Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Match Preview: Wigan Athletic vs. LiverpooL

Wednesday’s Premier League fixtures pit Wigan Athletic against Liverpool in a North West quasi-derby. The visitors will be hoping to keep pace at the top of the table, but the men from Greater Manchester have plenty to play for themselves.

Wigan’s decidedly unglamorous location, modest fanbase, disappointing home attendances, relative lack of history and uninspiring style have in recent years seen their name become synonymous with the undesirable side of English football. “Wigan on Wednesday night” has come to mean “a fixture not worth watching or attending” in the punters’ vernacular, while, “and now he might as well be playing for Wigan” succinctly sums up a once-promising player’s slide into obscurity.

The Latics have struck out on the right path toward changing that perception this season, however, as they have been one of the competition’s more refreshing performers. They sit seventh in the standings, albeit 10 points shy of fifth-placed Arsenal, and their manner of play hasn’t been nearly as hard on the eye as in previous years.

Central to that success have been midfielder Wilson Palacios and striker Emile Heskey. Unfortunately for Wigan, both have just joined other clubs. Palacios’ stellar form attracted interest from all over the country, with Tottenham Hotspur eventually landing the Honduran, while Heskey – whose contract was set to expire in the summer – moved to Champions League hopefuls Aston Villa.

Just how Wigan will cope with these losses remains to be seen, although they signed a batch of talented players capable of filling the void. The signing of young Ben Watson from Crystal Palace should boost their midfield, while Hugo Rodallega and Mido will provide some new options in an attack that has always needed an extra goal-threat.

Steve Bruce’s men come into this clash on the back of two consecutive defeats, following a run of four league wins on the trot. Furthermore, they have never beaten Liverpool. Still, they may take some confidence from the havoc they wreaked at Anfield earlier in the season.

Wigan’s visit to Merseyside in October nearly ended in disaster for the hosts. They conceded the lead twice through sloppy defending (combined with some Amr Zaki brilliance, it must be said) before Dirk Kuyt came to the rescue to clinch a nervy 3-2 win with a spectacularly unorthodox volley five minutes from full-time.

That victory was just one among a series of classic comebacks that put Liverpool on track for their first realistic title-chase of the Premier League era. However, after holding first place going into the New Year, those notorious mid-season wobbles are threatening to break out and shake the legs of their campaign.

Rafael Benitez’s men have not won a league game since their 5-1 mauling of Newcastle United at the end of December, and people are once more – if they ever stopped, that is – questioning whether they possess the mettle and the experience to keep touch with Manchester United going into the business end of the season.

The frustrating thing for the Reds is that their stumbles have come against unfancied opposition. Their record against the rest of the ‘Big Four’ this term is excellent – seven points from three games – but they have failed to beat Stoke City (twice), Hull City, Fulham and West Ham United. Their lone defeat came against a rock-bottom Tottenham Hotspur outfit.

So Wednesday’s skip across the historical county of Lancashire is undoubtedly a danger game for Liverpool. However, their record on the road this season – seven wins, three draws, one loss – could give them a lift as they head to the JJB.


Wigan Athletic

Jan 17 Manchester City 1-0 Wigan Athletic (Premier League)
Jan 14 Manchester United 1-0 Wigan Athletic (Premier League)
Jan 11 Wigan Athletic 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League)
Jan 02 Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 Wigan Athletic (FA Cup)
Dec 28 Bolton Wanderers 0-1 Wigan Athletic (Premier League)


Jan 25 Liverpool 1-1 Everton (FA Cup)
Jan 19 Liverpool 1-1 Everton (Premier League)
Jan 10 Stoke City 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Jan 03 Preston North End 0-2 Liverpool (FA Cup)
Dec 28 Newcastle United 1-5 Liverpool (Premier League)


Wigan Athletic

Heskey is gone and Palacios’ move to Spurs is signed and sealed, although he is still waiting on a work permit. Thus, there could be a debutant or two in the Wigan line-up. Watson, Rodallega and Mido are all expected to make the squad, and the latter may start alongside Zaki, his fellow Egyptian.

