Sunday, January 11, 2009

Match Report: Stoke City 0 - 0 LiverpooL

Liverpool missed the chance to go six points clear at the top of the Premier League as they were held to a goalless draw at Stoke.

The gap to Chelsea is now four points, with the Blues away to Manchester United, as Steven Gerrard twice hit the woodwork in the last five minutes.

Nevertheless a day after his infamous rant at Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, Benitez must have been left speechless at his side's overall performance.

They failed to break down a Stoke side which had failed to win in their previous six league games.

Argentina coach Diego Maradona was guest of honour at the Britannia Stadium, no doubt keen to see at first hand visiting midfielder Javier Mascherano, the national team captain.

But he found it hard going, as did Liverpool.

Dirk Kuyt should have done better in the eighth minute when he sent a free header wide of the post following a cross from Albert Riera.

It was a good chance for Kuyt to add to his seven-goal tally but he was left frustrated.

Stoke hit back and should have taken the lead in the 13th minute when Liverpool failed to clear a high, hopeful ball from Amdy Faye.

Rory Delap found himself clear on goal inside the six-yard area but only succeeded in blasting a shot against the underside of the crossbar and Richard Cresswell failed to take advantage of the rebound.

Liverpool responded in the 22nd minute and Kuyt's effort was beaten away at the post by goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen.

Stoke, however, found the net in the 31st minute when Ryan Shawcross got on the end of a cross from Matthew Etherington, on his debut, only for his effort to be ruled out for offside.

This was a good little spell for the home side and a minute later Dave Kitson sent a header into Jose Reina's arms following a long throw from Delap.

Liverpool then launched a swift counter-attack in the 38th minute and Riera whipped in a cross from the left.

Yossi Benayoun tried to get on the end of it but the ball skipped away from him at the last moment.

A poor clearance, however, from Reina put Liverpool in trouble six minutes into the second half.

Kitson latched on to the ball and skipped away from the goalkeeper but his effort from an acute angle ended in the side-netting.

Stoke were making a decent fist of it and Delap headed wide in the 56th minute following a crossfield pass from Danny Higginbotham.

Benitez decided to make a switch in the 60th minute and brought on Fernando Torres for Riera in a bid to beef up the attack.

Of more concern to Benitez, however, must have been the number of high balls Stoke were winning.

Gerrard was then booked for taking a free-kick too early, such was Liverpool's anxiety in trying to make the breakthrough.

Lucas squandered a great chance for Liverpool in the 68th minute when he failed to test Sorensen with a header at the back post and sent his effort across the face of the goal instead.

Kitson came close for Stoke in the 74th minute when he headed over the bar following a throw-in from Delap.

Four minutes later Glenn Whelan saw his 25-yard free-kick beat Reina but finish marginally off-target.

Liverpool almost took the lead in the 85th minute but Gerrard's free-kick rattled the crossbar.

Then on the stroke of full-time his effort came back off the post after a flick-on by Torres.

Poll Backs Rafa Over Rant

Former Premier League referee Graham Poll has backed Rafael Benitez's claim that Sir Alex Ferguson receives lenient treatment from the Football Association.

Liverpool manager Benitez blasted his Manchester United counterpart on Friday, alleging Ferguson does not get punished sufficiently for his sometimes outspoken criticism of match officials.

"During the respect campaign, and this is a fact, Sir Ferguson was charged by the FA for improper conduct after comments made about Martin Atkinson and (referees' chief) Keith Hackett," Benitez said.

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

"How can you talk about the respect campaign and criticise the referee every single week?"

Poll was considered the Premier League's top official until his retirement at the end of the 2006-07 season.

He enjoyed a good relationship with Ferguson, who even phoned Poll to offer him support in the wake of his gaffe at the 2006 World Cup, when he showed Croatia's Josip Simunic three yellow cards.

But the former referee agrees with Benitez's suggestion that the United boss receives preferential treatment from FA disciplinary chiefs.

"Rafa Benitez has articulated what referees have been thinking for years - that Sir Alex Ferguson can say what he wants about them and the FA will allow him to get away with it," he told the Daily Mail.

"The authorities could point to Ferguson's two-match ban imposed earlier this season as proof that he is not out of reach of their disciplinary department, but that was for marching onto the field after the 4-3 win over Hull and for comments made directly to the referee, Mike Dean, who in reporting the misconduct forced the FA's hand."

