Thursday, February 12, 2009

English Angle: Who Will Fill The Gerrard/Keane Void For Liverpool?

No matter which way you look at it, Liverpool now have a gaping hole in their forward line. Steven Gerrard faces at least three weeks on the sidelines after limping out of the FA Cup loss to Everton, and Robbie Keane has been sold back to Tottenham Hotspur for a fraction of the original price paid.

So who in Rafael Benitez's squad is capable of making their absences not so harshly felt? Who can take residency in the space behind Fernando Torres? Let us examine the candidates...

Dirk Kuyt (Holland, 28, right midfield/centre-forward)

This Dutch import is perhaps the hardest-working player in the Premier League. Since cementing a spot on the right side of the Reds' midfield - or attack, depending on the setup - the former Feyenoord forward has established himself as one of Rafa's untouchables. But is he able to do the job up front these days?

Kuyt is often regarded as a permanent stop-gap, strange as that term may seem; not quite a winger, but nor either a particularly threatening presence in front of the sticks. Pundits recall his introduction to English football as a failure, which only proves what short memories some people have.

In fact, the Oranje regular netted 14 goals during his first season on Merseyside, in what was generally a disappointing campaign for the club (other than a Champions League final appearance, in which this particular player scored Liverpool's only goal). He came from the Eredivisie as a goalscorer of some repute, and showed plenty of promise early doors, despite his obvious lack of pace. However, an abysmal start to his second term at Anfield saw fans screaming for him to be traded - again, a demonstration of how fickle the footballing community can be.

He has since become an integral part of Benitez's first XI, providing unmatchable endeavour on the flank. But Kuyt isn't all about donkey work; he still knows how to play a bit of football, too, and find the net. He pops up with crucial goals just when his side needs them, such as his strikes against Arsenal and Chelsea in the CL last season, and his winners against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic this term.

Ryan Babel (Holland, 22, winger/striker)

This youngster makes up the rest of Liverpool's first-team Dutch contingent. Signed in 2007 from Ajax, there were high hopes after his impressive displays at the European Under-21 Championship. However, things have not gone quite as planned.

Babel has suffered the same fate that many promising strikers, including his previously mentioned compatriot, have suffered: he has been stuck on the wing. But while Kuyt has flourished in this role, his more inexperienced countryman has struggled to adjust. Moreover, he hasn't been given a proper chance.

Unfortunately, this highly talented forward has become known as something of a 'super-sub', coming on late in games to run tired defences ragged with his blistering pace and natural goalscoring ability. Starting opportunities have been rare, especially since the arrival of Spanish winger Albert Riera last summer.

It is the view of many Kopites that Babel would prosper if given an extended run as a striker. The great Marco van Basten once compared him to Thierry Henry, and the similarities are certainly there for all to see: the dribbling ability, the wicked speed, the powerful shot and the pure, raw, undeniable talent. Will Rafa give him that chance to fulfil his potential? We'll see.

Yossi Benayoun (Israel, 28, attacking midfielder/winger)

Benayoun is another who has received precious few first-team opportunities at Liverpool. A cultured player who possesses arguably the best ball-control of anyone at Anfield, his slight frame and lack of genuine pace have counted against him when it comes to Rafa's team selection. He is another who has suffered from Riera's presence and Kuyt's wide-right revival.

Still, the former West Ham United man has proved a more than handy option. He bagged 11 goals during his first season in the North West - an impressive total for a player regarded more for his prompting than his finishing.

Many overlook this guy's past when judging his net-finding prowess. With the Hammers he played almost exclusively as a midfielder, but at Racing Santander and Maccabi Haifa he was a playmaking forward by trade; indeed, he tallied some 55 goals in 130 league games for the Israeli giants.

Following Keane's departure, Benitez singled out Benayoun as one of those who could slot in behind 'El Nino' as a support striker. In fairness, he struggled somewhat when thrust into this role following Gerrard's early exit against the Toffees. But it would be foolish to judge a player on one performance alone, as Reds fans found out in the past when hailing El Hadji Diouf and Bruno Cheyrou's debut outings.

Lucas Leiva (Brazil, 22, central midfielder/defensive midfielder)

This one is a roughy, no doubt, and surely an unpopular one with the Liverpool-supporting readers given his abject displays of late - particularly after his sending off at Goodison Park. But, regardless of the bad press he's receiving at the minute, the kid's got talent.

Lucas rose to prominence when he was awarded the Bola de Ouro after an outstanding 2006 season with Gremio, attracting the interest of countless European clubs. The Reds landed him the following summer, and big things were expected of a player touted as a perfect mix of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano - a box-to-box playmaker with great intelligence and solid defensive skills.

Well, no. Not quite.

The Dourados native has clearly attended the Paul Scholes school of tackling, and his lack of strength and physical presence renders him useless as a midfield enforcer. Sadly, though, this is the role in which he has most regularly been deployed, and he has cut a desperate, ankle-hacking figure at times.