No suspensions for the Latics, although Paul Scharner carries four cautions.

Possible XI: Kirkland – Melchiot, Bramble, Scharner, Figueroa – Valencia, Cattermole, Brown, Taylor – Mido, Zaki


Xabi Alonso shrugged off a foot problem to play both games against Everton, while Alvaro Arbeloa returned from a hamstring injury on Sunday to make his first start of 2009. Daniel Agger has been troubled by a sore calf but could be available this week.

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


Amr Zaki caused all sorts of problems when Wigan last faced Liverpool, scoring twice amid a period of blistering early-season form. The Egyptian has got quieter as the weather has got colder, but he remains a serious threat to Pepe Reina’s goal.

At the other end, Fernando Torres should be particularly lively as he approaches full fitness after a lengthy lay-off. The Spaniard showed his creative abilities by setting up Steven Gerrard’s equaliser against the Toffees at the weekend, but he’ll be hungry to find the net himself.

Ian Rush: Liverpool Must Get Back To Business At Wigan

Liverpool can’t afford to dwell on the frustration of Sunday’s draw with Everton as it’s a massive week in the title race.

With a trip to Wigan tomorrow night followed by the home clash with Chelsea on Sunday it’s vital the Reds return to winning ways.

It’s not going to be easy at the JJB Stadium because Wigan are a difficult side to beat.

Their home form is good and they had the benefit of a weekend off, but I’ve got a feeling this could be a good time to play them.

They’ve been weakened by the sale of two of their best players with Wilson Palacios heading to Spurs and Emile Heskey to Aston Villa.

Liverpool have got to be positive and take the game to Wigan. We certainly need a bit more urgency in our play than we’ve shown recently.

With Manchester United taking on West Brom tonight we could find ourselves three points adrift and there is no more room for slip-ups.

After Wigan, preparations will start for the clash with Chelsea and that could be a key date in the chase for the Premier League crown.

I’ve heard people at Chelsea saying they have to beat Liverpool to stay in the race and I certainly believe if we can beat them then you can write off their title hopes.

Its roles reversed this season as in recent years it’s been Liverpool having to win games like this just to stay in contention.

Six points would be the perfect boost heading into the FA Cup replay at Goodison a week tomorrow.

Everton will fancy their chances of progressing after getting a draw at Anfield. I know they will have a few players back but I think playing away will suit Liverpool.

There’s no doubt we could have done without an extra game but I don’t think we did enough to beat Everton on Sunday.

Rafa Benitez said only one team wanted to win it, and I agree with that, but we always knew that would be the case.

The only teams that come to Anfield looking to win are Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. All the rest set their stall out to get a draw and Everton got what they came for.

We’ve drawn far too many home games against teams we should be beating this season and this was another one for the list.

We knew all about the threat Everton would pose from set-pieces but our defending for their goal was poor.

You have to give Tim Cahill credit. He was clever going off the pitch and then timing his run right to get on the end of the corner, but defenders have got to be alive to situations like that.

That was a brief venture forward for the Blues who got men behind the ball and were very well organised.

It’s okay to say Everton were negative but the onus was on Liverpool to break them down and we didn’t do that.

Yes, we dominated possession and territory but too often the ball went sideways, enabling Everton to get back in position.

The ball needed to be played a lot quicker and too often the tempo of our play was too slow.

Steven Gerrard made a great run from midfield to get past Fernando Torres for the equaliser but there wasn’t enough of that going on.

We’ve Got To Kill Off Games, Warns Liverpool FC Striker Dirk Kuyt

It was a moment that encapsulated the shortcoming that is threatening Liverpool’s hopes of silverware this season.

Beating away at the Everton door for almost the entire second half, Rafael Benitez’s side, having found an equaliser through Steven Gerrard, could sense a winner.

Then the moment arrived, the visiting defence for once out of position as Gerrard fed the ball into the path of the unmarked Dirk Kuyt with only Tim Howard to beat.

