Saturday, January 10, 2009

Match Preview: Stoke City vs. Liverpool

Liverpool travel to Staffordshire this weekend to take on struggling Stoke City. While the Premier League leaders hope to gallop further away from the chasing pack, their hosts will be aiming simply to keep their heads above water.

The Potters sit third from bottom coming into this crucial clash, and that's no less than most expected of them after they won promotion from the Championship last season. They’ve failed to consistently match teams man for man, and often look sadly one-dimensional in attack – well, two dimensional with Rory Delap’s wicked, super-long throws.

What’s more, it became evident on Stoke’s last league outing that morale within the playing squad was not great. Ricardo Fuller earned himself a red card and in-house sanctions when he had a pop at skipper Andy Griffin, rubbing salt into the open wounds of their 2-1 defeat by West Ham United.

And yet, sitting in the drop zone without a win in six league games and still smarting from their FA Cup loss to Hartlepool United, Tony Pulis’ men can take a sliver of hope into their clash with the Reds.

Back in September, Stoke became the first team this season to leave Anfield with a point. Only three other clubs – West Ham, Fulham and Hull City – have replicated that feat. That display proved that England’s second-oldest professional club had the ability to nullify and frustrate a top-drawer side; although they might find it more difficult to keep a clean sheet on their own patch.

Liverpool are, quite simply, on top of the world right now. 20 games in, they hold a three-point lead and look like a team capable of ending their 19-year title drought. They are unbeaten in their last 11 league games, having tasted defeat just once this term – and even though that loss came at Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane, their record on the road is bettered only by that of second-placed Chelsea.

While at times this season the Merseysiders have looked unconvincing, even pedestrian, their recent form has been blistering. They have won each of their past three outings, scoring 10 goals and conceding just one – which, ironically, came in their most impressive showing of the season to date.

Rafael Benitez’s men closed out 2008 in some style, thrashing Newcastle United so absolutely that even the 5-1 scoreline didn’t do their performance justice. Indeed, the margin may have reached double figures if not for Shay Given’s superb shot-stopping – Steven Gerrard, Sami Hyypia and Lucas Leiva could each have had hat-tricks.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of that romp at St James’ Park was that a number of first-team regulars were absent from the starting line-up. In-form Xabi Alonso sat on the pine before making a late cameo, as did fit-again Martin Skrtel, while the likes of Fernando Torres, Albert Riera, Robbie Keane, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio didn’t feature at all.

And after kicking off 2009 with a comfortable win against Preston North End in the FA Cup, Liverpool will feel confident of strengthening their hold on top spot this Saturday – especially with Chelsea facing Manchester United the following afternoon.


Stoke City

Dec 13 Stoke City 0 - 0 Fulham (Premier League)
Dec 20 Blackburn Rovers 3 - 0 Stoke City (Premier League)
Dec 26 Stoke City 0 - 1 Manchester United (Premier League)
Dec 28 West Ham United 2 - 1 Stoke City (Premier League)
Jan 03 Hartlepool United 2 - 0 Stoke City (FA Cup)


Dec 13 Liverpool 2 - 2 Hull City (Premier League)
Dec 21 Arsenal 1 - 1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Dec 26 Liverpool 3 - 0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)
Dec 28 Newcastle United 1 - 5 Liverpool (Premier League)
Jan 03 Preston North End 0 - 2 Liverpool (FA Cup)


Stoke City

Mr. Fuller’s decision to whack his skipper across the chops resulted in a three-match ban, meaning Vincent Pericard or Dave Kitson may partner Richard Cresswell up front.

Andy Wilkinson is available again after being sent off against Manchester United on Boxing Day, as is Abdoulaye Faye after the confusion over his yellow-card count was sorted out.

On the treatment table, captain Griffin is nursing a muscular problem in his leg and could sit out, while Leon Cort (groin) and Mamady Sidibe (knee) are also carrying injuries.

Meanwhile, winger Matthew Etherington is set make his first appearance for the club after signing from West Ham earlier this week.

