Saturday, January 03, 2009

FA Cup Preview: Preston North End vs. Liverpool

Liverpool kick off their FA Cup with a short trip through Lancashire to face Preston North End. Rafael Benitez’s men have endured some notable stumbles against lower-league opposition in recent years, but their Premier League form has made a big impact at Deepdale.

The Reds finished off 2008 in style, handing Newcastle United 5-1 drubbing at St James’ Park to cement top spot heading into the New Year. Pundits England-wide declared that they were officially the team to beat in 2009, and that message was received loud and clear by the PNE squad.

“I reckon we could be in for a busy time judging by what we saw there,” said Sean St Ledger, Preston’s star defender. “We were watching it on the bus to Barnsley and when they got their third or fourth goal against Newcastle there was a stampede to get the remote control and switch it off.”

However, there is hope for the Lilywhites yet, and it is perhaps appropriate that they were on their way to Oakwell whilst watching Liverpool’s demolition of the Toon. Few could forget how the Anfield giants fell to the Tykes in last season’s FA Cup, with Brian Howard besting Xabi Alonso and Jamie Carragher to crack home a last-ditch winner in front of the Kop.

That wasn’t the first time the Merseysiders had missed a gimme in the world’s oldest football tournament. In 2005, during Benitez’s first term at the helm, they were ushered out by Burnley after losing 0-1 at Turf Moor in the third round.

So they are beatable, are the ‘Pool, even if they seem anything but after their comprehensive display on Tyneside. Indeed, they have lost just twice this term – both to Tottenham Hotspur – in all competitions. The drama concerning Steven Gerrard’s night in lock-up has threatened to burst their bubble, though, and they come up against a side in pretty decent nick themselves.

Preston have lost just twice in their last nine games and sit seventh in the Championship standings, just goal difference shy of the play-off places. They could only manage a draw against Barnsley last weekend, but the 1-1 result may have given Alan Irvine’s men a curious sense of confidence: that of being on level terms with a team who downed Liverpool (and Chelsea, for that matter).


Preston North End

Dec 09 Preston North End 1 - 0 Doncaster Rovers
Dec 13 Preston North End 1 - 0 Birmingham
Dec 20 Queens Park Rangers 3 - 2 Preston North End
Dec 26 Preston North End 2 - 0 Derby County
Dec 28 Barnsley 1 - 1 Preston North End


Dec 09 PSV Eindhoven 1 - 3 Liverpool
Dec 13 Liverpool 2 - 2 Hull City
Dec 21 Arsenal 1 - 1 Liverpool
Dec 26 Liverpool 3 - 0 Bolton Wanderers
Dec 28 Newcastle United 1 - 5 Liverpool


Preston North End

Defensive duo Liam Chilvers and Neal Trotman remain unavailable through injury, as does goalkeeper Wayne Henderson. On-loan Ross Wallace is expected to feature, however, after receiving clearance from his owners, Sunderland.

Meanwhile, Neil Mellor is a chance to line up against his former club. The striker, best known for his contribution to the Reds’ successful 2005 Champions League campaign, will tussle with Jon Parkin, Chris Brown and Stephen Elliott for a starting spot.


The big news is that Stevie G is expected to play, just days after being charged with assault and affray for brawling at a Southport nightclub. Equally exciting is the possibility of Fernando Torres’ return to action after a month out with a hamstring problem – the Spaniard should be named on the bench.

Some of Anfield’s young guns will get a run-out, with the likes of Damien Plessis, Lucas Leiva, David N’Gog and Nabil El Zhar all in contention to start. Robbie Keane, left out altogether against Newcastle, may also feature from the get-go.

Alvaro Arbeloa (hamstring) and Fabio Aurelio (calf) return to the squad after injury, while Martin Skrtel could make his first start in defence since suffering knee-ligament damage in October.


Ross Wallace (Preston North End)

The young Scot impressed initially at Sunderland following his move from Celtic in 2006, but he drifted out of Roy Keane’s plans after suffering a serious knee injury 12 months ago. While most often used as a full-back at the Stadium of Light, the 23-year-old has played further up the pitch since arriving at Deepdale and has been very lively down the left flank.

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

A no-brainer. Captain Fantastic was not only in electric form on his last outing, but the spotlight is well and truly fixed on him after his late-night fight at the Lounge Inn. The England man will be desperate to get the press and the public focusing on his football once more, so Preston’s midfield could be in for a bit of a battering.