He missed. And that has been a recurring theme for Liverpool of late, a failure to capitalise when the opportunity has arisen to either kill off a game or open up a gap at the top of the Premier League table.

Now the Anfield side find themselves having to wedge yet another Merseyside derby into an already demanding fixture schedule.

Indeed, having led the table during the Christmas period, successive league draws mean Liverpool will be playing catch-up on champions Manchester United when they travel to Wigan Athletic this evening.

Kuyt, of course, hasn’t been alone with his wayward finishing. And the Dutchman acknowledges Liverpool cannot afford to waste many more presentable opportunities if they are to end a 19-year championship drought.

“We know we have the ability to win every game, but sometimes you are unlucky,” he says. “Against Everton on Sunday we had two good chances late on to kill the game off, one of them fell to me and one came to Fernando.

“Sometimes it happens like this. Last Monday we conceded a goal in the closing minutes, and a few months before we were scoring goals in the last minutes. That’s football. We just have to keep on going. Maybe we need a lucky break, in recent games we have been unlucky and maybe we could be lucky in our next one.

“We’re still in the FA Cup, we’re still up at the top of the league and we’re still in the Champions League, so we have got to remain positive. We’re doing really well this season.

“But yes, we know that the failure to kill off teams is going to have to be addressed if we want to stay in contention for the title.”

Kuyt - No Confidence Crisis

Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt insists confidence remains high in the squad despite three successive draws.

Sunday's FA Cup fourth-round tie with Everton ended all square, while the Reds have taken just two points from their last two Premier League matches allowing Manchester United to take over at the top of the table.

After scoring eight goals in two matches against Bolton and Newcastle after Christmas, Rafa Benitez's side have found the net just twice in three matches against Premier League opposition.

Both goals came from Steven Gerrard, and the rest of the squad are struggling to supplement their captain's efforts, with striker Fernando Torres still working his way back to full fitness after hamstring trouble.

However, Kuyt believes the situation is not as bad as some critics are making out.

"Confidence is okay. We know we have the ability to win every game but sometimes you are unlucky," said the Holland international.

"This is football. We just have to keep going and look forward.

"We dropped points that we didn't want to do - because if you are Liverpool you want to win every game - but there is no time to stand still and think about things.

"We showed against Everton we were the better team but sometimes we have to kill the game and we know we can.

"I'm sure it will come, it came before. Sometimes you are unlucky and the next time you will be lucky.

"We are still in the FA Cup, we are still near the top of the league and we are still in the Champions League so we are doing very well and we have to stay positive."

Liverpool meet seventh-placed Wigan on Wednesday knowing they face an equally tough test as they did against their Merseyside rivals at the weekend.

The Latics have just sold striker Emile Heskey to Aston Villa, as well as losing key midfielder Wilson Palacios to Tottenham, and Kuyt believes they will miss their target man.

"Heskey is a great player, an England international, so it will be a big loss for them but they still have some good players," he added.

"I think every game is difficult. We just have to believe in our own strength and we do that so we go for three points there.

"They have some good players and the manager (Steve Bruce) has done a really good job since he has come and we have respect for them."

Man Jailed Over Handling Goods Stolen From LFC Star Lucas Leiva's Home

A man was jailed for two-and-a-half years today for handling a haul of goods stolen from Premiership footballer Lucas Leiva.

Raiders took more than 150 items from the 22-year-old’s home in Woolton, Merseyside, while he was playing for Liverpool at Anfield on November 4 last year.

The haul included football shirts from his debut, a bronze Olympic medal and boots embossed with his name, along with computers, electrical equipment and a collection of jewellery and handbags belonging to Leiva’s girlfriend.

Unemployed Steven Jones, 21, was jailed at Liverpool Crown Court today after admitting his part in the burglary.

Jones, who has extensive form for offences of dishonesty, admitted handling stolen goods and driving while disqualified.

Geoff Fryar, prosecuting, said: "The complainant in this case is the Liverpool footballer Lucas Leiva.

"His premises were burgled while he, his partner and friends were away from the property.

