Monday, January 19, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs. Everton

Liverpool and Everton will clash Monday night in the first of two mouth-watering, back-to-back Merseyside derbies. Both have plenty to play for, and the hosts have a point to prove as well.

Even though the Reds sit top of the Premier League after 21 games, pundits across the country continue to question whether they have what it takes to keep Manchester United and Chelsea at bay until the middle of May.

Last weekend’s draw against Stoke City only offered the doubters more evidence to back up their argument. It was the second time this season that Rafa Benitez’s men had failed to score against the pre-season relegation favourites, as they endured a similarly frustrating stalemate when the Potters visited Anfield in September.

But that result four months ago kicked Liverpool into gear, sending them on a run of seven wins in their next eight league games – a streak that began with an impressive 2-0 win at Goodison Park. They will hope history repeats itself, but they are up against a much more confident side this time around.

Everton endured a difficult start to the season, as defensive issues – such as conceding 20 goals in their first 10 outings – saw them languish near the foot of the table. Just past the halfway point, however, they have clawed their way up to sixth place in the standings, with out-of-sorts Arsenal just three points above them in fifth.

So complete has been the Toffees’ turnaround that they skip across Stanley Park as the form side, having won five of their last six games in all competitions. Impressively, some key players have been unavailable in that time – midget midfielder Tim Cahill has been forced to deputise as a centre-forward, such is the length of the club’s injury list.

But David Moyes’ men are fighters by nature, and that hasn’t changed even though the squad’s technical level has improved in recent years. They will face their local rivals knowing that they are fully capable of claiming all three points, and the fact such a result could knock Liverpool off the top – pending the result of Manchester United’s clash with Bolton Wanderers – will only spur them on.



Jan 10 Stoke City 0-0 Liverpool
Jan 03 Preston North End 0-2 Liverpool
Dec 28 Newcastle United 1-5 Liverpool
Dec 26 Liverpool 3-0 Bolton Wanderers
Dec 21 Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool


Jan 10 Everton 2-0 Hull City
Jan 03 Macclesfield Town 0-1 Everton
Dec 28 Everton 3-0 Sunderland
Dec 26 Middlesbrough 0-1 Everton
Dec 22 Everton 0-0 Chelsea



The Reds have received a huge boost with the news that in-form playmaker Xabi Alonso will be available, after missing the Stoke draw with a foot injury picked up at Preston. Alvaro Arbeloa is also expected to return to the starting XI after recovering from a strained hamstring, while Daniel Agger has shrugged off a calf problem.

Meanwhile, Fernando Torres – another hamstring victim – is a chance to make his first start since November. The 24-year-old striker featured as a substitute in Liverpool’s last two outings and could reclaim the centre-forward slot from Dirk Kuyt, who would likely line up on the right.

Emiliano Insua is away with the Argentina Under-20s at the South American Youth Championships, so Fabio Aurelio will get another chance to stake a claim at left-back.

Possible XI: Reina – Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio – Alonso, Mascherano – Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera – Torres


The Blues will have to make do without Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini, who is suspended after picking up his 10th yellow card of the season last weekend.

The news is little better on the injury front, especially in the striking department. Yakubu is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles, while fellow forwards Louis Saha (hamstring) and James Vaughan (knee) are also sidelined.

Matters are almost as bad at the back, as Joseph Yobo (hamstring), Nuno Valente (knee) and Lars Jacobsen (shoulder) are all expected to miss out.

Possible XI: Howard – Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines – Osman, Neville, Rodwell, Pienaar – Arteta – Cahill



Fernando Torres did the damage when the two teams met at Goodison earlier in the season, scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory for the visitors. The Reds have sorely missed ‘El Nino’ at times, and if he starts on Monday he will be expected to find the net – he already has three goals from two Merseyside derby appearances, after all.


Continuing the Spanish theme, Mikel Arteta has been in excellent form for the Toffees. The Basque star has taken up a more classical playmaking role in recent weeks and has flourished, finding both his team-mates and the net with alarming regularity. Should give Javier Mascherano a proper work-out.

Rafa Benitez: My Contract Dispute Will HELP Liverpool Beat Everton

Rafa Benitez has insisted Liverpool’s derby preparations have been helped by his contract dispute.

The Anfield boss has been accused of sabotaging his side’s title chances by making public his dispute over a new deal.

The Spanish coach has been in belligerent mood in the past week, first taking on Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United with a stinging attack, then rejecting a new contract and turning his sights on his own board.