Possible XI: Simonsen – Shawcross, Sonko, Abdoulaye Faye, Higginbotham – Delap, Whelan, Amdy Faye, Etherington – Cresswell, Pericard


Midfield duo Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano both departed Deepdale looking worse for wear. Alonso has been cleared of any serious damage after sustaining a nasty gash and severe swelling on his foot, but he is unlikely to be risked this weekend. Mascherano (thigh) might also be saved as a pair of derby dates with Everton loom on the horizon.

Fernando Torres made his first appearance in a month when he came on and scored in the second half against Preston. Boss Benitez is wary of rushing the superstar striker back from his hamstring injury too soon, though, so another substitute showing is on the cards.

Brazilian wing-back Aurelio is fit and could get the call as Emiliano Insua, the impressive young Argentine, is away in Venezuela for the next month, taking part in the Under-20 South American Championships with Argentina. Alvaro Arbeloa will sit out as he recovers from a hamstring problem, but Martin Skrtel could make his first start since rupturing his knee ligaments during the 3-2 win over Manchester City in October.

Possible XI: Reina – Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio – Benayoun, Lucas, Gerrard, Riera – Keane, Kuyt


Matthew Etherington (Stoke City)

Having tasted very little first-team action at Upton Park this term, the 28-year-old will be eager to get out of the blocks quickly with his new club. A crafty and experienced left-sided player, he is certainly capable of causing Jamie Carragher and co a problem or two.

Lucas Leiva (Liverpool)

The young Brazilian has copped plenty of flak from his own fans this season, but he was among the Reds’ most impressive performers in the demolition of Newcastle. The creative and energetic midfielder should be handed another chance to shine on Saturday, what with Alonso and Mascherano both potential absentees.

Rafa Benitez: Stoke City The Only Game That Matters Right Now

Rafa Benitez has made it clear to Liverpool's title rivals that no-one at Anfield will be distracted from their bid to stay ahead of the field.

Second-placed Chelsea meet third-placed Manchester United at Old Trafford this weekend in what could be one of the pivotal games in this season's title race.

But Benitez is adamant that the only game that matters to Liverpool is the one which sees the league leaders travel to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City on Saturday evening.

The Reds boss would be more than happy to accept any results that go his team's way in the weeks and months to come - but insists the only thing that matters is that Liverpool's fate is in their own hands and they can determine their own destiny if they keep on winning.

"It is just about Liverpool and our own results," said the Spaniard.

"If we keep winning our games then it will not matter what other teams do.

"Obviously it would make things easier for us if the other teams around us make mistakes but we are only interested in our own results.

"This weekend we play Stoke and this is the game we will be focusing on."

The Premier League season is now past its halfway point and having played 20 games Liverpool currently stand proudly on top of the table.

Benitez is more than happy with the way his team has performed so far, but he believes there is still much more to come from the Reds in the second half of the campaign.

He added: "It is clear that the team is doing well because we are at the top of the league but we can still do even better.

"In the past three or four seasons we have played better in the second half of the season and this is what we will be looking to do again this time.

"We have players who have been out because of injury but who are now coming back to full fitness, and having Fernando Torres, Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio back will be a big boost to us.

"But we also have players whose form is improving and others whose form will improve so we have a lot of confidence.

"The players know that we have to keep working hard and winning games and they also know that we cannot make too many mistakes and must keep our feet on the ground."

Rafael Benitez Tells Liverpoool Players 'No Time To Rest'

Rafael Benitez has told his Liverpool players that they will be required to "fight until the end" if they are win the title.

With closest rivals Chelsea not in action until Sunday, Benitez's Premier League leaders will move six points clear at the top if they overcome Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium at teatime.

Benitez acknowledges that his team are in a strong position, but he has warned that the hard work is only just beginning.

"It will be very difficult until the end of the season. We know this," said the Liverpool manager, who is without Xabi Alonso due to a damaged ankle.

"The Premier League is the priority because we have won the Champions League and the FA Cup.

"So I don't think the players will lose the opportunity to do their best in every single game.

"We are in the best position for the last five or 10 years so we have to fight until the end. The players know this."

Stoke had hoped to complete the signing of former Everton striker James Beattie in time to face Benitez's side.