The fact is, he's Brazilian. He likes the ball at his feet, and he likes to move it quickly. He also likes to take up very dangerous positions in the box. Benitez has hinted at the possibility of Lucas being given more attacking licence, and when he has been (far too infrequently) offered such an opportunity he has usually taken it gleefully. He demoralised Newcastle United late last year when Alonso was left on the bench. Right now could be a great time to let the Selecao youngster cut loose.

The Verdict

There are other players who might have been mentioned. Krisztian Nemeth would have been right up there, had he not been shipped out on loan recently (watch out for this kid, massively talented Hungarian). Spanish starlet Dani Pacheco is another earning rave reviews in the reserves. David N'Gog seems to be preferred to both where the first-team squad is concerned, but the French youngster is Torres' understudy more than anything else.

From the candidates mentioned, though, it's a matter of circumstance. If Rafa needs a reliable, hard-working foil who can link with the midfield and pressurise defences all day long, Kuyt is the man; if a lethal tandem of pace and skill is required, then Babel; Benayoun may be more suitable when it comes to keeping hold of the ball and toying with edgy, heavy-footed centre-halves; and Lucas could be just the ticket to break teams down with quick-fire, one-touch passing deep in the final third.

On the whole, though, this punter simply wants to see Ryan Babel given a good, solid run in the first team. He's a striker, plain as day. He might be frustrating to watch in his current state, but he's shown more than enough to suggest that he could develop into a terribly dangerous player.

Rafa Benitez: Form Of Fabio Aurelio Could Be Key To Liverpool's Title Charge

The Spaniard believes that should the versatile Brazilian stay injury free and on form, then he could have a significant impact in the second half of the Reds' season.

A series of niggling injuries have blighted Fabio Aurelio's recent Liverpool career, but Rafael Benitez believes that the early season setbacks are a thing of the past, and that Fabio could be a pivotal player in the Reds' run-in.

Aurelio is a left back by tradition and trade, but was recently deployed in the middle of the park where he put in a sterling performance in the 3-2 win over Portsmouth.

It is this versatility, Rafa claims, that will be essential as the business end of the season approaches.

"Fabio was one of the best players on the pitch at Portsmouth," Benitez told the club's official website today.

"He played really well. We knew he could play in central midfield from his time at Valencia and he showed on Saturday that he is a clever player with quality.

"He will be an important player for us for the rest of the season," he said.

"At Anfield especially, when we want to attack we know he will always be available because he has good movement and can deliver good crosses.

"It's always important to have players who can play in different positions, especially if they understand the game," Benitez concluded.

Defence Is Key To Our Title Hopes, Insists Reina

Pepe Reina believes Liverpool must match Manchester United’s defensive meanness if they are going to overhaul their rivals and reclaim top spot in the Premier League.

Edwin van der Sar has kept a record-breaking 13 clean sheets this season.

But Reina, who once kept 11 consecutive clean sheets for Liverpool and has been the Premier League’s Golden Gloves winner for the last three seasons, believes the Reds can be just as mean.

“We went from the end of October to the middle of December without conceding any goals and we’ll probably have to defend like that again in the remainder of this season if we want to compete for honours,” he said.

“If you put a run together like that it gives you a real chance of success. It is difficult, but we can do that.”

Reina, with Spain preparing for tonight’s friendly international, is already gearing up for a winner takes all showdown with United next month.

“This is my fourth year here and we’ve usually done well in the second half of each season,” he added.

“All we can do is concentrate on our own game, keep getting results and then try to take points from them when we go to Old Trafford.

“Fernando (Torres) said recently we have to be close to them when that match comes along, and I agree.

“That might mean being just a point or two behind them, although obviously it would be even better if we were top. Whatever happens we have to go into that game still with a chance of winning the league.”

Tommy Smith: Lack Of Goals Still A Concern For Liverpool

We have reached a stage in the title race when only wins will do.

So it was a surprise selection that Rafa Benitez came up with for the trip to Portsmouth – and at 2-1 down a second defeat would have seriously hit our title hopes, especially as Manchester United won again the following day at West Ham.

In the end, however, he got the win the Reds needed, albeit with goals from two of the players he rested in Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres, so you have to pat him on the back.

You can see his point in wanting to rest players.

Kuyt has played in most games this season, while Torres is still feeling his way back after a long injury lay-off. The other factor he possibly considered was that Pompey are a bad side.

Perhaps, therefore, it wasn’t such a gamble to rest key players – but they still had to play crucial parts to get the result.

You can’t complain after coming away with the points, but the Reds generally are not scoring enough goals, and that has been happening too often this season.

It’s a fact that, with Steven Gerrard sidelined, the only player capable of scoring regularly is Torres.

I have always felt that you must play your best team. The one Benitez put out was not a good side, although I am quite happy with what he did, providing the result is right.