Benitez has thrown the club into turmoil by offering what amounts to a ‘back me or sack me’ ultimatum, but he argued that this will not undermine his side’s chances in tonight’s clash with Everton.

"I am 100% sure that the players are focused on games and on football. They are concentrating on their training sessions, nothing else, and that is how it should be,” he said.

"When I talk to them, they understand the position clearly and they understand what it will take to stay at the top of the table.

"What I have said and how we play are two different things, but I think what I have said will help us for the rest of the season for different reasons.”

The manager’s controversial outbursts over the last week have already been seen by many to have come at a price.

When he made his attack on Manchester United, his side were seven points clear of the Old Trafford club, but they go into tonight’s showdown now trailing the Champions.

Even more disturbing is the way that he has brought his contract fight into the open, and there are fears that such instability will have a catastrophic affect on their title challenge.

But Benitez is unmoved by such claims, and he insisted yesterday that he is easing the strain on his players by diverting the spotlight onto himself.

"I think that it will take some of the pressure off the players. I am only thinking about the best for my team and especially now, because we are title contenders,” he said.

"I was really pleased, for example, to see the TV cameras following Mr Ferguson and the referees at Old Trafford last week.

"But there are facts and there are results. They are two different things. When you win, you are right. When you don't win, you are not right.

"That is what people will say, but that is a very simple analysis and I would hope that people are cleverer than that. Facts are one thing, results are another.

"No-one was expecting us to be in this position in January, so if we can stay close to the top it means that in May we will have options to win the title."

Benitez has also claimed that he only chose to go public on his decision to reject the contract offer in order to put an end to persistent speculation about the process.

He believes that the constant talk was actually a distraction from Liverpool's title charge, and he added: "I don't know how difficult it will be to resolve. I only know I decided to finish the speculation because I think it is in the best interests of my club.

"It shouldn't be difficult to resolve though. I am only talking about working within a budget, not controlling everything.

"I wanted to finish with the speculation. There is no sense in talking about the contract from now until the end of the season."

Liverpool will have almost a full squad to choose from for the first time this season as they go into the derby match, and Benitez is likely to restore Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso to the starting line up.

Juventus Chase Liverpool Duo To Replace Nedved

Czech Fury could again postpone his retirement at the end of the season, but the Old Lady will not take any risks and are reportedly tracking Kuyt and Babel.

Pavel Nedved was expected to hang up his boots next June, but his agent Mino Raiola revealed earlier this week that the 36-year-old could still change his mind and further extend his career.

However, the Corso Galileo Ferraris executives are already scouring the transfer market to find the right man who will be able to fill Nedved’s boots for the long-term at the Stadio Olimpico and La Gazzetta dello Sport claims this morning that director of sport Alessio Secco has already drawn up a shortlist.

Liverpool forwards Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel, capable of playing as wingers or strikers, seem to fit the bill. Kuyt is expected to command a fee of at least €12 million, but Juve consider him one of their primary targets.

The other ready-made option for the Bianconeri could be his competriot Babel, whose price would also well exceed the €10m mark.

United Going Top Of No Concern To Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is not worried that Manchester United have taken his team's top spot in the Premier League and maintains their title bid is still on track.

United's 1-0 victory over Bolton lifted them a point clear of Liverpool, who play Merseyside rivals Everton at Anfield on Monday.

Benitez's rant at United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and the row over his contract extension have raised questions over whether the Reds can handle the pressure of a title challenge.

However, the Liverpool boss insists their approach has not altered and they are unconcerned by the rise of United.

"The situation does not change, no matter what they do,'' said the Spaniard. "We have to get three points in every single game and especially in the derby.

"I think it is important to understand when people talk about the title and your position in the table that I didn't expect in August to win the title in January.

"No-one can expect this. If you keep calm and analyse the situation you will know if you want to win the title it has to be maybe in May and to have Chelsea, Arsenal, now Aston Villa, and United in the title race is normal.

"We will try to stay there and if we cannot be [top] one week then the next week we have to think about getting three points and getting ahead again.

"I have a lot of confidence in my team.''

Benitez insists the club being in contention - having not won the championship since 1990 - has given his players an extra lift as the matches begin to get more important.

They have also been boosted by the return to fitness of a number of key players and a sustained title bid remains on track.

"There is a little bit of anxiety because we in a fantastic position but we have to be calm and take one game at a time,'' he added.

