Villa.

The Spaniard said: "People keep asking me why I said recently that I would categorically guarantee that we will be in the top four - but what do you expect from me?

"I have to say that. We have confidence and we have to do it because we are a top side.''

He added: "After the win over Wolves, we will now have more confidence and that will be very good for the whole team.

"But we know we have to keep winning to get fourth place. We need clean sheets and we now have to be ready for Aston Villa.

"We must discover if we have the confidence now to win there and to get closer to the top of the table.

"But we know Villa are a very good team who are ahead of us, and one we must beat.

"To get back to where we want to be we must start winning games in a row. If we do that at Villa it will be easier for us to keep our confidence higher.

"If we can win at Villa we will gain more confidence for the future.

"Villa, Spurs and Manchester City are all doing well and we know we must compete with them for fourth place.

"We know, though, that this time it is more difficult. Previously Villa have done well in the first half of a season and then lost games.

"But they have spent some money, they have good players, and we accept that they will make it difficult for us in the fight for fourth position.''

O'Neill Warns Of Liverpool Revival

Martin O'Neill believes Liverpool are capable of repeating the feat of Arsenal last season and rescuing a Champions League spot via a long unbeaten run during the second half of the campaign.

Aston Villa boss O'Neill recalls how his side were in pole position to claim a Barclays Premier League top four place before the Gunners hit top form in the final third of the season to overhaul them.

Now a similar challenge is confronting the Reds, who visit fourth-placed Villa

On Tuesday, after a below-par opening half of the season and O'Neill believes they are capable of the same sort of feat.

O'Neill, whose side won 3-1 at Anfield in August, said: "Liverpool have lost a few games more than they would have thought. Last season they were terrific.

"They went through the whole season and lost two games. After three games of this season, they had lost two games, but they are getting a bit of momentum again.

"It was a big win for them at Anfield against Wolves at the weekend. We've got to be right ourselves, but they are still in there.

"I heard Arsenal were supposed to be imploding last season, just about February time, when I think they were in the middle of a 22-game unbeaten run!

"They finished the season very, very strongly and Liverpool are capable of doing the same thing. They are capable because it's Liverpool Football Club.

"Look at Arsenal now. Four weeks ago they were being written off for the title and now they are right bang in there. That's what can happen with the top clubs."

O'Neill is unconcerned at what reaction there will be to Villa's 3-0 defeat against Arsene Wenger's side and does not believe his players will suffer any hangover to that setback for when they tackle Liverpool.

He said: "I'm not too bothered about who says what. I didn't get too carried away when we went to Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago and won there.

"It was three points, it was a boost to confidence and it was terrific. It changed a desperately poor record for us there as well, our first win there for 26 years.

"But equally any side can go to Arsenal and get beaten, so I wouldn't start to think the result was a major shock all over Europe.

"You can get beaten, but what we have to do is fight back against Liverpool and try to win."

Villa will be without suspended England winger Ashley Young against the Reds.

Young has started all 19 of Villa's league games to date this season but will have to serve a one game ban for collecting his fifth yellow card of the campaign at the Emirates Stadium.

O'Neill had hinted going into the Christmas period that he may make changes, particularly with Liverpool having an extra 24 hours to recover from their clash against Wolves.

Liverpool Outlook: Aston Villa Trip Offers A Shot At Stability For Rafael Benitez

It is rare that a trip to Aston Villa should represent such a momentous occasion in the Liverpool Football Club calendar, but Tuesday night’s visit to Villa Park could well be a pivotal moment in a season that already has had more twists and turns than Rafael Benitez can stomach.

Benitez’s Reds have been derided this season as being “a ‘must-win’ game waiting to happen”, due to their propensity for penning themselves in to awkward scenarios on a regular basis.

And whilst the game with Aston Villa is probably not in that ‘must-win’ category – seeing as it is in December, with 18 further games to follow – it is probably approaching the ‘must not lose’ mark.

Defeat at Villa Park would not only lengthen the gap to Martin O’Neill’s effervescent side to eight points – as well as offering Tottenham and Manchester City a chance to enhance their own advantages over Liverpool – but would also represent a damaging psychological blow for a side who have struggled for consistency since the wheels fell off their season back in early October.

The Boxing Day triumph over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Anfield may not have been enough to restore the confidence so palpably missing in recent weeks but, coupled with Villa’s defeat to Arsenal a day later (and a draw for Spurs at Fulham), it did allow the Reds to close to within a couple of wins of that coveted fourth place finish. A victory at Villa Park would have O’Neill’s men on the run.

The manner of that Wolves victory, coming as it did after the visitors were reduced (correctly) to 10 men, may not have offered much inspiration, but Benitez and his side are in no position to look gift horses in the mouth, and the Spaniard will be hoping to retain some momentum when they travel to the Midlands.

Villa perhaps represent the blueprint for footballing stability at this moment in time. Like Liverpool, they are owned by a foreign investor, but Randy Lerner’s standing with the Villa Park faithful contrasts greatly with the relationship “enjoyed” by Tom Hicks and George Gillett with the Liverpool supporters.

Lerner has backed his manager with plenty of capital, as well as low-key public support, affording O’Neill the funds to break Villa’s transfer record twice in recent years.

He has also earned plenty of support from the Villa supporters with his decision to forgo a lucrative kit sponsorship deal in favour of advertising the Acorns Children’s Hospice. A stark contrast to the PR-unfriendly decisions made by Messrs Hicks and Gillett.

