Sunday, February 08, 2009

Match Report: Portsmouth 2 - 3 LiverpooL

Fernando Torres came off the bench to score an injury-time winner against Portsmouth and send Liverpool to the top of the Premier League.

Torres only came on with 15 minutes to go and by that time his side were chasing victory after David Nugent's opener had been cancelled out by Fabio Aurelio.

The Spain striker then set up Dirk Kuyt before heading home in stoppage-time.

It proved to be a masterstroke for Rafael Benitez to leave Torres on the bench - but it was the closest of calls.

Torres was tired towards the end of the midweek FA Cup defeat to Everton and has international duty this week when Spain face England - but he was still fit enough to be among the substitutes at Fratton Park.

His cameo has put the psychological pressure on Manchester United as Liverpool overtake Sir Alex Ferguson's men at the summit before their match at West Ham this weekend.

The spotlight was inevitably on Benitez for his brave move.

He offloaded Robbie Keane back to Tottenham, then saw talisman Steven Gerrard injured with a hamstring strain - so resting a matchwinner like Torres for 75 minutes was a huge gamble.

Keane would have been almost certain to have played against Pompey if he was still at the club, but instead French youngster David Ngog endured a miserable first league start.

Torres was not the only change, with Benitez radically altering his team and leaving the likes of Albert Riera, Xabi Alonso and Kuyt on the bench.

He also started with three centre-backs and at first the formation looked shaky when Nugent and Peter Crouch got a couple of shots away.

But Pompey were still struggling for confidence as they looked to end a run of failing to win a league game since November - and even a second string Liverpool were bound to create chances.

Pompey goalkeeper David James, equalling Gary Speed's Premier League record of 535 appearances, was left stranded when Liverpool put their first purposeful move together.

Alvaro Arbeloa's cross from the right found Yossi Benayoun unmarked in the penalty area but his finish went into the side-netting after James had slipped.

James would have had no chance either when Aurelio's free-kick curled just wide of the upright. The Brazilian was off target again in the 17th minute when Ngog's cross found its way behind the Pompey defence.

Javier Mascherano is not known for his goalscoring but he had James at full stretch when he was given room 30 yards from goal, with the Pompey stopper diverting the effort for a corner.

Ngog's evening came to an end before the hour mark, with Kuyt brought on for the visitors - and it nearly brought an instant reward.

Benayoun breezed past Hreidarsson and Sylvain Distin before laying the ball off to Kuyt. The substitute crossed to leave an open goal for Ryan Babel from three yards out - but the winger somehow managed to nutmeg himself as he finished.

Nugent made Liverpool pay with his 62nd-minute opener. Crouch had held the ball up before playing a reverse ball to his strike partner, who slotted his finish calmly past Reina.

It was a sweet strike for the Evertonian, who taunted Liverpool fans in the first half about their FA Cup defeat this week.

Liverpool's way back into the match came after an awful backpass from Crouch.

James had to handle to stop Kuyt from finishing, with Webb alert to the offence. Alonso, on as a substitute, tapped the ball for Aurelio to smash into the bottom corner.

Kuyt had the ball in the net but was harshly given offside after racing onto Aurelio's throughball.

Torres came on for the last quarter of an hour for Babel, but Pompey were ahead again with 12 minutes remaining.

Nadir Belhadj swung over a free-kick after Glen Johnson was fouled, with Hreidarsson losing his marker and heading past a wrongfooted Reina.

Kuyt levelled in the 85th minute after Torres crossed from the right and the Dutchman finished into James' near post.

Then came the final twist, with Torres' powerful header from Benayoun's cross finding a way past James.

Benitez Happy With Strength In Depth

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez insists his squad have the strength to win the Barclays Premier League despite needing a late cameo from Fernando Torres to earn a 3-2 victory at Portsmouth.

Torres, Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt were on the bench at Fratton Park and all three were required as Benitez's men twice can from behind to secure three points and overtake Manchester United at the top.

Benitez said: "The strength of the squad is good, you can see from the players that played. Hopefully we can be there. I think we have enough quality. We knew it would be very difficult to stay top for a long time but we are still there and we want to be contenders to the end."

Benitez explained how his three substitutes needed to rest.

"Torres, Kuyt and Alonso were really tired," he said.

"We had played 10 men and extra time against Everton this week so we were talking with the medical staff about our selection. It is not a gamble when you know they were tired.