They have offered Sheffield United more than £2.5m for the former England international.

However, the deal has stalled although manager Tony Pulis remains hopeful it can be resurrected early next week.

Benitez Waits On New Deal

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has revealed his disappointment at the slow progress in his contract negotiations.

The former Valencia boss - who launched an astonishing attack on Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson on Friday - opened discussions with the Liverpool hierarchy in November and both parties expressed a desire to secure an extended deal.

It was thought that Benitez was close to putting pen-to-paper in December, but discussions were put on hold as the Spaniard underwent a kidney stones operation.

However, Benitez - whose current terms expire in 2010 - has revealed that his representative has yet to receive paperwork from the club.

"My agent has not yet received any documents, and he is a little disappointed," said Benitez.

"But okay, we will see what happens. But I do not want to say too much at the moment."

Meanwhile, Benitez has stated that he is waiting for a 'good offer' for out-of-favour winger Jermaine Pennant.

AC Milan, Real Madrid, Stoke and Hull City have all expressed an interest in the former Birmingham player and it appears inevitable the £6.7million flop will leave Merseyside in January.

"I have had a conversation with Jermaine," added Benitez. "He is waiting for a good offer and we are waiting for a good offer.

"A new contract for him would be very difficult."

Rafael Benitez Sensationally Blasts Sir Alex Ferguson & Manchester United

Rafael Benitez has launched a scathing attack on Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, after the Scot recently suggested that Liverpool - currently top of the Premier League - could choke under pressure and concede their lead.

Last week, Ferguson also accused the Premier League of favouring league leaders Liverpool due to the amount of home games that the Reds faced in the early stages of the season. The moxie Scot therefore suggested that Benitez's men had a distinct advantage as the league table began to take shape.

His comments have clearly gotten under the skin of the Spaniard, who lashed out in a press conference today stating that Ferguson is "the only manager who will not be punished" for verbally abusing referees.

He told journalists today: "We had a meeting about the 'Respect' campaign and I was very clear - forget about it, because Mr. Ferguson is killing the referees.

"How can you talk about the 'Respect' campaign and yet criticise the referee every single week?

"I was surprised by what has been said, but maybe they [Manchester United] are nervous because we are at the top of the table."

Benitez then began reading from a prop that he brought with him to the conference.

"I want to talk about facts," he said. "I want to be clear, I do not want to play mind games too early, although they seem to want to start.

"During the 'Respect' campaign - and this is a fact - Mr. Ferguson was charged by the FA for improper conduct after comments made about Martin Atkinson and Keith Hackett.

"He was not punished. He is the only manager in the league that cannot be punished for these things.

"We know what happens every time we go to Old Trafford and the United staff. They are always going man to man with the referees, especially at half-time when they walk close to the referees and they are talking and talking.

"All managers need to know is that only Mr. Ferguson can talk about the fixtures, can talk about referees and nothing happens.

"We need to know that I am taking about facts, not my impression. There are things that everyone can see every single week.

"To complain and to always have an advantage is not fair.

"Two years ago we were playing a lot of early kick-offs away on Saturdays when United were playing on Sundays. And we didn't say anything," Benitez said.

"Now he is complaining about everything, that everybody is against United. But the second half of the season will see them playing at home against all the teams at the top of the table, it is a fantastic advantage.

"At Christmas, United played on the 29th and the rest of the teams played on the 28th. We were away against Newcastle [United] two days after playing Bolton [Wanderers]. They were playing about 40 hours later, but they were not complaining then.

"If he wants to talk about fixtures, and have a level playing field, there are two options if we don't want more problems with fixtures.

"One is the same as in Spain, the draw for the first part of the league is known, everyone knows which weekend. In the second half everyone plays the opposite, so you all know.

"Sky and Setanta have the right to choose their games and it will be the same for everyone. So Mr. Ferguson will not be complaining about fixtures and a campaign against United.

"Or there is another option. That Mr. Ferguson organises the fixtures in his office and sends it to us and everyone will know and cannot complain. That is simple."