Fernando Torres And Martin Skrtel Ready To Start For Reds

Fernando Torres and Martin Skrtel have handed Liverpool a major double boost by declaring themselves fit to start tonight's FA Cup clash with Preston.

The star duo have missed large chunks of the season so far through injury but are now ready to return, and Reds boss Rafa Benitez will see how they fare in today’s final training session before deciding whether or not to pitch them in from the start at Deepdale.

Skrtel was given a brief 11 minute run-out in the closing stages of Liverpool’s 5-1 rout of Newcastle last Sunday and has taken a full part in training this week after recovering from a knee ligament injury sustained at Manchester City at the start of October.

In the three months the Slovakian has been missing, Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger have taken it in turns to operate alongside Jamie Carragher.

But with Carragher currently playing at right back due to the absence of Alvaro Arbeloa because of a hamstring injury, the Liverpool manager will be delighted to have his central defensive options boosted by Skrtel’s return.

The 24-year-old has been a massive hit at Anfield since moving to Liverpool from Zenit St Petersburg in a £6.5m transfer a year ago.

Torres has not featured since Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Marseille in the Champions League at the end of November.

Persistent hamstring problems have meant the Spanish striker has only been able to play in half of the Reds fixtures so far this season, and having had to do without the services of last season’s top scorer on so many occasions Benitez will be keen to see Torres back in action.

The Reds boss must now decide whether to give his fit again stars immediate recalls to Liverpool’s starting eleven or to ease them back into action more gradually.

Having adopted a safety first approach with Torres in a bid to ensure he comes back injury free, Benitez will not be willing to risk Liverpool’s record signing unless he is 100% convinced that his latest hamstring injury has totally cleared up.

Liverpool's Emiliano Insua Dreaming Of Wembley

Memories of Argentinians in the FA Cup are inevitably dominated by images of Ricky Villa slaloming his way around a string of Manchester City players to score one of the competition’s most famous goals.

To this day, Villa’s name still resonates thanks to his Wembley wonder strike in 1981 and now one of his fellow countrymen is hoping to carve out his own niche in FA Cup history.

Having recently earned himself a place in Liverpool’s starting eleven, Emiliano Insua can now allow himself to dream of running out in the shadow of the twin towers where Villa made his name in the white shirt of Tottenham Hotspur.

Today, Insua will travel to Preston with the rest of the Reds squad as Liverpool enter the FA Cup at the third round stage and though he dreams of Wembley, for the time being he would be more than happy just to be involved against North End at Deepdale.

“I have never played in the FA Cup before but it is a competition I know a lot about because it is famous all over the world,” he said.

“I have played in the Carling Cup and I know that the cup competitions in England always produce special games and big occasions so it would be nice for me if I could play in the FA Cup also.

“Everyone at Liverpool has told me how important the FA Cup is and we must try to win it.

“It is very difficult to try and win three different tournaments but this is what you must try to do when you are at a club like Liverpool.

“It would be a dream for me to play at Wembley. It is a stadium that I have never been to but it is one which every player would love to play at.”

Before anyone at Anfield can even think about playing at Wembley though, Liverpool must first find a way past a Preston side which currently finds itself on the fringes of the play off places in the Championship.

Insua may only have been in this country for two years following his move to Anfield from Boca Juniors but in this time he has seen enough of the English game to know that teams from the tier just below the Premier League can cause problems for even the biggest of guns.

But with the tie taking place just four days before he turns 20, the left back is hoping to receive an early birthday present in the form of qualification for the next round.

“All teams in the Championship are very strong and very difficult to play against,” he said.

“We are playing away at Preston’s ground so we know it will be a tough game for us because they will be looking to try and knock us out.

“But we have to concentrate on our own game and try to play like we have been doing in the last couple of games and hopefully that will be enough.”

Those last couple of games have been hugely promising for Liverpool with a pair of impressive back to back wins against Bolton and Newcastle providing the perfect end to 2008.

The standard Rafa Benitez’s side set for itself in the 5-1 hammering of Newcastle at St James’ Park is one which Insua believes Liverpool must try to reach in every single game they play, even though he knows it is a big ask to do so.

He said: “I really enjoyed the game against Newcastle because the team played really well. We scored five goals and created a lot of chances so we could have won by even more than we did.