"I had confidence. We showed great desire to win and they showed character and mentality."

Alonso had a hand in Fabio Aurelio's goal to cancel out David Nugent's opener for the hosts, then Kuyt equalised again after Hermann Hreidarsson had put Pompey back in front. Torres then struck in stoppage time with a header from Yossi Benayoun's cross.

Pompey have not won a league game since November but manager Tony Adams said: "At the moment everyone tells me they want me to do the job so I'll get on with it."

He added: "It's hard to take when you come out of that game with nothing. We made mistakes but on the positive side there were a lot of good performances."

Liverpool's Stars Were Too Tired To Start At Portsmouth - Rafa Benitez

The pundits, the punters and quite probably the players themselves were utterly befuddled upon reading the Liverpool team-sheet for their clash with Portsmouth.

As if it wasn't strange enough that Rafael Benitez used what looked like a 3-6-1 formation, he also opted leave Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt out of the starting XI.

That, combined with Steven Gerrard's absence through injury and the recent sale of Robbie Keane, left Reds fans fuming as their side twice conceded the lead to relegation-threatened Pompey.

It was the introduction of goalscorers Kuyt and Torres that sparked the Merseysiders' late comeback, but Benitez has stood by his decision to rest his key men after the draining FA Cup tie against Everton in midweek.

"Torres, Kuyt and Alonso were really tired," he said on Liverpool's official website. "We had to play extra-time with ten men in a Cup replay, and then come here two days later. They were so tired. I talked with the medical and technical staff and made the decision.

"It is not a gamble when you know they are tired. If you ask the players, all of them will say they are fit, but you have to decide based on all the information."

Despite scraping to a 3-2 win in Hampshire thanks to Torres' extra-time header, Liverpool were the better side for much of the game, particularly in the opening half-hour.

Benitez continued, "From the first minute we were playing really well, passing the ball and controlling the game.

"It was really disappointing to make a mistake to concede the goal, and after that another mistake. But we deserved to win because we worked hard and played well."

Rafa's Back For Gareth Barry

Rafa Benitez will test his new powers over Liverpool’s transfer policy by re-igniting his interest in Gareth Barry.

Martin O’Neill recognises his only hope of keeping the England star is guiding Aston Villa into the Champions League.

But if Villa don’t finish in the top four, Benitez intends correcting the grievance he felt last summer when his board refused to splash out £18million.

O’Neill said: “Gareth was true to his word that he would stay in January. If we keep the momentum going, who knows? But if we don’t qualify for Europe, things will be in the balance.

“Having given this season, I don’t think anyone would begrudge him the opportunity to move.”

The Liverpool hierarchy will be powerless to veto a fresh bid after surrendering to Benitez’s latest contract demands.

The four-year deal on the table will ensure Benitez still reports to chief executive Rick Parry on transfers but will be granted more involvement in negotiations to buy, sell and value players.

Daniel Agger Signs New Liverpool Contract

Daniel Agger has finally put pen to paper on a new contract with Liverpool, according to a report in British tabloid The Sun.

The 6ft 2in Denmark international centre-back had been linked with a move to Italian outfit Milan and Spanish side Real Madrid, having lost his place in the starting eleven to Martin Skrtel.

However, it seems that the Reds have fended off interest from their European counterparts, as it is claimed that 24-year-old has signed a new €80,000-a-week (£70,000) contract at Anfield.

As yet, the length of the contract has not been mentioned and the Reds have not confirmed the news on their official website.

Lucas Gets Benitez Backing

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has given under-fire midfielder Lucas Leiva his "100 per cent" backing.

The 22-year-old combative midfielder has endured a miserable time of late after first conceding a late penalty at Wigan, before being sent off for two bookable offences in the Reds' FA Cup exit to local rivals Everton.

The bit-part player has attracted wide distaste amongst Liverpool supporters, but Benitez has moved quickly to defend the Brazil international.

"We will miss him. We have some problems and he is a player who could have been really important for us," said Benitez.

"I can't speak for every single fan, but every member of staff knows he is a very good player and his team-mates know he is a good player.

"Against Wigan, for me, Lucas was the best player on the pitch. Then the other day at Everton he was also playing well and the ref made three mistakes. He gave one foul against him which wasn't, showed one yellow card which was wrong - and then the second yellow could be, but the player went over easily.