"The complainant was playing at Anfield and his partner was watching him.

"His partner returned home first and found the premises had been burgled.

"A ladder was used to get into the house through the bathroom.

"An untidy search was made and a large quantity of property was stolen.

"In excess of 150 sports items and valuable pieces of jewellery and three computers were taken.

"A great deal of it was sporting memorabilia with great sentimental value, such as a bronze Olympic medal, and a variety of football shirts which were of particular value to the complainant because they commemorated his debut games for Liverpool."

Mr Fryar said police searched the two homes Jones shared with his grandparents in Deansburn Road, Tuebrook, and with his parents in Lowerson Crescent, Clubmoor.

In both properties and inside Jones’s Vauxhall Vectra were stashes of the Reds midfielder’s belongings.

Leiva, who has played for his native Brazil, and his girlfriend later identified their property at a police station.

Jones, who had previously served 16 months at a young offenders’ institution, told police he was simply minding the items for men he refused to name.

Jones refused to answer detectives' questions initially but later claimed his paymasters allowed him to keep a PlayStation from the raid and a pair of the star's boots.

His barrister, Vincent Dean, said of his client: "He admits he would be instrumental in trying to dispose of it.

"The defendant expresses regret to the victim of this offence and for the trauma it must have caused.

"He was fully aware from the nature of the property of the burglary but wasn’t involved in it."

But the judge, Brian Lewis, said he did not believe Jones was merely minding the stolen goods.

He told him: "You came into possession of the overwhelming bulk of the property taken from that house.

"In my view, you weren’t simply minding that property because the property was divided at three separate locations.

"I have to decide how close you were to the burglars and I come to the conclusion you were close to them.

"It is inevitable you knew where it had come from.

"You knew perfectly well a large amount of money could be made from selling the electrical and designer items.

"You have a bad record for offences involving dishonesty."

Jones was jailed for two years for handling stolen goods and six months for driving while disqualified, the sentences to run consecutively.

He was also banned from driving for two years.

In 2007, James Birch, 20, of Tuebrook, was jailed for two-and-a-half years for burgling the homes of ex-Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, defender Daniel Agger, England star Peter Crouch and former Reds striker Florent Sinama Pongolle.

The crimes were part of a series of raids on the homes of Liverpool and Everton FC aces during the last two years.

In December 2007 Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard’s mansion was broken into when he was away on Champions League duty but his wife, Alex Curran, was home.

And the homes of the club’s goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, and Holland forward Dirk Kuyt have also been targeted.

Itandje Desperate To Quit

Liverpool goalkeeper Charles Itandje is desperate to leave Anfield.

The Reds' No.1 has never played a Premier League game since joining from Lens in 2007.

He has played in a handful of cup games, but he clearly has little future at Anfield.

Itandje is hopeful of finding a move soon, but is not sure if he will be able to leave before the transfer window closes.

"Do I want to leave? That is very clear," he told Aujourd'hui Sport.

"I want to get away from here.

"I got the green light from my officials but they have set amazing conditions. One or two clubs wanted me on loan this winter, but Liverpool refused asking for a definitive transfer.

"I have not played for six months so it is difficult to understand.

"I have never played a single Premier League match. And this season I didn't play in the cups either. Last season I had two bad matches in the cup."

Itandje revealed that Middlesbrough tried to sign him last summer, but the deal was not agreed.

"Last summer Middlesbrough wanted to sign me on loan and a few French clubs contacted me, but Liverpool refused.

"The officials absolutely wanted me to go to Galatasaray. Finally both clubs could not find any agreement and the deal fell through. So I found myself here against my will, just to train."

Spurs Offer Lennon In Swap Deal For Keane

Rafael Benitez is weighing up an offer from Tottenham Hotspur of Aaron Lennon or Jermaine Jenas plus cash in exchange for his disaffected striker Robbie Keane. In what would be one of the most remarkable transfers in recent history, Harry Redknapp would be prepared to let one of his two young English players leave in return for bringing Keane back to Spurs.