Benitez has had his money too, though it must be said his transfer dealings have been under a far more complex set of circumstances, and under a far more critical glare. He too has broken his club’s transfer record – in signing Fernando Torres – but increasingly his dealings have been of a book-balancing nature. O’Neill, on the other hand, seems to have a far greater level of autocracy in the transfer market, and has made some shrewd acquisitions.

Liverpool are known to have coveted two of Villa’s more recent signings – James Milner and Stewart Downing – and the likes of Ashley Young, Stephen Warnock, Brad Friedel and Richard Dunne have all proven to be inspired pieces of business by O’Neill.

Benitez though, must wish he was afforded the leniency given to his Villa counterpart for some of his poorer buys. Andrea Dossena, Ryan Babel and Andriy Voronin get far more pelters than the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, Steve Sidwell and Marlon Harewood for example.

There has been talk in some quarters of O’Neill being lined up to replace Benitez in the Anfield hot-seat, though such rumours seem rather fanciful. The Ulsterman is enjoying a fruitful working relationship with an ambitious club, and will be quietly confident that his current side can usurp the beleaguered Reds and secure a place amongst the Premier League’s elite cartel.

Benitez, of course, will have other ideas. His side will be well aware of the ramifications a win at Villa Park could have, and with only Javier Mascherano and Albert Riera currently on the missing list at Anfield, the Spaniard has every right to be confident his team has what it takes to put their winter misery behind them and start to ascend the table.

Rafael Benítez Says Liverpool Must Win At Aston Villa

Rafael Benítez has said that Liverpool's confidence and Champions League credentials will be under scrutiny at Villa Park tomorrow. The Spaniard is considering whether to give the midfielder Alberto Aquilani a second start in four days.

Liverpool are five points behind Aston Villa after their Boxing Day win over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa's subsequent loss to Arsenal but they have not won successive league matches since September and have several injury problems. Fábio Aurélio and Yossi Benayoun missed the Wolves match, with calf and hamstring problems, and there are doubts over whether Aquilani, who made his full league debut against Wolves, and Fernando Torres can start games in such quick succession.

"After the win over Wolves we will have more confidence and that will be very good for the whole team but we know we have to keep winning to get fourth place," said Benítez.

"We must discover if we have the confidence now to win there and to get closer to the top of the table. But we know Villa are a very good team who are ahead of us, and one we must beat. To get back to where we want to be we must start winning games in a row. If we do that at Villa it will be easier for us to keep our confidence higher."

Aquilani said he had been taken aback by the pace of the game against Wolves, who had a man sent off after 52 minutes.

"I really enjoyed the game as it was important for me; I want to improve my fitness," said the Italian, who has been dogged by injury this season. "It was so different to anything I have experienced, as it was so quick and you never really had much time. The football we played was so fast. The most important thing, however, was that we won."

Benítez denied that his guarantee, earlier in the season, of a top-four finish had increased the pressure on his players.

He said: "People keep asking me why I said recently that I would categorically guarantee that we will be in the top four – but what do you expect from me? I have to say that.

"We have confidence and we have to do it because we are a top side."

Pepe Reina Intervenes To Help Tip Balance Liverpool’s Way

Rarely has the cliché about good goalkeepers being worth at least a handful of points to their team been more apposite. It wasn’t the saves of Pepe Reina that helped Liverpool take a maximum haul from a scrappy encounter with Wolverhampton Wanderers, however, it was his hitherto unseen ability to engender match-defining decisions that proved conclusive.

Players contesting the judgments of match officials is a given of modern football, but rarely do they race 70 yards to do so. That Reina did so when Andre Marriner, the referee, had failed to award a second yellow card, and subsequently a red one, to Stephen Ward highlighted two things — Reina’s desire and Liverpool’s desperation.

It was an undoubted turning point. The initial decision made by Marriner was to book Christophe Berra for a tug on Lucas Leiva, but he had got the wrong man. Reina’s intervention prompted the referee to take the advice of Phil Dowd, the fourth official, and belated punishment was meted out to Ward, reducing the visiting team’s numbers and giving Liverpool an opportunity to go for the kill that they, even in their present angst, were not going to pass up.

“Liverpool needed a break and they got one,” was the sanguine reaction of Mick McCarthy to the furore. Privately, though, the sarcastic applause that the Wolves manager directed at Rafael Benítez suggested that he was far from happy with the involvement of his Liverpool counterpart and his players in prompting Marriner’s change of mind.

The travelling fans made their feelings much clearer, booing Reina’s every touch from that point.

The morals of such an instance are far from clear-cut because of the code of conduct in British football that demands that no one should ever seek an advantage by acting in a way that would lead to an opponent being sent off. But surely that Reina and his team-mates stopped injustice from prevailing takes precedence?

Had Marriner not been forced into a U-turn, Liverpool would have been unfairly denied the numerical advantage due when an opponent transgresses not once, but twice. Reina simply helped justice to prevail and probably saved Marriner from demotion for his faux pas.

Beyond the moral maze, though, are the facts and the most salient ones are that before the sending-off Liverpool had toiled once more, while Wolves had at least one chance that should have been taken, when an unmarked Kevin Doyle headed over from four yards. But after Ward’s dismissal the home side took full advantage, scoring two unanswered goals.