“We kept the ball really well and even after conceding a goal just before half time we kept pushing forward and looking for more goals so it was really good for me to be part of a performance as good as this one.

“It is not always possible to play to this level but this is what we must try to do.”

Since coming into the side at Blackburn a month ago, Insua has impressed everyone with his performances at full back.

So much so that he is now seen as a genuine contender to become Liverpool’s long term solution in the left back position which has been such a problem for so long.

In games against Arsenal, Bolton and Newcastle, the Buenos Aires-born youngster has won plaudits for his displays and now Insua is determined to get better still as he bids to nail down a regular starting place.

He said: “I am trying to do the same things in every single game – to work hard, do the simple things and defend well.

“The manager has given me a lot of confidence and I will keep training hard in every session and always give my best, because when you get your chance you have to take it.”

Not only has Insua received support from Benitez, he has also been given the total backing of his more senior team mates in Liverpool’s back four and he believes the advice and guidance he has been afforded by his colleagues has been a massive help.

“The senior players have helped me a lot,” he admitted. “They give me a lot of confidence by telling me I am doing well and supporting me on and off the pitch.

“I feel good about this because it means a lot for a young player to have such support from players like Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger.

“I am learning from them all the time. I watch them and try to copy the good things that they do because they are such good players and I know that if I can learn from them then I will become a better player.”

Leverkusen Issue Hands-Off Warning Over Renato Augusto

Bayer Leverkusen general manager Michael Reschke insists his club have no intent of cashing in on Renato Augusto.

The 20-year-old Brazilian midfielder arrived for just €5 million last summer and has been outstanding for his side and he has helped keep Leverkusen in the chase for the Bundesliga title.

Liverpool, Juventus and Inter are just three of the big names linked with the ex Flamengo standout, but Reschke has now insistied that it will be difficult for anyone to prise the Brazilian international away from The BayArena.

"The fact that a player like Renato Augusto awakens desire in other clubs was always clear," Reschke explained to Express.

"A transfer is not open to debate for us. I had a long chat with the player before Christmas.

"Renato feels happy about us at Bayer and wants to make the step up to the Brazilian national team.

"The boy is facing a great career ahead of him. Should he leave eventually, he can choose where he wants to go."

Rafa Benitez: I’m Up For The FA Cup

Anyone who believes the FA Cup means very little to Rafael Benitez should glance towards the directors’ box at Deepdale this evening.

The Liverpool manager will once again assume his temporary vantage point for his team’s third round clash against Coca-Cola Championship side Preston North End.

Benitez takes to the stands as he continues to recover from the two operations to remedy a kidney stones complaint.

While the Spaniard accepts staying at home would increase the rate of his return to full health, there is no chance of him watching on television and directing operations via a mobile phone as against Arsenal last month.

However, Benitez has revealed he is still being troubled by the after-effects of his surgery.

“I am improving,” says the Anfield manager. “I will need time. The first week was very, very painful. After the Arsenal game I was a little bit worse because you have more anxiety and stress. After the second operation I feel much better.

“I will not be in dug-out because I cannot move properly and shout. If you don’t have too much energy then maybe you cannot transmit everything so it is better to stay in the stands and leave it to Sammy Lee and Mauricio Pellegrino.

“In terms of my health if I stay at home it would be easier, I would be fit sooner rather than later. But I think it is important for me to be there.”

Having stayed away from the 1-1 draw at the Emirates, Benitez was in attendance for the 3-0 home win over Bolton Wanderers on Boxing Day and the resounding 5-1 triumph at Newcastle United two days later.

On both occasions the Anfield manager communicated with the bench from the directors’ box, but has no intention of making it a permanent feature of his matchday.

“I prefer to be on the bench because you can shout and transmit things quickly,” says Benitez. “Because you have experience of football you can see things clearly, and when you go to the stands you see football in a different way.

“Maybe you can see some things there but you cannot transmit it properly. Both positions can be good but I prefer to stay on the bench.

“The game against Bolton and Newcastle I was in the stands I was going into the dressing room at half-time and talking to them.

“You can show that you are there, you are analysing you are giving support to them. It shows we are taking it seriously.”

Despite guiding Liverpool to their seventh FA Cup triumph in 2006, the Spaniard has often been accused of undermining the competition.