There are still many variables at play, the most important being whether Keane, 28, wants to move back to the club that he left for a deal worth around £20.3m in the summer. The deal would mean that Liverpool would not have to pay the remaining balance, estimated at £11m, due for Keane in the original transfer. The two clubs first raised the possibility on Monday night.

Keane is in the Liverpool squad for tonight's Premier League game against Wigan Athletic, although Benitez was evasive yesterday when asked whether he believed the Irishman had a future at Anfield. Keane is known to want to stay and fight for his place at the club but increasingly it would appear that Benitez is prepared to use him as a bargaining chip to bolster his squad as the title race warms up.

Redknapp has met with the Lyons striker Fred – short for Frederico Chaves Guedes – but the Brazilian, who is out of contract in the summer, is still only a secondary target after Keane. The 25-year-old has a decent goalscoring record but Keane would be Redknapp's first choice. The deal for Keane would be complicated even if the two clubs can agree on terms. It would rely upon Keane and either Lennon or Jenas being prepared to make the move.

Should Keane have wanted clarification on his future from Benitez, he will have been interested to know that the Liverpool manager was given five opportunities to dismiss any doubt over the striker's future yesterday but opted to leave the issue open-ended.

"Clearly he is our player and in the squad for tonight, and that's it," was all Benitez would say. When asked whether he wanted to sell him in this transfer window, Benitez said: "I want to see him scoring goals. I don't need to sell any players. We are in the title race, I want to keep all the players. We don't need to sell anyone."

That contrasted with Benitez's response when Manchester City's new owners' former figurehead, Sulaiman Al-Fahim, listed Fernando Torres among those players Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan coveted, back in September. Benitez said yesterday: "We have had four or five approaches from different teams for players and the answer's been the same for them all – no. We want all our players. We don't want to sell. Robbie could be one of the ones we had an approach about, I won't say."

Lennon and Jenas had both been acquired by Tottenham on the basis that they fitted the club's former policy of buying young English talent. Lennon was bought from Leeds United by Frank Arnesen when he was the club's director of football for the budget price of £1m. The winger has interested Benitez before and he would be an appealing alternative to Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun on the right wing. Jenas is currently injured.

Keane was stunned to be told that David Ngog, the young French striker who is yet to start a league game, would replace him in the squad for Sunday's FA Cup derby with Everton. But Benitez insisted that he did not see fit to explain his thinking to Keane, one-to-one, at Liverpool's Melwood training ground. "I talk to all the players," Benitez said. "When you sign a player, the price doesn't matter. The main thing is just that they work hard like the rest. It was clear we had Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres, Gerrard playing as a second striker and also David Ngog, so we had lots of options if we needed to change.

"He [Keane] knows he can play better. Everyone knows he's better than the one we are watching on the pitch sometimes," the Liverpool manager said. "When you sign them you have to give them time. Some take longer than others. Some just need a month, others a year."

Benitez Issues Challenge To Keane

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has urged Robbie Keane to work hard and become an important player for the club.

The striker was left out of the squad that drew with Everton on Sunday, sparking speculation over his future, but is set to face Wigan on Wednesday.

Benitez said: "Robbie is maybe not playing at his best level.

"But he wants to fight for his position. To do that he must work hard and then if we consider he can give us something then we will use him."

Keane, 28, has not hit his best form since his £20.3m move from Tottenham in July 2008, taking 11 games to score his first league goal for the club and notching only seven goals in all competitions.

And after the Republic of Ireland international was rested on Sunday, reports suggested his career at Anfield was in jeopardy.

Tottenham are believed to be interested in re-signing Keane, while Manchester City and Newcastle have also been linked with a move for the forward.

But Benitez has insisted that no-one will be leaving the club during the January transfer window.

"A lot of clubs have been asking about some players, to buy or loan, but we have said we do not need to lose anyone, we do not need to sell anyone now," stated the Spaniard.

"We do not want to lose players now if we cannot replace those players later. We need all of them for the race for the title."