"I will support Lucas 100 per cent, always. He is a fantastic player, he is a nice boy and a very good professional. He has quality, he is learning and is improving all the time.

"It is not difficult for me to say that I support him 100 per cent."

Benitez Not Keen On Transfer Curb

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez does not believe football clubs should have their spending power curbed by the game's international bosses.

UEFA president Michel Platini visited London on Thursday and said he believes club should only be able to spend a percentage of their income in order to regulate the amount of money being used in transfer deals.

He pointedly criticised Manchester City's recent attempts to sign AC Milan's Kaka for around £100m and believes he has to move to legislate against such ludicrous sums in the future.

However Benitez disagrees with Platini and insists players will still get large sums of money from other means.

He said: "I don't think [it's a good idea]. You can control wages and salary but you have sponsors and the players have endorsements so I don't think it will be easy to do that."

Exclusive: Win The Title Or Go

Rafa Benitez has to win the Premier League title to save his job after co-owner George Gillett criticised the Liverpool manager.

Gillett let it be known on a rare visit to Merseyside last weekend that he blamed Benitez for Liverpool’s indifferent form.

He told Anfield insiders during his flying visit that he had been dismayed at Benitez’s recent attack on Sir Alex Ferguson – insisting that it had destabilised the club and given Manchester United greater incentive to retain their title. Gillett, who refuses to bow to Benitez’s demands for complete control over transfer policy before agreeing to a new four-year contract, also believes that the Liverpool boss likes to be constantly linked with other big jobs.

It’s one of the reasons, according to Gillett, why last season the club had talks with Jurgen Klinsmann. It was done, he says as a contingency measure in the growing fear that Benitez was going to move on.

Benitez ended up knocking back overtures from Real Madrid – the club closest to his heart – who Liverpool meet later this month in the Champions League.

There is talk once more of Benitez’s name being on a Bernabeu shortlist if former Spurs manager Juande Ramos doesn’t have his contract extended beyond the summer.

Gillett’s warring co-owner Tom Hicks is a Benitez supporter although it’s understood that he has also privately questioned some of his manager’s recent actions.

It was telling that he left Merseyside last week after his own visit to the club without finalising Benitez’s new contract.

And with the expectation having been at fever pitch amongst the red half of Merseyside about Liverpool collecting their first league title since 1990 there is now concern amongst some fans that Liverpool are imploding and that the manager who The Kop have idolised is losing the plot.

Against a potentially hostile background with Gillett’s anger growing with every Premier League point dropped it appears that only the first Liverpool title in 19 years could prevent Benitez being dumped five years after his arrival from Valencia.

Exclusive: Gillett's Rocket For Rafa

Liverpool co-owner George Gillett has re-opened his war with Rafa Benitez.

And he’s blasted the Reds’ boss, who has still not signed a new contract, for the Anfield club’s recent slump.

The American multi-millionaire, who tried last season to recruit Jurgen Klinsmann as a replacement for the Spaniard, launched a bitter attack when talking to the Liverpool supporters’ action group, Spirit of Shankly.

Gillett and fellow owner Tom Hicks, who are barely on speaking terms, were on Merseyside last weekend for the 2-0 win over Chelsea – but sat at opposite ends of the directors’ box.

Yet Gillett agreed to talk to the fans’ organisation after they gatecrashed the Crowne Plaza Hotel where he was staying.

And he didn’t hesitate to pin the blame for the recent slump on Benitez’s controversial outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson.

The Reds have seen a seven-point cushion over Premier League champs Manchester United turn into a two-point deficit before last night’s trip to Portsmouth, with Fergie’s wonders winning all five games since Rafa’s rant.

Liverpool, who were held to three draws in a row by Stoke, Everton and Wigan, have also crashed out of the FA Cup at Goodison Park.

It was a disastrous January and start to February in which they won only two matches out of seven – an FA Cup tie at Preston and last Sunday’s win over Chelsea.

Spirit of Shankly’s Paul Rice said: ‘‘I went to walk away and Gillett came after me, saying, ‘A few weeks ago, we were in first position, then a certain individual from the club attacked another individual from another club, and, since then, we have lost form and slid down the league’.

‘‘I was stunned, and asked if he was blaming Benitez as a result, and in saying that, was he not backing the manager?

‘‘Rather than confirm or deny as I expected, he replied, ‘That's your implication’, before I walked away and back outside to the real world.’’