Infamous defeats at Burnley and last season to Barnsley at Anfield came with Benitez having fielded under-strength sides, while non-league Havant and Waterlooville also gave Liverpool a major shock 12 months ago before succumbing 5-2.

Liverpool will once again make changes this evening but, with Steven Gerrard starting and Fernando Torres likely to appear as substitute, the visitors will have a strong starting line-up.

“We will try to progress,” says Benitez. “The FA Cup is a fantastic competition for us and we will try and win it.

“My mind hasn’t changed, but the squad has. If you improve your squad and have more quality then it is easier to progress and win games.

“Every single year the squad is better, so you can change players and maintain the level of the team.”

Jamie Carragher is also aware of Liverpool’s indifferent FA Cup showing in recent times. The Anfield outfit have only reached the quarter-finals five times in the last 19 years, although on four of those occasions they went on to reach the final and won the trophy three times.

“Over the years our record hasn’t been that good,” says Carragher. “We either seem to go all the way and win it, or get knocked out early.

“We’re never in the quarter-finals or semi-finals on a regular basis, which is what we should be doing.

“We do that in the Champions League nearly every year and have to start doing it in the FA Cup too.”

This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and Carragher sees this new campaign as an opportunity to pay tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans who died.

“It will be 20 years since Hillsborough, and that is something we are all obviously aware of,” says the centre-back.

“Because of that there will be extra significance attached to the competition for us. Going on to win it would be the perfect tribute to those who died.”

As well as Torres, Benitez can again today call on Martin Skrtel, who made an 11-minute appearance as substitute at Newcastle after almost three months out with a serious knee injury.

Fabio Aurelio is also nearing a comeback and the Liverpool manager says: “I think that all the players will be important but when you have Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel and Fernando Torres coming back, players who have not played too much in the first half of the season, it is like signing two or three new players.

“I think signing Aurelio, Skrtel and Torres has been very cheap because we haven’t spent money. We are not desperate to go to the market.

“If we need something we will try but we are in a good position so we can use the players we have back now and the players we had before. I think we have enough numbers.”

Important For Liverpool To Keep Up The Winning Habit

Liverpool enter 2009 in our most promising league position in the Premier League era.

As such, the arrival of the FA Cup feels something of a distraction from the real business of winning the league.

However, such thoughts should be banished come kick off. It’s important to maintain the winning habit, we have not played at the new Wembley yet and Deepdale is not just any ground. It’s at Deepdale that Bill Shankly spent much of his playing career and North End have named a stand in his honour.

His favourite player, Sir Tom Finney, should be attending the game too. As such, it would be heresy for Liverpool to not embrace the competition and the tie.

In Neil Mellor Preston also possess one of our more colourful ex-players who will be fondly remembered for his performance and goal against Olympiakos on the way to the glory of Istanbul. I’d expect Benitez to rest a few players but would hope he maintains a strong spine perhaps augmented by a couple of the younger players such as Darby and Spearing.

Of course it would also be great to see Fernando Torres playing a part. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our season is that it has been achieved largely without the world’s best centre-forward. A week ago I would not have expected to see our number eight playing but perhaps a starting place will help provide a useful focus away from other events. It would be good to see both Lucas and Insua continue their impressive run of form. Insua strikes me as the best left-back we have at the club and he deserves a run in the team.

It should a cracking match. Hard fought, fast, frenetic and very entertaining. Bill Shankly would be salivating in anticipation.

Carragher Wants Liverpool To Raise Their Game And Stop FA Cup Failures

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher believes the club has to sharpen up their act in the FA Cup.

Carragher, 30, has two FA Cup winners' medals to his name from 2001 and 2006, but he accepts a club of Liverpool's stature should be contesting the final stages of the world's greatest club cup competition on a more regular basis.

Frequently under boss Rafael Benitez, Liverpool have fielded weakened sides in the tournament, and suffered as a consequence.

But generally over the past 18 years, there have been embarrassing defeats.

Since winning the cup in 1992 against Sunderland, Liverpool have been eliminated six times by teams from the division below.

These defeats were inflicted by Bolton (1993), Bristol City (1994), Blackburn (2000), Crystal Palace (2003), Burnley (2005) and last season Barnsley.

And in that time they have only had three final appearances, losing to Manchester United in '96, and winning the cup against Arsenal in 2001 and West Ham in 2006.

Carragher said: 'Over the years our record hasn't been that good.