Liverpool are second in the Premier League table, three points behind leaders Manchester United, and the Anfield outfit are also involved in the Champions League and the FA Cup, while their rivals from Old Trafford are also in both competitions - and the final of the Carling Cup.

Benitez made it clear he will need to call on all his resources if his side are to maintain a challenge for all three trophies, while also suggesting that players must accept the need for rotation.

He added: "We have a lot of games to play in the coming weeks, in the league, Cup and Europe.

"We will need everyone. People may not always play but two weeks later we may have an injury and then we need them.

"Everyone, including Robbie, is training well. He has experience and hopefully he will be an important player for us.

"When Fernando Torres was injured, Robbie was working hard and doing well. If he can continue to do this we will not have any doubts over his quality.

"People are talking too much about Keane. It was just one decision about one player, he wasn't in the squad.

"He is expensive and high profile, yes, but Manchester United have bought plenty of players who cost £20m or more every single year. Sometimes more than one player but nothing is said about them being left out.

"If you want to be in a top side then you must have this mentality. You have to accept that some players will play and some will not.

"Robbie will be in the squad to face Wigan and if he can score goals then I will be happy."

Ian Rush: Robbie Keane Still Has A Role To Play At Liverpool

Robbie Keane will have been gutted to be left out of Sunday’s FA Cup tie.

For him to not even be named on the bench for such a big game was a real surprise and it will be interesting to see what happens over the coming weeks.

The manager makes the decisions and only Rafa Benitez knows the ins and outs of the situation. But the fact is you can’t keep leaving out a player who cost £20million.

You either have to play him or, if Benitez doesn’t rate him, then he has to get rid of him.

I really hope Robbie still has a future at the club. He’s a great player and I believe he can play a major part in our pursuit of trophies.

He’s just got to keep his head down and keep working hard in training. Hopefully he’ll get the chance to show what he can do at Wigan tonight.

Meanwhile, there is a Rush back looking for goals after my son signed for League of Wales side Newi Cefn Druids.

Jonathan is 19 and has come on as sub in their last couple of games.

It’s a good chance for him and he will learn a lot under joint managers Lee Jones, who played a few first team games for Liverpool in the mid-90s, and ex-Wrexham player Waynne Phillips.

Like me, Jonathan is a striker but that’s where the similarities end. He’s a big lad and at 6ft 4ins he’s more like Peter Crouch. I’m looking forward to watching him in action.

Benitez Drops Keane Hint

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has dropped a hint that he has received an approach for striker Robbie Keane.

The former Tottenham player has failed to live up to expectations since making a £20million move to Anfield in the summer and has been linked with a return to White Hart Lane.

Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has admitted that he is an admirer of the Republic of Ireland star, who is set to return to Liverpool's squad for Wednesday's trip to Wigan after being dropped for the FA Cup draw with Everton at the weekend.

Benitez dodged questions regarding Keane's future when asked on Tuesday, but the Reds boss has offered a clue that he has received an enquiry regarding the ex-Inter Milan and Leeds player.

The Spaniard said in The Daily Post: "We've had four or five approaches for players and the answer has been the same - 'no'.

"We want all our players. We don't want to sell. Robbie could be one of the ones we had an approach about, I won't say.

"Is Keane one? I'm not saying, you can guess yourselves.

"For me when you sign a player the main thing is not the price, the main thing is that they just keep working.

"Keane is back in the squad now, so we can stop talking about him and his future."

Speculation has also been rife that defender Daniel Agger could be leaving Liverpool as the Denmark international's contract negotiations drag on.

And Benitez has revealed that he has been holding talks with two players - possibly Keane and Agger - urging the duo to remain willing to help Liverpool's Premier League, UEFA Champions League and FA Cup challenge.

"I have been talking with two very important players recently, I made it very clear that we must focus only on games and think about how to win every single game," added the former Valencia boss.

"We have a fantastic opportunity, we can win three trophies and any one would be good for our fans and ourselves. We must try to be professional and concentrate only on games.

"The players are not affected by things off the field. When we talk it is about football, not about other problems

"The only way to change things is on the pitch, not just talking and talking and talking."