"The position is very good and in May, if we are in this position, then we can be thinking it could be the year but now we have to analyse each game and try to improve.

"We have Fernando Torres, Martin Skrtel, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio coming back so we are in a fantastic position and we hope to be there for a long time.''

If Liverpool are to regain top spot they face the not inconsiderable task of beating near-neighbours Everton.

David Moyes' injury-hit side have won four of their last five league matches - drawing with Chelsea - and have five successive clean sheets.

"Everton are in form and playing well, not conceding goals, so it will be important for us to play well against them and beat them,'' said Benitez, who shrugged off claims his contract wrangle would affect preparations.

"It is very difficult because they are defending well but I want to show our fans that we are really concentrated.

"The derby is very important so we can talk about football easily.''

Torres is expected to start following two substitute appearances after recovering from a hamstring injury while Xabi Alonso (foot) and Arbeloa (hamstring) are also fit again.

Moyes Hopes To End Mersey Jinx

Everton manager David Moyes is relishing the prospect of Monday night's Merseyside derby as he seeks a first win at Anfield.

The Scot cannot wait to face Liverpool and attempt to put to bed a poor record against his team's local rivals.

While Moyes has carved out a reputation as being one of the game's brightest coaches, he has not achieved a victory at Anfield since taking charge in March 2002.

Yet he will make the short trip with plenty of confidence, given that his side are in a rich vein of form and have chalked up six successive clean sheets.

He said: "I was involved in derbies with Rangers when I was a player at Celtic, so I know exactly what they mean.

"The Merseyside derbies are very similar to the ones in Glasgow with the tension around the games. You can never tell sometimes how they will go.

"The difference with the one in Scotland when I was a player was that the games were much tighter because the clubs were in similar positions in the league.

"They were also challenging to be one or two and the financial situations of the clubs were also much closer together.

"That is slightly different down here. Nevertheless it is a great derby and I am looking forward to being involved in another one."

Everton go into the match on the back of a 2-0 victory against Hull in which Mikel Arteta scored his fifth goal of the season.

The Spaniard is back to his best after an operation in the summer to correct a stomach injury and will play a key role against Liverpool with the clubs also due to meet in the FA Cup on Sunday.

Arteta said: "It will be strange playing them twice in seven days. It is a difficult task for us.

"But we will prepare for the games well and make it as hard for them as we can.

"I have talked to my friend Xabi (Alonso) about the games but he knows, as do all the Liverpool players, it will be tough."

Defender Joseph Yobo could come into contention after missing the last four matches because of a hamstring injury.

Midfielder Marouane Fellaini is ruled out through suspension after amassing 10 bookings for the season.

Focus On Football, Urges Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has told his players they must put everything which has happened in the last week behind them and focus on Monday night's Merseyside derby at home to Everton.

In the last nine days the Reds have been held to a goalless draw at Stoke, had to read about their manager rejecting a contract extension and watch Manchester United overtake them as Barclays Premier League leaders.

Victory over Everton would put the Anfield club back on top and Benitez believes that is the only thing the players should be concentrating on.

"We know we didn't play well (against Stoke)," said the Liverpool boss.

"It is a difficult stadium. You had to give credit to Stoke. They had won 21 points, 18 at home where they beat Arsenal and Aston Villa.

"But now we have to think about the derby, Anfield and a totally different scenario.

"The defenders, midfielders, strikers, the staff, we were not good enough.

"The team had to improve. If you want to win these kind of games you have to improve."

Benitez went public with his contract rejection on Friday.

The stumbling block appears to be his desire to have full control over transfers, including spending, wages and terms and conditions.

However, he does not believe the wrangle has overshadowed Monday night's match.

"It is not affecting preparations for the game," stressed the Spaniard, who last week had a third, and hopefully final, kidney stones operation.

"I want to be focused on the game because we know that is the most important thing.

"Playing against Everton is something different. The atmosphere in the stadium is really good.

"Every single year you can understand the rivalry more and what it means for everyone here so it is a game you want to win.

"Hopefully we will win and it will be a fantastic game and normally that means more confidence for the team."

Sixth-placed Everton have won four of their last five league matches, dropping points in a goalless draw at home to Chelsea.

They have not conceded a goal since Aston Villa put three past them on December 7.

"I think they have had some clean sheets and scored some good goals so they have confidence," said Benitez.

"But we have confidence too and quality and the (home) fans will be a massive difference."