An FA spokesman said Benitez's comments would be reviewed "in their full context" next week before any decision is reached on whether to take action against the Reds boss.

Liverpool Manager Rafa Benitez Shouldn't Rise To Sir Alex Ferguson's Bait

Rafael Benitez really shouldn’t go around suggesting Sir Alex Ferguson “organise’’ the fixture list as Manchester United’s manager is liable to accept the offer.

That was the wry reaction within Old Trafford to Benitez’s remarkable comments yesterday.

Within seconds of Benitez’s speech, a text message was sent by a Sky employee covering events at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to Ferguson’s base at Carrington, telling the champions it would be worth tuning in. Benitez’s discourse was greeted with a mixture of astonishment and amusement.

This speech differed markedly from Kevin Keegan’s “I’d love it’’ outburst against Ferguson 13 years ago. Keegan spoke from the heart. Benitez was talking from the head. Liverpool’s manager is a shrewd soul, a man who ponders situations like a chess grandmaster before making any move. He must have considered the ramifications of verbal pyrotechnics which could end up burning Liverpool.

Two issues are at play here: the substance, if any, of the claims and the potential fallout. Ferguson does escape with certain tirades at referees, but that is partly because experience has taught the canny Scot how far he can go.

There was a worrying period when, to the cynical eye, there seemed almost a rotation of United substitutes working the linesman over. That appears to have ended.

But if Benitez seriously believes Ferguson enjoys a cosy relationship with the FA, all tea, cake and “just say what you want about those beastly referees, Sir Alex’’, then Liverpool’s manager needs a crash course in the history of club-versus-country during the Ferguson era.

If he genuinely thinks the authorities let Ferguson and United off lightly then he should have been around when the Scot heard the FA had published details of the Patrice Evra disciplinary ruling on their website. He looked like he had swallowed the famous hairdryer.

As for the fixtures, nobody really took Ferguson’s complaint about the champions being “handicapped’’ this season that seriously. Ferguson’s message was meant more for United’s dressing room, to stir up the siege mentality. Again.

The idea that Ferguson manipulates the fixtures is ludicrous; the reason why United attract so much television interest is because Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov are the biggest draw in town.

So what of the consequences? Ferguson will see Benitez’s outpouring as a coup, a signal that Liverpool are worried about United. Ferguson’s players will feel that Liverpool are rattled. In truth, there is a calmness and sense of real purpose among Benitez’s squad, who are focusing on what they need to do to win the title, not becoming obsessed about rivals.

The managers who have handled Ferguson best are those who never lost their cool with him, like Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers or Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The only piece of paper Benitez needed to read from yesterday was the one showing the Premier League table - with Liverpool top.

FA To Review Benitez Complaints

The Football Association is to review Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez's verbal attack on Alex Ferguson before deciding whether to take any action against him.

Benitez claimed his Manchester United counterpart gets away with criticising referees and poured scorn on his complaints about the fixture list.

The FA said in a brief statement that the comments will be analysed "in their full context" in the coming week.

Ferguson has yet to respond to the claims levelled against him by Benitez.

The Spaniard's outburst came after a journalist asked for his response to Ferguson's suggestion that Premier League leaders Liverpool might get nervous in the title run-in.

After claiming Manchester United might be nervous themselves, he produced a sheet of paper and read out a list of accusations about Ferguson's conduct regarding referees, the FA's Respect campaign and fixture lists.

Benitez claimed that Ferguson intimidates match officials and often escapes punishment for his criticism of referees.

Former top-flight ref Graham Poll claimed in the Daily Mail that Benitez "has articulated what referees have been thinking for years - that Sir Alex can say what he wants about them and the FA allows him to get away with it."

However, Ferguson could point to several past run-ins with the FA during his time in charge at Old Trafford.

The most recent came in November when the Scot was given a two-game touchline ban and fined £10,000 for remonstrating with referee Mike Dean.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said on Saturday that he does not think Benitez's words will have any effect on the Premier League title race, but expressed his shock that the Liverpool boss had openly attacked Ferguson.

"It will certainly have an impact on their relationship, but not on Ferguson," he said.

"It came as a complete surprise because he [Benitez] is usually a quiet man and I would not like to comment further on that.

"I do not know what it was really about. I do not know what he [Ferguson] is doing. You do not know. Nobody knows in the country."