Sir Alex Ferguson's mind games have played their way into Premier League folklore over the years, with Newcastle United manager becoming the biggest loser after his: "I'll bloody love it," rant led to a relinquishing of an incredible 12 point lead in the 1995-96 season that allowed United to win the title.

John Barnes: Belief Is Key For Liverpool

John Barnes was an iconic member of the '80s Liverpool team that dominated English domestic football so completely. The Jamaica-born England international won the Football Writers' Player of the Year Award the last time the Reds took the title back to Anfield, in 1990, scoring 22 goals in the process.

Now he has urged everyone connected with the club to believe in the ability of Rafa Benitez's team to emulate the achievements of past Liverpool sides and win the league title.

"If you look at the top teams there is not much difference between them, when you look at the skill and ability and the players they that they have," Barnes, now manager of the Jamaican national team, told Setanta Sports.

"But that belief that Man United have had in the last ten years is what all teams want, and I think that Liverpool can do that this year.

"You have to believe in the squad, in the players, in the manager, and if he makes a decision, whatever the decision is you have to not just back him but have that belief."

Barnes also feels that it would be unwise for Benitez to bring in any new players this transfer window, believing, like many others, that it is rare to find value for money in January.

"January is not a good time to buy anybody," he continued.

"You are really only going to fritter money away without getting the quality because the players you want are already playing in the Champions League.

As for whether Liverpool can finally bring an end to almost two decades of waiting to win a league title, the former England international is optimistic, as long as the Reds maintain their professionalism.

"As long as you take every game and pay most importance to that game then you will be fine," he added.

"Look at Derby, they were fantastic against Man United, but look where they are in the league. Why can’t they play that way every week if they do it against United?

"Once you treat games differently and put more importance on some games that is when you can fall by the wayside.

"Liverpool need to approach every game in the same manner, with the same attitude and desire. They have got the quality – there is no reason why they can’t win the league."

Arsenal Easy To Beat While Liverpool Grow Stronger - Alan Hansen

New Football Pools pundit Alan Hansen talks exclusively to about the contrasting changes in Liverpool and Arsenal this season, and the threat posed to the Gunners by Aston Villa.

Alan Hansen was a colossus on the pitch for Liverpool and Scotland, becoming a true Anfield legend and collecting a host of medals in a glittering playing career. And since hanging up his boots he's become a giant of football punditry too, renowned for his forthright views and analyses which are eagerly anticipated by millions of viewers of BBC TV's 'Match of the Day' every week.

Hansen gave his take on how the battle for dominance is shaping up at the top of the Premier League, where his former club Liverpool continue to lead the way.

"I’ve been asked numerous times recently whether Liverpool have now gained a psychological edge over their title rivals due to their record of just one League defeat all season. Well for me, I cannot see Chelsea or Manchester United just fading away so I don’t think Liverpool’s form will affect them," he said. "However, for Rafa Benitez and his players, the psychological boost of being top despite some indifferent results will be immense.

"The main difference in Liverpool this season is they’ve looked far more solid than they’ve done for a number of years. The effect on the opposition this season is key to their form - no longer are they a team that teams fancy their chances of beating, they now know they are in for a real tough game. Liverpool are now extremely hard to beat.

"Whilst Liverpool have grown in stature this season Arsenal have gone the other way. The Gunners remain the best footballing side in the Premier League and at times are simply irresistible to watch, however, they are also easier to beat than the other 'Big Four' sides. This is perfectly illustrated by the teams they’ve lost to this season and the amount of games they’ve lost compared to their rivals. Despite this, they remain in the FA Cup and Champions League so are hardly in crisis.

"The main threat to their qualification for next season’s premier European competition is Aston Villa, and if the Villans were to overtake them this season then this would be a huge backwards step for Arsenal as the finances lost would be immense.

"Martin O’Neill has done a fantastic job at Villa and his side has gained both momentum and impetus even when not performing well. They’ve been winning when not playing at the top of their game which is a sign of a good side. Martin has created a young team full of pace and if they were to qualify for next season’s Champions League it would be an unreal achievement. However, for me, to break into the top four would take qualification over a number of years into the Champions League as well as making it through to the knock-out stages to cement their position."