'We either seem to go all the way and win it, or get knocked out early.

'We're never in the quarter-finals or semi-finals on a regular basis, which is what we should be doing.

'We do that in the Champions League nearly every year and have to start doing it in the FA Cup too.'

This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and Carragher sees this new campaign as an opportunity to pay tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans who died in Sheffield on April 15, 1989 at the semi-final with Nottingham Forest.

He says: 'It will be 20 years since Hillsborough, and that is something we are all obviously aware of.

'Because of that there will be extra significance attached to the competition for us. Going on to win it would be the perfect tribute to those who died.'

Preston had lost their last 10 FA Cup meetings with top-flight opposition before defeating Derby County 4-1 at Pride Park last season.

Since the inception of the Premier League they have been beaten by Arsenal, Everton, Chelsea, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Manchester City. Seven of those 10 defeats have come in front of their home fans.

Liverpool Desperate Not To Be Distracted By Arrest Of Gerrard

Any other name and the arrest of a footballer after a bar brawl would not have registered on the Richter scale of Christmas surprises. But Steven Gerrard is not any other name and this is not any other Premier League season for Liverpool. His detention by Merseyside Police yesterday and subsequent charge for assault and affray is a distraction Rafael Benítez needs as much as another kidney stone.

"Remain humble, keep our feet on the ground and keep working hard" were Gerrard's words as he left St James' Park on Sunday afternoon after scoring twice in Liverpool's 5–1 destruction of Newcastle United. They sounded hollow when news of his arrest emerged and a calendar year of giant strides on the pitch and major tremors off it for Liverpool received a depressingly suitable finale.

What will have pained Benítez most of all is that the distraction from Liverpool's outstanding performance on Tyneside and their growing credibility as a title-winning team should come from a player he trusted implicitly.

It may be a slight consolation to the Spaniard that Gerrard's arrest did not impinge on his professional workload. Liverpool's first-team squad were given a belated two-day Christmas holiday after the Newcastle game. Although the wisdom of a high-profile England international ­staying out on the town until 2.30am is always open to question, Gerrard is not due back in training until tomorrow morning and is one of the key players Benítez is considering resting in the FA Cup third-round tie at Preston North End on Saturday evening.

The day spent in a police station intruded more on the 28-year-old's family life than on his other devotion: delivering to Liverpool their first league title since 1990. Perversely, and without playing down the assault charge in the Lounge Inn, Southport, the incident may concentrate Gerrard's energies on that challenge to a greater degree than they already are. The midfielder will be mortified at generating unwanted headlines hours after the club's finest performance of the season brought their championship credentials wider ­recognition and he will be wary of being involved in a repeat between now and May. He wouldn't be the first player to turn a siege mentality to his professional advantage.

Gerrard's nocturnal habits have not been an issue since he was hauled over the coals by Gérard Houllier early in his Anfield career. "If his mates want to go to a nightclub, let them. By the time he has finished he can buy one of his own," the former Liverpool manager famously remarked of the man he appointed the club's youngest-ever captain. That sage advice struck a chord with Gerrard, by and large, and an instantly recognisable face has consciously avoided inviting trouble in the goldfish bowl of Merseyside.

All of which adds to the shock of Gerrard's arrest. As Liverpool captain the midfielder has been at the forefront of the club's attempts to place a lid on controversy and concentrate entirely on the Premier League this season. Even Tom Hicks and George Gillett have heeded that lesson after the mess they made of their first full season as Liverpool's co-owners.

Despite the impact of the global credit crunch on their personal fortunes and plans to construct a 60,000-seat stadium on Stanley Park, delayed indefinitely to the chagrin of supporters, sponsors, local residents and councillors, the Americans have made quiet progress with extending their refinancing package with the Royal Bank of Scotland by six months from 25 January next year. Even the delicate subject of extending Benítez's contract, with the manager seeking a longer-term deal than they envisaged and greater control over transfers, has progressed relatively smoothly. Plans to complete a new 4½-year deal with Benítez before Christmas were delayed by a kidney stone operation he underwent on 15 December.

Further disruption lies in wait for Liverpool in the form of Daniel Agger as the Danish defender delays extending a contract that has only 18 months to run.