The significance of the identity of the man whose goal put Liverpool on the path to a desperately needed victory should not be understated. It had not gone unnoticed that in recent weeks Steven Gerrard had not fired on all cylinders. Rather than providing compelling proof that the powers of the Liverpool captain were on the wane, as some have suggested, it simply demonstrated that even members of the much-vaunted Fifpro World XI are subjected to the same vagaries of form and fitness that affect players at every level. Gerrard’s header from Emiliano Insúa’s cross was the latest in a seemingly endless line of examples of both the 29-year-old’s desire and his unerring ability to pull his team out of the mire.

Yossi Benayoun added a second, with the aid of a hefty deflection by Karl Henry, to give Liverpool a level of comfort that allowed Benítez to introduce Dani Pacheco, a reserve-team player of rich promise, as a late substitute. The Spanish 18-year-old duly delivered a lively cameo.

Where Liverpool go from here is anyone’s guess. Three months have passed since they won consecutive league games and their opportunity to put that unwanted record to bed is far from a golden one, with a visit to Aston Villa tomorrow.

Reina’s involvement in that game could go a long way towards determining whether or not they take maximum points once again, only this time his contribution is likely to be of a more conventional kind.

Lucas Leiva Says Liverpool FC Must Build Momentum After Wolverhampton Wanderers Win

Liverpool FC's Lucas Leiva hopes the 2-0 Boxing Day victory over Wolves will provide the Reds with the springboard to mount their bid for a top-four finish.

Rafa Benitez’s side moved up to seventh courtesy of their hard-fought home triumph over Mick McCarthy’s 10 men, and visit fourth-placed Aston Villa on Tuesday looking to finish 2009 on a high.

"We are happy because we really needed the three points," Lucas said.

"I think we played well and deserved to win. Now we have to build some momentum.

"We have an important game with Villa and we know that if we beat them we will be closer.

"Like I have said before, every game is like a cup final for us and we must keep working hard to try and win some matches in a row.

"Villa will be a really difficult game and we don’t have too much time to recover, but we will make sure we are ready and try to get the three points."

Martin O’Neill’s side played on Sunday, going down 3-0 at Arsenal, and therefore have even less time to rest.

Cesc Fabregas came off the bench to inspire the Gunners to victory at the Emirates Stadium.

Villa - who have beaten Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool this season - looked dangerous on the break but could not make the most of their pressure midway through the second period.

Liverpool FC, meanwhile, required second-half goals from Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun to defeat Wolves, and they only came once the visitors had been reduced to 10 men.

Stephen Ward was eventually penalised for a second bookable offence, referee Andre Marriner at first getting the wrong man and cautioning Christophe Berra.

Liverpool FC players persuaded the official to check with a linesman, the error was corrected and the hosts were able to take full advantage of the situation.

Lucas admitted the red card was the turning point.

"When you have one player more it is easier," said the Brazilian.

"They were then forced to play with one striker. That worked in our favour and I think it was the right decision.

"After that we kept the ball better, created more chances and scored the two goals."

He added: "When you aren’t winning or playing as well as you can then you are going to get criticism, that’s normal.

"We know we have a good squad and a good team. The key is to get our confidence back for the rest of the season."

Rafa Benitez To Raise Liverpool Funds By Offloading Kop Flops Andrei Voronin And Ryan Babel

Kop flops Andriy Voronin and Ryan Babel could all leave Liverpool next month as Rafa Benitez looks to raise funds in order to strengthen his stuttering squad.

The Spaniard has grown frustrated with the form and attitude of £10million Dutch forward Ryan Babel, who was last seen limping out of his side's draw with Manchester City in mid-November.

Voronin has fared even worse. The Ukrainian last scored for Liverpool on the final day of the 2007/08 season and has dropped behind youngsters Nabir El Zahr and Dani Pacheco in the pecking order.

West Ham frontman Carlton Cole and Crystal Palace winger Victor Moses top Benitez's wish list, but with money scarse at Anfield in January the Spaniard is expected to cash in on a pair who have personified Liverpool's decline.

'We know at this time that we have to manage the squad and try and do some changes in the transfer window,' he said. 'Normally, players that are not playing will be looking at other options, especially with a World Cup coming up.

'There has been interest in some of our players.'

Babel, who joined Liverpool in 2007 after excelling in the Netherlands Under-21s run to the final of the European Championships, is reportedly a target for German giants Bayern Munich.

Voronin, meanwhile, tops the list of targets for Panathinaikos in Greece but would favour a move back to the Bundesliga where he excelled on loan last season.

Liverpool Flop Andrea Dossena Is Off To Russia To Fund Rafa Benitez' Swoop For Norwegian Strike Ace Erik Huseklepp

Liverpool are ready to offload Andrea Dossena to fund a move for Norwegian forward Erik Huseklepp.

Zenit St Petersburg have joined the race for Dossena and value the Italy left back at about £2million - £5m less than Rafa Benitez paid Udinese for him 18 months ago.

If the Reds are prepared to take such a big hit, the same fee should be enough to snare Huseklepp from Norwegian side Brann.

The 25-year-old, who can play up front or on the right wing, would jump at the chance of a move to the Barclays Premier League.

His agent Stig Lillejord said: 'If these rumours are correct, it's great. They are a big club and it's nice if they have noticed Erik.'

Wigan Athletic and Hull City are also said to be tracking Huseklepp, who scored 15 in 30 games for Brann last season and opened his international account in Norway's 4-0 victory over Scotland in August.

His agent added: 'There are several clubs who are seriously considering Erik, but I can't comment on which clubs.'

12-year-old Reds Fan Shocked By Man Utd Branded Goods In Liverpool FC Selection Box

Fanatical Reds supporter Sean Wright was delighted when he received a Liverpool FC selection box for Christmas.