Liverpool's Fabio Aurelio Relishes Albert Riera Link Up

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has a notorious hit-and-miss record in the transfer market, and the flanks have been a troublesome position for the Spaniard to bolster.

Hull City's Paul Anderson has been farmed out on loan, and Chilean Mark Gonzalez's career with the Reds lasted only two years, with one of those years spent at Real Sociedad.

The acquisition of Albert Riera though has thus far been a successful one, with the Manacor-born 26-year old providing natural width, skill, and accurate crossing from the left wing.

Riera has also struck up a good understanding with Brazilian fill-back Fabio Aurelio down the left flank, and the latter is relishing the link-up once more.

"Albert has only been here for a short time but we have worked well together in the games we've played," the Brazilian explained to the official LFC Magazine.

"I think we've done well at times and created a few goals.

"Now we've got to keep working together and improving. If we do that, it will give the boss some good options on that side.

"Apart from Albert, we've also got Ryan Babel who can play in the same role. He is a very good player who has done well for us."

The pair may start in the trip to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City on Saturday.

Should Liverpool win, then they will extend their lead to six points, as Chelsea do not play Manchester United until Sunday.

Steven Gerrard Hails Unsung Liverpool Backroom Staff

Rafa Benitez's absence from the 1-1 Arsenal draw at the Emirates Stadium earlier in the season, together with the subsequent monitoring of on-pitch affairs from the director's box against Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United, was certainly noteworthy.

The Spaniard was recovering from an operation to rid him of the discomfort he was enduring due to kidney stones, but the Reds amassed an impressive seven point collection from those three games, and Sammy Lee - Rafa's right hand man - guided the league leaders to two emphatic romps, including the 5-1 demolition over the Magpies.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has today hailed the backroom staff’s contribution to the Reds' season so far.

"You've got to give credit to the manager," he said.

"He has built a very strong squad and we've got two or three people fighting for each position.

"No one wants to lose their place in the team and I think you can see that in the performances because everyone is working hard to stay in the side.

"Everyone knows Rafa is the top man and how much he is involved, but when he has been missing through illness over the last couple of weeks Sammy has come in alongside Mauricio and they have done a fantastic job."

He continued: "People are saying that Sammy was one of the most important signings we made in the summer and I certainly agree with that.

"He's very enthusiastic, he loves the football club. You can see day in day out how much he wants success for this club.

"He plays a really important role for us and I'm really pleased at how well things have gone for him over the last couple of weeks.

"I think when the main man is missing everyone has to stick together.

"The likes of Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, the experienced players around the dressing room, have needed to roll their sleeves up and fill the void with the manager being missing and they've all done that."

Liverpool can extend their lead over Chelsea with a win over Stoke City on Saturday.

Johnson Signs Four-Year Portsmouth Deal After Liverpool Deal Collapses

Portsmouth defender Glen Johnson has signed a new four-and-a-half year contract with the club.

The 24-year-old England international is now committed to the Fratton Park outfit until the end of the 2012-13 season.

The deal is fillip for manager Tony Adams following the recent losses of Lassana Diarra and Jermain Defoe to Real Madrid and Tottenham respectively.

Liverpool were interested in signing Johnson but Portsmouth's £10million valuation put them off.

Adams said: 'It's great news that Glen's decided to sign a new contract. I'm delighted to have him here - I want him here for a long time.

'This is a good place for him. He's got back in the England squad since he came here. Glen's applied himself really well. He's always desperate to play and gets frustrated when he can't.

'He's been very good for this club and this club's been very good for him.'

David Prentice: Why Are Liverpool And Everton So Slow On The FA Cup Draw?

It’s all Everton and Liverpool fans have talked about since Roberto di Matteo plucked out ball number 28 last Sunday, but don’t expect players or officials at either club to wax lyrical in the build-up to the derby double-header.

Enquiries at both clubs this week were met with Basil Fawlty-esque replies: “Don’t mention the draw!”

Tony Hibbert refreshingly broke ranks to describe the forthcoming cup tie as “electric”, but since then a gagging order appears to have been put in place.