"I hope to stay," Agger said yesterday, but the Dane is wanted by several European clubs and is holding out for a significant pay increase from Liverpool. "I don't know what the hold-up is. I let the club do the talking and I will try and do mine on the pitch. I am trying to improve. Of course I want to stay if it is possible." As I say, the club is dealing with my contract talks and we will take it from there."

With the exception of releasing Jermaine Pennant, now a loan-transfer target for Wigan Athletic after Juande Ramos thwarted his possible move to Real Madrid, Liverpool do not expect to be prominent in the January transfer window. The priority, as Gerrard knows only too well, is to lead the way in May.

Gerrard The Icon Of Liverpool's Drama

Steven Gerrard's life seems to be unusually beset with tragedy and trauma, particularly for a millionaire ostensibly ensconced in privilege. Amidst the routine of his working life there is an inescapable theme of potential unfulfilled and his personal world appears to suffer from an uncommonly high incurrence of conflict and misdemeanour. It is all the more melancholy to behold as, in keeping with his manager Rafa Benítez's description of him, Gerrard radiates "niceness".

One would struggle to begrudge him his talent, his success, his drive or his reassuringly low hairline because, as is often said and perennially apparent "Stevie G" is the fan's representative in heaven. After Liverpool's victory against Milan in Istanbul the breathlessly victorious captain was asked if he would still be joining Chelsea as rumoured.

"How can I, after this?" he beamed back, all puffed out and exhilarated like a toddler when indulged by an irresponsible uncle – you know, when they get a little clammy head and their fringe sticks to their forehead then their mum comes and calms them down and you (me, it's just been Christmas, I've been winding kids up) have to recede into adult manners and ask if they need any Calpol or the phone number of Supernanny. (Actually I'd like Supernanny's number for my own dubious reasons – they can't keep me on the naughty step forever.)

Consider, too, Alex Ferguson's comment regarding his reported interest in signing Gerrard – "the boy just won't come here," he said. Steven Gerrard could not countenance playing for Manchester United at any price because he is more than a Liverpool player and the Liverpool captain – he is a Liverpool fan and therefore hates United and 12 years in the game and friends in the United team who he plays with for England can do nothing to ease his congenital dislike of the Red Devils.

He is a decent and accomplished man yet somehow the quality that makes him so beloved of the Kop anchors him to proletarian strife. Do you remember some barmy Ayatollah once announcing after a needless massacre that the 2,000 dead would've died, regardless of the conflagration, at that exact moment, even had the event not occurred? That destiny would've nabbed them at the sink or while weeding the garden or jitterbugging by a jukebox in a Tehranian kasbah; it was their time to die and the act of terrorism, or anti‑terror, or freedom fighting or peace keeping or whatever it was at that time had merely provided an apposite context for their inevitable death.

This philosophical quirk appears pertinent to Gerrard's plight. He is a bloke from the Bluebell Estate in Huyton and there aren't enough Bentleys or Champions League medals on earth to bewilder the watching fates or convince them that ability can quench destinies craving for alignment. His battered face splayed pornographically across front pages is reluctant and contrite; the bruises on his face the material emblems of the bruises on his spirit. Twenty hours he spent in the cells after the fracas in the tediously named Lounge Inn in Southport – hardly a tax upon the imagination, the Lounge Inn; it may just as well've been called "Aspirational provincial pints" or the "Our velvet sofas disguise the inevitable, oncoming violence Inn" or "My Pubby Wub".

That 20 hours will've tick-tocked by with the unwilling sloth of the 19 years since Liverpool last won the title, each turgid second a requiem of clanging dissonance, assaulting his faculties like the impotent hectoring of Graeme Souness. Gerrard is the perfect talisman for the city of Liverpool with its juxtaposing wit and propensity for drama, the Liver bird, a phoenix by another name has had no better opportunity to soar than the one presented by this season's inconsistency at the top, but the proximity of triumph can singe even the most durable of wings.

I hope this will not be the moment when Liverpool's season begins to falter, not with United due to commence their traditional new year surge and if Liverpool are to succeed they would benefit from a fit Torres but need, NEED – like "All you need is love" – a focused Steven Gerrard. Gerrard is a living sign, he is all that is great about Liverpool and, truly, he shall never walk alone, but that which walks with him may not always be benevolent for he is accompanied at every step by the phantom of his birth.

Alonso Hoping To End Liverpool's Title Wait

Xabi Alonso admits that ending a 19-year wait for the league title remains the Liverpool's priority.