But the 12-year-old’s excitement turned to dismay when he opened it to find a bag of sweets branded with the name of arch-rivals Manchester United.

Dad-of-three Chris Wright, of Bootle, ordered a selection box for each of his sons from the LFC online store.

And while the ones opened by younger boys, Joe, nine, and Callum, five, were as advertised, the one given to Sean contained a rogue packet of Red Devil jelly babies.

Sean said: “I really felt annoyed when I opened the selection box. I love Liverpool and don’t like Man United at all. I don’t know why there was a packet of Man United jelly beans in a Liverpool selection box. It just seems a bit stupid to me.

“I had a great Christmas and got a Wii and some games, a new Liverpool kit and a Liverpool tracksuit. And me and my brothers went to the match on Boxing Day.

“Getting the Man United sweets wasn’t what I wanted. But everything else about Christmas was really good. We had a laugh about it later. But I just don’t know why they were in there in the first place.”

Dad Chris said: “Sean’s mad on football and Liverpool FC in particular. So he’s obviously not fond of Man United.

“I had to laugh, but it’s not a very good image for the club that they are selling things with Man Utd’s name on them. It’s bad enough Michael Owen going to United without the selection box containing Man U stuff.

“The items in the selection boxes for all the different teams are probably assembled in the same factory. So maybe a Man Utd fan thought it would be a good joke to put one of theirs inside a Liverpool FC box.”

Mr. Wright – who celebrated his 43rd birthday on Christmas Day – is an LFC season ticket holder which entitled him to a discount on the £6 selection boxes.

He sent an email to the online shop but so far has not received any response.

The LFC website advertises the selection boxes by saying: “Put an extra special smile on your youngster’s face on Christmas morning by making sure he or she has an LFC selection box among their festive presents.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Team That Got Away From Benitez

As Liverpool's season descends terrifyingly closer to oblivion, the Anfield blame game promises to be as fearsome as anything seen on the pitch this season.

In the red corner there's Rafa Benitez's loyal followers, who argue lack of funds and years of incompetence in the transfer market have caused the backward steps since last May.

Hidden in their own corner of Texas and Montrael are Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., who insist their manager has been backed to the hilt financially during their three year tenure.

And somewhere caught in the middle are the vast majority of Liverpool supporters, screaming in frustration and demanding collective responsibility for the demise of their club.

Emile Heskey is the latest high profile name it's claimed Benitez won't be able to add to the ranks due to lack of funds.

He'll join an ever expanding list since Benitez arrived.

Sport of the World looks at the team that got away - the players Benitez tried - and failed - to recruit, and those he's let slip through his grasp.

NIKOLAY MIHAYLOV: The Bulgarian Under-21 keeper signed in 2007 only to discover he was ineligible.

LUCAS NEILL: Benitez failed with a £2.5m bid to Blackburn in 2006.

NEMANJA VIDIC: Vidic chose Man United in January 2006 and Liverpool bought Daniel Agger for £7m instead.

MATTHEW UPSON: Benitez hoped to lure £10m-rated Upson from Upton Park last summer only to discover the kitty was empty.

GABRIEL HEINZE: Liverpool failed in a court attempt to force United to sell them Heinze in 2007.

DANIEL ALVES: Alves was a target while at Seville, but his high valuation meant they had to settle for Jermaine Pennant.

GARETH BARRY: It was the saga of the summer in 2008. Aston Villa's refusal to budge on an £18m asking price scuppered the deal.

AARON RAMSEY: Liverpool wanted the youngster but Arsenal pounced for the £7m Cardiff star.

SIMAO SABROSA: Benfica called off the £9m deal in 2005 when their fans threatened a riot.

THEO WALCOTT: Benitez tried to sign Walcott with Peter Crouch in 2005. Southampton demanded a £12m package and Walcott headed to The Emirates.

EMILE HESKEY: Now at Villa, there's no chance he'll return to Anfield during this transfer window.

SUBS: Florent Malouda, Kakha Kaladze, Nolberto Solano, Stelios, Michael Owen and David Silva.

Alberto Aquilani Aiming For Italy Place In South Africa

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani has revealed that he is still planning on being on the plane for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and hopes Italy coach Marcello Lippi has not forgotten about him.

"I never stopped thinking about the World Cup. I did so even when under the knife," the player who spent months on the sidelines, told Sky Sport 24.

"I have an excellent relationship with the Nazionale coach, but I know I've lost a lot of time. I'll try [to regain my place], because it would be really important for me."

The 25-year-old made his first Premier League start since joining the Reds from Roma this past summer, in a 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton.

"The team does not deserve it's current low standing. We've had difficulties, but we will come out of this," he continued.

"On my part, I am happy because I had been out so long. It's important to play, so I can get back to my best condition. I have a good relationship with [Rafa] Benitez and even my team-mates, champions like [Fernando] Torres and [Steven] Gerrard, who welcomed me and helped me merge into this group."

Aquilani has 11 caps and two goals for the Azzurri during his career.

Torres To Quit If Reds Don't Make Top Four

Fernando Torres’ long- term loyalty for Liverpool is being stretched to its limit with the club battling to keep him beyond this season.

Rafa Benitez has already turned down a £70million bid from Manchester City for his star striker.

Chelsea also had an approach for Torres rebuffed last summer, with the player uninterested in leaving Anfield at the time.

But both City and the Blues are preparing renewed offers.