Tony Barrett: Rafa Benitez Can Live Up To Bill Shankly's Infamous 'Top Two' Claim

Bill Shankly’s famous tongue in cheek soundbite about there only being two teams on Merseyside – Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves – has been celebrated, ridiculed and debated ever since the legendary Reds boss first uttered it.

Depending on which side of the Mersey divide you find yourself on, it was either an inspirational put-down or an uncalled-for display of triumphalism.

Those who knew the man best insist it was just a typical bit of gruff Scots humour laced with more than a liberal sprinkling of psychology.

Shankly's assertion has never been put to the test, but if Rafa Benitez is in a tinkering mood and wants to protect his key players for a title challenge it could be when Liverpool meet Everton twice in less than a week later this month.

Before last Sunday's draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup, the world's most famous cup competition trailed in a distant third in Liverpool's list of priorities – and that is exactly where it must stay.

As romantic and desirable as the FA Cup undoubtedly is, especially with Liverpool still to visit the new Wembley, it cannot become a diversion in a season when the Reds simply have to deliver that long-awaited challenge.

The fact the draw managed to pair them with their local rivals for the first time in 18 years has sent shockwaves of excitement rippling through Merseyside's football scene and has upgraded what could have been a bog standard tie had Liverpool been drawn against anyone else to "must win" status for fans of both clubs.

The number of text messages sent in the Merseyside area after ball number three was pulled out alongside ball number 28 was probably enough to keep the spectre of recession away from the doors of the leading mobile phone firms and such was the volume of traffic on internet message boards that more than one of them went into meltdown.

That's what derby matches do – they cause logic to be thrown out of the window and common sense to be replaced by fevered expectation.

Liverpool cannot allow that to happen to them though.

In the position they have got themselves into at the top of the Premier League, they finally have the chance to kick on and have a proper crack at bringing Shankly's bread and butter back to Anfield.

And for that reason Benitez must pick his team for the cup tie with more than one eye on the league game against Wigan which follows just three days later.

It may not go down well with FA Cup traditionalists who are fighting tooth and nail to stop the competition from becoming a glorified Carling Cup, and it would be far from ideal for the many Liverpool fans who rightly see any victory over Everton as one of the highlights of any season.

But Benitez is duty bound to put the Premier League first, second and last.

The Spaniard will not field two totally different teams in the double header against the Blues, but he is likely to ring the changes in keeping with his brief to produce a title-challenging team.

That's why if rotation is deemed to be the best policy, Benitez must select his strongest possible line-up in the league game against David Moyes' upwardly mobile side and make whatever changes are necessary in the cup tie.

And should he do so and Liverpool go on to win both games – which would be extremely difficult given Everton's recent noticeable improvement – the Reds boss will have gone a long way towards living up to Shankly's throwaway line decades after his predecessor came out with it.

Preston showed true dignity in cup defeat

Preston won a lot of friends at Anfield with the way they handled defeat against Liverpool in last week's FA Cup tie at Deepdale and rightly so.

Manager Alan Irvine - who was brought into coaching by Reds legend Kenny Dalglish before making his name as David Moyes' assistant at Everton - was typically generous in his praise of the team.

Irvine has a touch of class about him that is all too rare in modern football where so many managers look for any controversial incident to explain away a defeat.

Asked what he made of the incident in which Jamie Carragher tangled in the box with Jon Parkin, Irvine could easily have taken the Neil Warnock route and made a meal of it. But he didn't.

He simply responded: "There was an incident between Carragher and Parkin, and there was a lot of movement of Jon's shirt at the time, but that happens a lot and you don't always get penalties. I was not jumping up and down about it."

Irvine also accepted that Sean St Ledger's follow up header was rightly disallowed and it made a refreshing change to see a manager accept defeat in the right manner.

His attitude is clearly rubbing off on his players as well if goalkeeper Andy Lonergan's post match comments are anything to go by.

Lonergan had an excellent game against the Reds and had it not been for him Preston could have been cut adrift by half time.

But at the end of the game Lonergan refused to talk about his own efforts, preferring to shower accolades on the Liverpool team.

"I can't speak highly enough about Liverpool, they are unbelievable," said Lonergan.

"I feel privileged to play on the same pitch as Stevie Gerrard and Robbie Keane.”

A league table only ever looks really pretty when your own team is on top but Liverpool can take a great deal of comfort from their showing in the standings for 2008.