Midfielder Xabi Alonso is set to return after missing the Stoke match with a foot injury while right-back Alvaro Arbeloa is in contention after missing four matches with a hamstring injury.

Compatriot Fernando Torres is in line for a place in the starting line-up after two substitute appearances following recovery from a similar problem.

Rafael Benitez Stands At Crossroads In Liverpool Power Struggle

More than any other who has passed through the boot room since 1974, Rafael Benitez walks in the shoes of Shanks.

Like the son of Ayrshire, the Spaniard's connection with the Liverpool fans is almost messianic.

Their unconditional love of the coach who delivered a fifth European Cup and, until Saturday evening, had positioned Liverpool at the summit of the Premier League is the basis of his strength at the club and allows him to fire bullets in any direction he chooses.

This team are the most convincing built at Anfield in his 4½-year reign and represents the best opportunity yet to end a championship famine that stretches back to 1990. Liverpool's emergence as genuine championship contenders coincides with a critical juncture in the Anfield power struggle.

Benitez is warring on two fronts. Unless hiskidney stones have passed into his brain, we must conclude that the fights he has picked most recently with Sir Alex Ferguson and subsequently with Rick Parry are strategic. The two men are intrinsically linked in the thinking of Benitez. In order to suppress the former he must subordinate the latter. Only one man can run Anfield is his premise, and that man is not chief executive Parry.

If Benitez pulls off the double coup the Shankly Gates will become part of a pair at any new stadium. Failure could see him on his way. The threads of this sporting and political drama have converged on a week of weeks for Merseyside. Liverpool host Everton in the Premiership on Monnight and the FA Cup at the weekend; two matches that threaten to wrench football's gaze temporarily from Manchester City's transfer policy and the Luis Felipe Scolari opera playing out at Chelsea.

The Premier League table tells us that the gamble Benitez took with Ferguson has not paid off. The talk has shifted to the importance of being top in May rather than January, which represents a shift in tone. Benitez was proud to tout Liverpool's standing over the festive period. If we are top at Christmas we are 80 per cent there was his boast.

Parry may prove less implacable than Ferguson. The memory of Liverpool's flirtation with Jurgen Klinsmann is all the fuel Benitez needs to up the ante with the club's American owners. Were Benitez to get what he wants – control of the transfer budget – Parry's role is emptied of importance at a stroke. His would be the signature on the cheque but that is not power. Influence in the decision-making is.

Whether it is desirable to invest absolute control in the hands of Benitez is something that will be exercising the minds of Tom Hicks and George Gillett before the proposed meeting with Benitez after the derby double. And the players. Many in the Liverpool squad have found it difficult to comprehend the manager's rational and judgment. One day in favour, out the next.

It took Steven Gerrard more time than he would have liked to convince Benitez that he was more than a right-sided midfielder. Xabi Alonso was almost the makeweight in a deal that would have brought Gareth Barry to the club. His performances at the hub of the Liverpool midfield since his return from injury make a nonsense of that equation. And the purchase of Andrea Dossena for £8 million hardly makes the case for Benitez to have blanket control of the company purse.

Benitez clearly has something. Like Ferguson at Aberdeen, Benitez took a regional force in Spain, Valencia, and shattered the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona. When the good times roll, idiosyncrasies are seen as strengths. When the balance shifts those same characteristics are viewed as eccentricities, unreliable elements not to be trusted.

The arrival in pole position of United adds a twist Benitez could have done without. Ten days ago, when Benitez rolled out his charge sheet against Ferguson, United were eight points behind, albeit with three games in hand. That unsolicited leap from left field is looking none too bright now.

Silence would have served Benitez well enough after Ferguson's predictable observation about Liverpool's capacity or otherwise to handle the pressure of a championship run-in with a team packed with title virgins. Were he not sufficiently discomfited by Liverpool's position and consistency this season, Ferguson would not have bothered poking Benitez with his stick. He doesn't have much to say about Portsmouth, West Ham or Sunderland. It was therefore a compliment, not a slight.

Monday's game is the one Liverpool can least afford to lose. Everton are unbeaten since falling to a last-minute goal against Aston Villa in the first week of December, a run that includes four consecutive wins. Liverpool, unbeaten in 10, remain favourites, which at a crossroads such as this with the need for points paramount, only adds to the burden.