Torres has consistently committed himself to the Liverpool cause but that is conditional on the club proving they can fulfil his ambitions.

The Spaniard has become troubled by the shambolic events on and off the pitch in recent months and is seeking assurances the club will sort themselves out before the start of next season.

Torres left his boyhood team Atletico Madrid because they could not match his Champions League and trophy- winning dreams.

Liverpool's alarming slump is leading him to a similar situation where his heart is at his current club but he may be forced to move on.

Failure to finish in the top four and the continued presence of the current hierarchy would mean only blind faith could keep Torres at Anfield.

He recently signed a lucrative new deal but money is not his motivation.

Both Torres and skipper Steven Gerrard want to know if the club are likely to find the resources to undergo another major overhaul of the squad before next season.

Although Gerrard will also have no shortage of admirers this summer - especially if he enjoys a sparkling World Cup - the England midfielder is loathe to go through the same experience as he did during his on-off moves to Chelsea.

But that will not stop a mega-bid from Real Madrid, Barcelona or Inter Milan - even though all three have been rejected by Gerrard during the last two years.

If the Liverpool captain feels his club will continue to be in the same catastrophic mess when he returns from South Africa, he might decide he has had enough.

With guarantees of a brighter future in woefully short supply, the grimmest of campaigns is on the threshold of getting even worse without leadership from the top.

Benitez faces two pivotal fixtures over the next fortnight which will determine if his guarantee of a top-four finish is realistic and will ultimately decide his fate.

His side travel to Aston Villa on Tuesday and welcome Spurs on January 10.

If the deficit between Liverpool and their top four competitors has increased after that, Benitez's hopes of surviving beyond May will deteriorate.

The Kop boss accepts expectations have increased since last season's title challenge and he can only envy the levels of patience and understanding on offer to rival boss Martin O'Neill.

"When you are coming from a lower position, the motivation is high and it's easier," said Benitez.

"The expectations at this club are such that everyone thinks we should be in the top four. We know we have the quality to do it.

"When I joined the club, they were finding it very difficult to finish in the top four. Then we qualified for the Champions League five years in a row which was a really good achievement and it meant we were at a different level to other clubs.

"Now people expect we should stay there. But it's always difficult to make that last move to close the gap at the top. It depends on the structure of the club, money and everything.

"To control all these things is difficult and you can't make mistakes. This year, we have made mistakes. Now we have to do things properly to prepare for the next challenge. I'm not sure if Villa are the biggest threat as City and Spurs are also dangerous. But the main thing is to improve ourselves.

"By winning games in a row, we will be more confident."

Among those in the Villa ranks is full-back Stephen Warnock, who was released by Liverpool for £1.5m in 2007 but cost O'Neill £7m last summer.

Benitez is not surprised by the Scouse left-back's impressive form which earned him a recent England call-up.

But he defended his decision to sell the defender.

"He could have been a good player for us but he wanted to play every single game," said Benitez.

"We had Fabio Aurelio and, at the time, John Arne Riise who was a fantastic player for Liverpool. So we couldn't play him every game.

"When you have a player on the bench who has an opportunity to go, you can't stop this. He was always a good worker and very competitive and that's why he's at the level he is."

For all the frustration at Anfield, Benitez is increasingly helpless in trying to carry out the surgery which his squad need.

The Spaniard believes he will not get any extra funds in January and cannot anticipate any cash injection on the horizon beyond May - even if he survives the current crisis.

He will use the transfer window to try to generate his own resources.

That means Anfield flops Andriy Voronin, Ryan Babel and Andrea Dossena will be offered to interested clubs.

"I won't talk about individual names but it's clear I need to manage my squad and some players will be thinking they need to move because they're thinking about the World Cup," said Benitez. "There has been some interest in players."

Babel has made it clear he wants out and favours a return to Ajax. He is also interesting Spurs boss Harry Redknapp, who first enquired about the erratic Dutch winger last summer.

Hitman Voronin is likely to head back to the Bundesliga where Hertha Berlin have been long-time admirers.

Greek side Panathinaikos have also shown interest in the out-of-favour striker, who has been cast aside since appearing in the crunch Champions League clash with Lyon.

Left-back Dossena is desperate to return to Serie A with Napoli.

But these departures are unlikely to generate more than £7m for the cash-strapped Merseysiders.

The moves certainly will not appease the unsettled elements of the Liverpool squad who fear the club faces the prospect of falling further behind their top four rivals, never mind catching Chelsea.

A target man is Benitez's main priority in January. But although many at Anfield believe ex-Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistlerooy could provide a short-term solution, Benitez still needs to be convinced because of the 33-year-old's injury record.

The problem he faces is a growing belief his entire squad will need restructuring before the start of next season. At the moment, he has no option but to try and apply quick fixes.

Carragher: Let's See Who Are The Liverpool Flops

Jamie Carragher has warned that only the strongest Liverpool players will survive their disastrous season.

The defender, 31, has watched Anfield wannabes come and go during his 15 years playing in front of the Kop.

And Carragher believes that it is only in the dark days that true Liverpool players show their real colours.

Manager Rafa Benitez has seen the club hit the lowest point of his tenure with Liverpool dropping down the table and already out of the Champions League.

Carragher (below) said: “Good players who have done well at lesser clubs have come here and not been able to deal with the pressure.

“When the dust has settled after a rough patch, the ones still here are the strongest players.

“You’ve got to be able to take the knocks if you’re going to play for Liverpool.”