No trophies are awarded for performance over a calendar year of course but it does give an indication of how you are progressing and Liverpool could not have done much more than they did over the last 12 months.

According to statistics collated by local football statistican Ged Rea, only Chelsea collected more points than Liverpool during 2008 with the London club clocking up a total of 86 compared to their Merseyside rivals' tally of 84.

Manchester United trail behind in third, four points behind the Reds, although the Old Trafford outfit did play three games less than Liverpool in 2008.

Interestingly, Rafa Benitez's side won 13 points more than Arsenal in a year when the Reds boss was consistently compared unfavourably to Arsene Wenger.

But the most telling statistic of all is that Liverpool are the only one of the big four to win more points in the second half of 2008 than they did in the first – as sure a sign of improvement and progress as you can get.

Still, as everyone knows, it is the points they accumulate in the first half of 2009 that will decide whether or not they win prizes.

Jose Rejects Rafa's Complaints

Jose Mourinho has rejected Rafa Benitez's claims that Manchester United receive preferential treatment from referees.

Benitez launched an outspoken attack against United boss Ferguson on Friday accusing the Scot of getting away with criticising referees.

The tirade has caused ripples throughout the footballing world with many observers expressing their views of the incident.

Former Chelsea boss Mourinho, who does not enjoy a good relationship with old rival Benitez, has added his opinion and he believes the Spaniard's criticisms are wide of the mark.

"I played at Old Trafford many times, including a few wins, and never saw anything strange," Mourinho told the Italian media.

"It is only normal that a referee will feel under pressure in an atmosphere like that with 80,000 people."

Sevilla Chase Jermaine Pennant

Sevilla are the latest La Liga club to try to lure Liverpool ace Jermaine Pennant to Spain.

But the winger, 25, looks certain to see out the rest of his contract so he can cash in a bumper Bosman payday in July.

Pennant has attracted interest from home and abroad — including a £3million Real Madrid bid — but has shown no willingness to leave Anfield.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez tried to call his bluff by offering a one-year contract extension but he will not sign that either.

Talks On Hold For Unsettled Agger

Daniel Agger insists all talk about his Liverpool future should be banned until the end of the season.

Boss Rafa Benitez is keen for the Dane to pen a new Anfield contract, while AC Milan still hope to lure the central defender to Italy.

Agger has been unsettled on Merseyside since returning from injury but won’t be allowed to leave this month. The 24-year-old will instead keep his options open until the summer when he could buy out the final 18 months of his contract.

Kop team-mate Yossi Benayoun has also been warned to forget about a January move.

The Israel international wants away despite more first-term involvement recently.

Benayoun has been a target for Roma and Ajax.

But Benitez will block the midfielder’s efforts to leave as he can’t be sure any funds will be ploughed back into his squad.

Liverpool As Great A Threat As United, Claims Ballack

Michael Ballack believes Liverpool are now on a par with Manchester United in the title race, as the Chelsea midfielder prepares for today's game at Old Trafford.

With Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari conceding that his side need to win today, Ballack says recent form has convinced him that Liverpool are now just as important title rivals as United.

Ballack said: 'A few weeks ago I was sure that Manchester United were our strongest opponents. But now I think Liverpool are a major threat and have been doing very well in recent weeks.

'They have showed in the past few games they have the character to deal with being top of the league. They had one or two games when they struggled, but even then we couldn't get back on top. But now they are doing well.'

With Sir Alex Ferguson intensifying the mind games with Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, it seems both Chelsea and United agree that Liverpool are now credible challengers to their recent cosy Premier League duopoly.

Ballack said: 'Liverpool deserve to be first and the teams behind have to wait for them to drop points. But they have shown they can handle pressure. Liverpool are a team we respect.

'It's not like in the past few seasons when Liverpool were inconsistent. It's not like it is October or November. It's the middle of January and they look like they can sustain a challenge for the title.'

Ballack will not even contemplate defeat before today's Old Trafford encounter. Though Chelsea are four points clear of United, the champions have two games in hand and look ominously well placed for the final stretch of the season.

Ballack said: 'I don't want to talk about defeat, especially before a game. I have never done this. We are very positive going into the match. We have a strong team and we will give you an answer on Sunday.

'We need to show we have the quality to beat big teams. Sometimes a draw is not a disaster and we are playing United. It would show the other teams if we came away with a result.'