The Merseysiders, who kick-off their assault on the FA Cup at Preston on Saturday, are currently three points clear at the top of the Premier League. And Alonso, an FA Cup winner three years ago, says he and his team-mates cannot take anything for granted if they are to fulfil their "dreams".

He said: "All the staff at the club have dreams about winning the league title. It is a very tough competition but we can't take anything for granted even after the success we have had this season.

"Being a champion in England would be something unique. We are doing well and the win over Newcastle was a great blow to the authority of our rivals."

Preston Manager Alan Irvine Scheming End For Liverpool

Liverpool fans filing into Deepdale on Saturday will be faced by a figure central to their club's illustrious history.

There, picked out on the seats of the Kop Stand where they will be stationed, is a portrait of none other than Bill Shankly. The architect of Anfield's glory days was the bustling, aggressive midfield dynamo who propelled North End to FA Cup victory in 1938, helping to secure the last significant piece of silverware placed in the Lancastrians' trophy cabinet.

But any of the visitors who imagine that a shared talisman might mean their team are extended an accommodating welcome on the pitch has clearly not made the acquaintance of the latest Scot who has followed the likes of Shankly, Alex James, Tommy Docherty and David Moyes to hold sway at Preston.

Alan Irvine, who has been North End's manager for the past 13 months, reckons not only that Liverpool can be beaten in the third-round tie, but also that he knows how to do it.

"We played Barnsley last week and as you know they knocked Liverpool out last year," he said at the club's training ground on Friday.

"So I asked Simon [Davey, Barnsley's manager] what the secret was and his answer was: 'Play really well, hope they have an off day and pray your goalkeeper has a blinder.' So that's it. That's our tactical plan for this game. Sounds easy doesn't it?"

He was speaking in the portable building that serves as the briefing room at the club's training ground and judging by the broad grin with which he delivered his inside guide to victory over the Premier League leaders, you suspect Irvine spent the past week there mapping out a more solid strategy.

Moyes' former assistant at Goodison, Irvine is hewn from the same Glaswegian granite as his Everton mentor. An intense, focused individual, with a stare that could freeze blood at 40 paces, he is a man for whom the greatest of pleasures is rolling up his sleeves and getting down to work on the training pitch.

All week he has been preparing his players with military precision for the biggest encounter of their season. Indeed, on the magnetic board on the wall behind him as he spoke, a collection of red and blue checkers were engaged in a theoretical match which suggested his main idea was to station all 11 of his players in their own half.

"Actually the blues are Liverpool, it's them doing the defending here," he said, moving the checkers as he spoke. "That's how they defend a corner. We've spent the week doing sessions based on how we'll play against them.

"It's all been very tactical. No doubt there'll be a bit of the emotional element comes into it in the team talk prior to the game. I'll remind the players then what an opportunity this is. I'll tell them that we know in every round of the Cup there are shocks.

"Liverpool have so much that we don't have, but for 90 minutes we have a chance of playing against them, of matching ourselves against the very best."

When Irvine arrived at Deepdale in November 2007 the club were bottom of the Championship. Now they sit seventh.

Around the club there is a growing sense that, never mind the brief diversion of the Cup, he might deliver what not even Moyes could manage when he was there: top-flight football for the first time since 1961.

"It's a massive examination for most Premier League clubs, playing Liverpool," he said. "People ask if I'd prefer it if [Fernando] Torres and [Steven] Gerrard played against us or if Rafa [Benitez] sent out his reserves, but to be honest they are so strong their second string are a class above many in the Premier League. So I don't think it will tell us too much one way or another as far as a promotion challenge is concerned.

"We know we've got a lot to do just to maintain our presence in the Championship. This time last year we were bottom of the league. Now even to be talking about play-offs is fantastic progress.

"And last year, when we won a couple of games in the Cup, after each win we got a win in the league. I'd settle for that again. Actually I think the chairman would prefer it if we drew the game. Get a bit more money from a replay at Anfield."

Where presumably, given his Evertonian connections, he would be sure of a cordial welcome.

"Actually, I'll be surprised if I get any stick. I was in the background at Goodison, it was very much David's show, if anyone realises the connection they'll know a little bit more about Everton than might be healthy for a true Liverpool fan."

Mind, if his master scheme goes to plan, even the most blinkered Shankly-ite will come to know who Irvine is.