Benitez must handle expectation as well as hope. David Moyes enters Anfield under the radar. Few expect him to reverse a trend that has seen Everton win only two of the last 18 derbies. Signs mean something in this town. Anything other than victory will be seen as a bad omen in the red half.

Benitez Blasts Liverpool's American Owners Over Ongoing Agger Contract Saga

Rafa Benitez has risked angering Liverpool’s American owners again by accusing them of dragging their heels over defender Daniel Agger’s Anfield future.

Ahead of Monday’s Merseyside derby, Benitez — already at odds with Tom Hicks and George Gillett over his own contract — hit out over the growing threat of losing Agger to AC Milan by insisting: ‘The club have been too slow dealing with this and the player does not know where he stands.’

Agger’s agent Per Steffensen tried to play down the significance of meeting Milan sporting director Ariedo Braida in a city centre restaurant last week but admitted there had been no contact from Liverpool since the beginning of November.

The Denmark defender’s current deal runs out at the end of next season, and a summer move to the San Siro looks increasingly likely after Benitez poured out his frustration over the deadlock.

‘The club have been slow dealing with Agger,’ he said.

‘His situation is in the papers all the time now because we were not quick enough.

'I was talking with him and his agent, and it is clear that is the case.

‘Daniel told me he wants to stay, and there is no doubt he is 100 percent committed to the club. But they are waiting and waiting and do not know what is going on.’

Steffensen’s unauthorised meeting with Milan’s chief transfer negotiator caused dismay within Anfield, but he denied trying to set up a deal for Agger and dismissed reports that the 24-year old wants £70,000 a week to sign a new contract.

‘I am a proper agent and would not talk to another club when Daniel still has 18 months on his contract at Liverpool,’ he said.

‘I was in Milan to try and build up a relationship with people there.

‘It is not all about money with Daniel. I have had only one meeting with Liverpool, when they played Atletico Madrid at the start of November, and heard nothing from them since.

'It is very unfair on Daniel that there has been talk of £70,000 a week, because that isn’t the case.’

Benitez admitted his decision to walk away from his own contract negotiations could impact on other players.

There were no regrets, though, about taking such a stance or about his outburst against Manchester United earlier.

‘It is true we could face a similar situation with other players, not just Agger,’ he said.

‘I wanted to finish with my contract in one week, so I could deal with other things, but it has not been possible.

‘There was a problem with it, and I decided to stop the talks for the sake of the club and the team, so we could all concentrate on challenging for the title without any distractions.

‘I really don’t know whether it will prove difficult to resolve or not.

'For me, it should be easy, because I am not talking about controlling everything.

'I am talking about football matters, working within a budget and making sure we continue to progress. That is all.’

Benitez, who wants complete control over transfers, said: ‘Once a budget is set, there is only one person who can decide how it should be spent, and that is the manager.

‘I don’t have any personal problems with Rick Parry. If I have one chief executive or 20, it doesn’t matter.

'I will work with them. But it couldn’t be any clearer that the manager has to decide how money is spent on players.

‘I want to stay here many more years, if possible, but the talks had been going on for two months.

'I wanted it all tied up inside a week, ideally, so when we could not progress any further, I finished the conversation.

'It was in everyone’s best interests, better than carrying on with questions and speculation week after week.

‘It is the same with what I said about Mr. Ferguson. I was thinking about what is best for my club and my team, and a lot of people have agreed with me.

'You cannot wait until May, because it is too late then to find a solution.

‘Things needed saying now, and I think what I said is going to help us for the rest of the season.

'It will take some of the pressure off my players, for one thing, and also make people think about the things Mr. Ferguson gets up to.

‘When United played, a couple of days later, I was really pleased to see the television cameras were following him and the referee throughout.

Adams Still Keen On Pennant

Portsmouth boss Tony Adams remains optimistic that his pursuit of Jermaine Pennant will prove successful.

Pompey are keen to bolster their ranks during the January transfer window and have earmarked the Liverpool winger as a potential new recruit.

The South Coast club have already agreed terms with their Premier League rivals in regards to a deal, but the player has stated a desire to stay at Anfield.

Adams, though, has revealed that he is set to hold talks with a man that has also been linked with high-profile moves to AC Milan and Real Madrid.

The Portsmouth chief does, however, admit that he will not continue to track the 26-year-old should he not get full commitment from the former Birmingham man.

"If he doesn't want to then it is the same situation as Jermain Defoe - I won't take him on board if he doesn't want it," said Adams.

"I need players working hard and scrapping and in it together."