Perhaps it’s a symptom of the recent spats between the clubs – people are terrified of pouring petrol onto a powder keg – but can’t we be just a bit more mature about this?

This is an historic occasion. The words spoken before and after this FA cup tie will pass into the history books of the future.

It’s good to talk, you know?

If institutions as reassuringly familiar as Northern Rock, Woolies and M & S can be credit crunched, how long before our football clubs start to suffer?

The answer is, they already have – and in more ways than is immediately obvious.

We all know about stadium constructors downing tools on the new Anfield because of rising building costs, Liverpool’s American owners struggling to refinance their borrowings and Everton finding it well nigh impossible to attract new investors.

But there are other, stealthier, concerns brought on by the economic downturn.

Everton spent a club record transfer fee to bring Marouane Fellaini from Standard Liege.

But his signature may cost the club quite a bit more than the advertised £15m as a result of the falling pound.

Unless the Blues have hedged against foreign currency transactions – for accounting ignoramuses like myself, that means paying for a financial instrument that protects against foreign currency movements – the falling pound could mean a bigger transfer fee.

When Fellaini signed on September 1, a euro was worth around 81p. Then Alistair Darling said that Britain was facing the worst economic conditions in 60 years and the pound went into freefall.

Now a euro is worth almost as much as a pound.

Which all means Fellaini’s transfer fee could rise by a couple of million unless the pound recovers.

Then there’s the issue of wages.

Everton and Liverpool pay their players in pounds – even the ones who hail from Europe – which means their salaries, albeit spectacular, are still not worth as much back home as they were when they signed their contracts.

There is no suggestion that the issue is upsetting anybody at Anfield or Goodison, as it shouldn’t when you’re talking about such stellar salaries.

But it’s worth noting that Manchester United have circumvented any potential problems by paying for some transfers and some wages in euros.

It’s an increasingly precarious world out there, and our football clubs are suffering as much as everyone else.

Pennant To Sacrifice Real Madrid And AC Milan For Liverpool Stay

Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant could stay at Anfield according to regional newspaper the Liverpool Echo.

The 25-year-old winger has been the subject of extensive speculation with all manner of clubs including Real Madrid, AC Milan, Hull City and Spurs all linked with the player.

Under the terms of his current contract, the former Arsenal and Birmingham man could walk away at the end of the season on a Bosman but with Liverpool chiefs keen not to lose the highly-rated wide-man without any return it is now thought the player could remain at Anfield for another year.

When contacted Pennant's agent, Sky Andrew, he refused to comment but promised an update on Monday morning.

The news will come as a huge disappointment to both Phil Brown and Harry Redknapp, both of whom were supposedly keen on bringing the player to their respective clubs.

Wigan Hold Fire On Emile Heskey With Liverpool Waiting In The Wings

Emile Heskey is certain to rejoin Liverpool in the summer but Steve Bruce will resist any bid to hurry his England striker's leaving date as £4.5million Colombia star Hugo Rodallega gets used to life in Wigan.

Aston Villa's interest has cooled in Heskey, who is running down his contract, because Anfield is his preferred destination, and manager Rafa Benitez knows it would take a £4m bid to prise his target from Wigan in the transfer window.

Rodallega, 23, was also pencilled in for the summer until a change of regime at his Mexican club Necaxa. Bruce is confident that he will get a work permit on Monday despite falling just short of the international match criteria.

But Wigan's manager insists that will not mean accepting any advances from Liverpool boss Benitez for Heskey or allowing rejuvenated striker Henri Camara to join rivals Stoke's survival battle.

Bruce, sure of Amr Zaki's loan status until the end of the season, expects Rodallega, who scored 15 goals in 36 matches last season, to need months to adjust fully to the English weather and culture.

He said: 'It would be unfair to expect him to have an instant impact but if I've still got Heskey, Zaki and Camara - which I'm convinced I will - it would be an ideal time to bring him in. We'll ease him in gently.'

Wigan's match tomorrowwith Tottenham is followed by games against Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Aston Villa.

Bruce said: 'It's massive. If we can beat Tottenham and have 32 points by mid-January, that's fantastic for us.

'This is our defining month.'