Team boss Benitez admits he will have to clear some players out to fund his January transfer window targets.

The Spaniard is hoping to offload Ryan Babel, 23, Andrea Dossena, 28, and Andriy Voronin, 30, as he looks to generate cash.

Benitez said: “We know that we will have to manage the squad if we want to make some changes in January.”

Alberto Aquilani Is Still Improving - Benitez

Liverpool tactician Rafael Benitez has insisted there is still room for improvement from summer acquisition Alberto Aquilani.

The Italian midfielder showed glimpses of the passing and visionary qualities that prompted Liverpool to splash out £20 million for his services, after being handed his maiden Premier League start in yesterday's clash with Wolverhampton.

But 'Pool gaffer Rafa Benitez insists there's still more to come from the ex-Roma schemer, who he believes will flourish upon his adaptation to the Premier League's high-tempo surrounds.

"I think he was trying to find the right pass, he was trying to be involved," Benitez told BBC Sport.

"Still, he will need to improve his match fitness," he continued. "And also, the tempo of the Premier League is not basic.

"But he was trying and that's the main thing for us."

The Spaniard also urged the Liverpool faithful to remain patient with their new signing, reminding fans time is still the key antidote, especially after a injury lay-off as lengthy as Aquilani's.

"He will need time, it is a question always for everyone, [when] becoming fit, they need time.

"For someone that was injured [like he was], they will need time," the Reds boss concluded.

Benitez Hails 'Tough' Win

Rafa Benitez felt Liverpool were worthy winners despite scrapping to a 2-0 success over Wolves on Boxing Day.

The Reds boss shared a different view to opposing boss Mick McCarthy of the red-card incident which saw Stephen Ward sent-off for a second bookable offence with the score goalless.

The hosts went on to claim maximum points via goals from Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun but Benitez felt his side deserved the three points for their performance throughout Saturday evening's contest.

"We knew they would be tough," said Benitez of Wolves, who came into the Anfield clash off the back of recent wins against Burnley and Tottenham.

"They were working very hard. The sending-off I think was clear.

"We were more in control. We were in control at the beginning of the second half especially, but you have to score goals and finish the game.

"It was important to win and the first goal was really, really important for us. The second one was killing the game."

Saturday's win saw Benitez able to hand summer signing Alberto Aquilani his first Liverpool start in the Premier League and the Italian produced an assured performance, including a stunning ball to Benayoun in the second half.

But the £20million acquisition was hauled off towards the latter stages of the game and walked straight down the tunnel with fears that the midfielder could have picked up yet another injury.

But Benitez was quick to allay such fears adding: "We could see he was tired and we wanted to keep the tempo.

"After a long time of not playing 90 minutes it's important to give the player a rest."

It remains to be seen whether Aquilani will start Liverpool's next game in three days against high-flying Aston Villa in what proves to be a crunch clash in the battle for a top-four finish.

And the Reds boss is hoping his side can take confidence from their latest win in to Tuesday's clash at Villa Park.

"We know Aston Villa will be a difficult team so we will try to do our best again," the Spaniard concluded.

Morgan Blames Moores For Anfield Chaos

David Moores has been accused of triggering the Anfield chaos by 'putting his own interests before the club'.

Wolves owner Steve Morgan, whose side faced the Merseysiders yesterday, laid the blame for the current turmoil on Liverpool's Life President for selling to the American owners.

Morgan's efforts to buy Liverpool for £100million were rebuffed in 2004 before then-chairman Moores sold to Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr.

And the resentment between the former rivals is still simmering.

Morgan blasted: "I've no wish to get involved in a slanging match with David Moores, but the fact is he wanted the best for David Moores and not for the club.

"He was entitled to do that but it's his decision which has led to the situation Liverpool are in now.

"What I find unfortunate is I saw what could happen and predicted it. That's all on record at the time. You can't have that level of debt and move a football club forward.

"My fear is if they miss out on the Champions League they'll be even more short of money.

"The best players like Fernando Torres will want to leave. And even Steven Gerrard, who has given everything for the club for the last 10 years, will be considering his future.

"It was an emotional day for me to go to Anfield yesterday, especially with my son as a mascot, but I'm 100 per cent committed to Wolves now."

One of Morgan's backers when he made his bid five years ago was Anfield's new managing director Christian Purslow.

The Scouse-born Molineux chief reckons Purslow offers the best hope of resolving the on-going ownership crisis. He said: "Christian and I have been friends for the last six years. I remember he spoke very well at an AGM and we met up afterwards.

"From a business point of view, they couldn't have found anyone better to try and sort out their problems. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for them, except when they're playing Wolves, of course."

Moyes Plots Raid On Liverpool For Teenager

Everton are trying to snatch young star Adam Pepper from bitter rivals Liverpool.

The 18-year-old central midfielder was the most highly-sought schoolboy on Merseyside when he opted to join the Anfield Academy. But his opportunities have been limited since the restructuring of the club's youth system over last summer.

Now Goodison staff are hoping to lure the teenager across Stanley Park, with the promise of making a breakthrough under manager David Moyes.

The Toffees boss will be able to offer the teenager the prospect of a quicker route into the first-team and exact revenge on the red half of Merseyside after he was initially lured from Everton as a schoolboy.

Stoke City Eyeing Liverpool's Ryan Babel

British tabloid News Of The World has reported that Stoke City boss Tony Pulis has set his sights on an ambitious raid for Liverpool striker Ryan Babel.

The Dutchman has found first team chances increasingly hard to come by despite assurances from manager Rafael Benitez, and Pulis is claimed to be wanting to capitalize on the former Ajax ace's situation at Anfield.

Pulis is willing to throw in want-away striker James Beattie in any deal with the Reds, although it's said that Benitez would prefer straight cash as he looks to trim the squad, and in turn, accrue funds to ease the club's ailing financial situation.

Liverpool Planning To Offload Trio To Fund Moves For Carlton Cole And Victor Moses

Liverpool hope to offload Ryan Babel, Andrei Voronin and Andrea Dossena in the transfer window to free up cash for new signings.

Boss Rafael Benitez is hoping to move the trio on after fielding calls for the stars in recent weeks.

Babel is wanted by Bayern Munich, Dossena by Napoli and Voronin is interesting Panathinaikos, although Liverpool will have to take a hit on the £18million they splashed out to land the internationals.

Benitez wants the money to fund moves for West Ham frontman Carlton Cole and Palace winger Victor Moses.

He said: “We know at this time that we have to manage the squad and try and do some changes in the transfer window.

“Normally, players that are not playing will be looking at other options, especially with a World Cup coming up.

“There has been interest in some of our players.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 2 - 0 Wolverhampton

Liverpool's players handed boss Rafael Benitez a welcome Christmas tonic with a battling win against 10-man Wolves.

The hosts were poor throughout but forced their way into the game after Stephen Ward had been controversially sent off for two yellow cards.

The numerical advantage allowed Steven Gerrard to powerfully head home an Emiliano Insua cross after the break.

Yossi Benayoun doubled the lead with a deflected effort from close-range to hand the hosts an unconvincing victory.

The hosts came into the match having won just two of their last eight league games and in the unusual position of being mid-table at the mid-way point of the season.

And while fans will not be convinced they have turned the corner after another stuttering display, the cheers around at Anfield at the final whistle will at least offer Benitez some festive cheer.

Wolves were the better side at times and manager Mick McCarthy will surely point to the dismissal of Ward as the turning point.

Referee Andre Marriner showed the defender a second yellow card - but only after being surrounded by Liverpool players for incorrectly cautioning Christophe Berra.

McCarthy had clearly fancied his side's chances of causing an upset by fielding a full-strength team - a very different approach to Wolves' recent outing against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

But the decision to field an attacking 4-4-2 formation allowed Liverpool to take control of the game in the early stages.

The visitors were fortunate Glen Johnson scooped a shot wide after finding space down the right while Fernando Torres, showing no sign of his long-standing groin injury, then tested Marcus Hahnemann after wriggling free in the inside left channel.

Alberto Aquilani, finally making his first Premier League start, looked comfortable in possession but some ill-advised flicks in and around the box tested the patience of an increasingly nervous Anfield crowd.

And Wolves, inspired by their fine recent form in the league, pushed forward and began to create chances of their own.

Nenad Milijas forced Pepe Reina into action from a free-kick before Kevin Doyle put a sharp header wide from only three yards out.

And the hosts' promising start had well and truly faded by the time Kevin Foley failed to control in the box after being left completely unmarked as the tension and frustration around a freezing Anfield increased still further.

But Wolves' hopes were dealt a blow when Ward was sent off early in the second half in chaotic circumstances.

The left-back, already cautioned for a tug on Benayoun, was eventually shown a second yellow card for a foul on Lucas - but not before referee Marriner incorrectly penalised Berra for the offence.

The decision appeared to galvanise the Reds and they soon took the lead when Insua's teasing cross was met in dominant fashion by home captain Gerrard, leaving Hahnemann with no chance.

Any result still seemed possible as gaps appeared all over the field, however, until Benayoun made it 2-0 midway through the second half.

Another fine cross, this time from Fabio Aurelio, found its way to the Israeli and his shot took a cruel deflection off Karl Henry and looped into the net.

From that point on there was no way back for Wolves but McCarthy can take a raft of positives from another impressive display.

Liverpool fans will be thankful of the points but their side are still a shadow of the team that sat top of the Premier League on Boxing Day last season.

f Alberto Aquilani Doesn't Start Delivering, He Could End Up Costing Rafa Benitez Far More Than £20m

Alberto Aquilani cannot have got his calf strain from playing - because he never plays.

Of all the crazy deals in Rafa Benitez’s revolving door transfer policy at Liverpool, the £20m purchase of Aquilani takes some beating.

Benitez got him on the cheap from Roma because of his injury record. And guess what? He’s been injured most of the season.

Up to now, it’s been a bad buy and it may end up costing Rafa very dear indeed because Liverpool look desperately short of quality throughout their squad and Benitez doesn’t have the resources to do much about it.

But despite it being a rotten end to 2009 for Liverpool, my heart tells me that they will still finish in the top four - even if my head is telling me otherwise.

Liverpool In Hunt For strikers

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is said to be lining up an early transfer window move - with three Premier League strikers in his sights.

The Mirror reports that ex Liverpool man Emile Heskey, Kenwyne Jones of Sunderland and Manchester City's Roque Santa Cruz are the top names on his wish list.

It is understood the Anfield boss will be allowed to bring in two new players next month and his main priority is another forward to support Fernando Torres.

As well as the Premier league frontmen Benitez has also been linked to young Spanish star Juan Manuel Mata of Valencia.

It is understood that any transfers would be funded with money raised from the sales of frine players such as Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena, Andriy Voronin and Philipp Degen.

However Aston Villa man Heskey is also linked to Chelsea, who need cover for Didier Drogba when he takes part in the African Cup of Nations next month.

Emile Heskey, Kenwyne Jones And Roque Santa Cruz Top Rafa Benitez's Christmas List

Rafa Benitez will make an instant splash in the transfer window, with Premier League strikers Emile Heskey, Kenwyne Jones and Roque Santa Cruz topping his wish list.

The Liverpool boss has been given the go-ahead to bring in two new players as soon as the window opens on January 1, and his main priority is a forward to take the pressure off Fernando Torres.

The Spanish coach has targeted one of the experienced trio, and also has young Spanish star Juan Manuel Mata on his short-list, as he looks for the reinforcements he hopes can help salvage something from Liverpool's disastrous season.

Benitez has been told he can spend the money he raises from selling fringe players like Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena, Andriy Voronin and Philipp Degen, which could give him a figure approaching £15million.

And he wants a striker in immediately, which means he will swing into action as soon as the New Year dawns.

Heskey is his prime target, but the Anfield boss is painfully aware that his relationship with Aston Villa counterpart Martin O'Neill is non-existent and that could scupper any chance of a deal.

O'Neill would prefer to sell his striker to Chelsea, and that deal could go through swiftly, with the London club hoping to bring the England striker in as cover for Didier Drogba, who will be away for much of January on African Cup of Nations duty.

If Liverpool lose out on Heskey - and that seems likely with Chelsea ready to spend upwards of £5million on the 30 year old - then he will put all his efforts into landing one of the next three on his list.

The Reds manager though, knows that the asking price for all three will be prohibitive, and that could stop him from making a deal unless he can get decent money from his surplus to requirement players in the January sales.

Mata is a highly regarded full Spanish international who, at the age of 21, has already shown his immense promise with Valencia in La Liga, but that has catapulted his price towards the £20million mark, which is far too expensive for Liverpool.

Santa Cruz too, could be priced out of Liverpool's league. The Paraguay international centre forward has made only eight appearances since signing for Manchester City for £17.5million, but the Eastlands club will not want to let him go to a direct rival unless the money is right.

Jones is more in Liverpool's price range, and he could be available in January, after relations with his Sunderland boss Steve Bruce have become strained in recent months.

The Trinidad and Tobago international has scored 23 goals in 76 Premier League games for Sunderland, and would be available at around the £10million mark.

Stoke have been pursuing the striker too, but Jones would be keener to make the move to Anfield, and he could become a more likely option for Benitez if his other targets prove unattainable.

When Benitez has determined which striker he will sign, he will then swiftly turn his attentions to bringing in a wide player who can help provide the threat that has been missing this season.

Benitez will wait to see how much money he has left after trying to sell at least four players in the window, but he is determined to also bring in a winger as well as a striker to bolster his squad as he looks to markedly improve performances in the New Year.

Reds Linked With Norwegian

SK Brann striker Erik Huseklepp has been linked with a shock move to Liverpool in the January transfer window.

Speculation in Norway has suggested the 25-year-old forward could be heading to the Premier League giants in the New Year with boss Rafa Benitez keen to bolster his striking options as he bids to resurrect a miserable season on Merseyside thus far.

The Reds have badly missed skipper Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando Torres for long spells this season and only the inexperienced David Ngog has provided anything near an acceptable back-up to the Kop's star duo.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Victor Moses have all been linked with a move to Anfield in recent weeks but a lack of finances looks likely to scupper Benitez's plans to secure a deal for any of the trio.

An alternative option for the Reds boss is Huseklepp, who would be a significantly cheaper choice, but the Norwegian international hardly boasts a prolific goalscoring record with only 12 strikes in his career.

Huseklepp has also courted interest from Hull City and Wigan, as well as a number of clubs in France, and the Norwegian international's agent has revealed the five-time European champions have yet to make contact with him about a potential move.

"In case these rumours are correct, it's great." Huseklepp's agent Stig Lillejord told Bergens Tidende.

"It's a big club and it's nice if they have noticed Erik. There are several clubs who are seriously considering Erik, but I can't comment which clubs."

Benitez Admits Torres Concerns

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez admits he is performing a delicate balancing act with the fitness of star striker Fernando Torres.

The Reds No.9 has persistently struggled this season and was absent for several weeks due to a groin injury which created rumours that he requires a hernia operation.

Torres was far from his best as he started Liverpool's defeat at Portsmouth last weekend, but he is again expected to be a member of the first XI for Boxing Day's meeting with Wolves at Anfield.

Liverpool, who sit eight points off the Premier League's top four, then face crucial matches against fourth-placed Aston Villa and fifth-placed Tottenham, with a trip to Reading in the FA Cup sandwiched in between.

Benitez is desperate to have Torres available, but confesses it is an uncertain process of nursing his record signing through matches, saying in the Daily Mirror: We know it is difficult for Fernando and we have to do it a different way.

"If he is okay, we can give him time. If he feels something, we have to rest him.

"We have to manage his injury. He could manage a full Christmas program, but we will see if he can start."

Meanwhile, Benitez has dismissed suggestions that he has held a specifically-arranged meeting with Steven Gerrard to discuss his captain's lack of form and confidence.

The Reds boss said in The Independent: "Have I had a meeting with him? We have a lot of corridors here and we bump into one another. We don't need to organise a proper meeting.

"I have a lot of conversations not just with Steven but a lot of players and they know they want to improve. Sometimes they try too hard.

"I was talking this week about how to improve. I was really pleased because they were positive."