But it was only when Kuyt and Torres were introduced that we really started to threaten the home side.

On top of that, the zonal marking policy is rubbish. Players keep failing to pick up men and the goals are being conceded, particularly from set pieces. It’s not just been a problem this season, either, and has often put us on the back foot chasing games.
It’s a different game from my day, and you can understand the manager trying to protect his players, but you wonder what Torres could have done if he had been playing for half an hour.

The title race is still wide open. While United have a game in hand, they still have to play us at Old Trafford, and that is a problem – for them! We know that a win there can swing the pendulum our way.

It won’t be easy, of course, but there’s no better incentive than winning the title.

Torres Wants Liverpool Captain Gerrard Alongside Him In Madrid

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres hopes Steven Gerrard will be fit enough to take on Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League on 25 February.

In one of many mouth-watering ties coming up over the next few weeks, Liverpool travel to the Bernabeu to face the Spanish giants in the first leg of the second round of Europe’s premier club competition, with the return scheduled for Anfield a fortnight later.

Whilst Gerrard should have recovered from the torn hamstring he suffered in the FA Cup defeat at Everton in time for the Merseyside meet, Torres is hopeful the England international will also be available to feature in Spain.

"Steven’s a special player and a vital part of our team and we need him fit again soon," said Torres.

"We wish him the best and hope we can have him back as quick as possible - if it is in time for the UEFA Champions League game with Real Madrid even better."

Play Me Or I'll Leave, Agger Tells Liverpool

Liverpool's prospects of losing Daniel Agger for a cut-price fee this summer have increased after the defender said he will not sign a new contract unless his first-team chances improve under Rafael Benítez.

The Denmark international is entitled to buy out the final 12 months of his Anfield deal at the end of this season for around £2m. Agger's failure to sign a contract extension has previously been blamed on a lack of communication with the Liverpool hierarchy, a charge levelled by Benítez himself, along with the player's financial demands.

Now the 24-year-old admits limited appearances this season are also a factor in his reluctance to commit his future to the club, and that he is likely to seek pastures new should Benítez persist with his favoured central defensive pairing of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel. "Let me be honest and admit that, if I don't play, then it's untenable and it can't go on like that," said the Dane.

Agger has only enjoyed a consistent run this season after Skrtel suffered a cruciate ligament injury at Manchester City in October. The £5.8m signing from Brondby was restricted to two starts in 12 matches before the City game as he returned from a metatarsal injury, and has started only once – at Portsmouth on Saturday – since Skrtel reclaimed his place against Stoke City on 10 January.

The frustrated defender added: "It's never fun as a footballer when you don't play every time. That's no secret. But that's my situation in the club right now; that he [Benítez] won't let me play. That's not my decision. The question now is whether this is the right thing for me, because I would like to play some football. But for now I have chosen to give it some time and give it a chance and fight for my spot in the team. I feel I'm good enough. For the same reason it's annoying that I don't play. I'll wait for the chance and then I will prove that I'm good enough. I'll show them - no doubt about that."

Agger also revealed he is prepared to leave a decision on his future until the summer, when he is eligible to exploit the Webster Ruling and buy-out his existing Liverpool contract. The defender, whose agent, Per Steffensen, has held talks with Milan over a possible move, said: "There is no dialogue on a new contract with the club. It seemed like Liverpool were eager to close this deal and sign a new contract but that proved to be wrong. For me it is OK to wait and see how things evolve in the summer. I believe that I am in a good position for negotiations and I wish for more time in the red jersey." José Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, has admitted Benítez's team cannot afford many more slip-ups if they are to sustain their challenge to Manchester United for the Premier League title. The Anfield club have kept their championship prospects alive with late victories over Chelsea and Portsmouth in their last two league outings, but the Spaniard believes there must be improvement on the home form that has produced five draws in 12 games this season.

"Every match is like a final now," said Reina. "We know we can't afford to drop many points, especially at home. There are big games coming every week and we have to be ready for them. As a footballer that's what you want. This is Liverpool and if you want to win trophies, then you have to be up for it all the time - and we are.

"I don't know why we drew all those matches earlier in the season.

Against Everton we were only three minutes away from winning the derby before they equalised. It's true we didn't create a lot of chances in those games and it was hard to find a winner. When that happens it can damage confidence and that sometimes affects you in the next game. But it isn't unusual. The season is nine months long so it's natural that at some stage you will not be at your best. Hopefully we have come through our worst moment and the next few months are going to be better."

We’ve Got To Be Like United – Carragher

Jamie carragher believes that Liverpool must continue to become more like Manchester United if they’re to win the Premier League title.

Earlier this season, Carragher’s Anfield team-mate, left winger, Albert Riera hit out at their great North West rivals by branding them ‘lucky’ because of their tendency to win games with late goals.

But while there’s not much love lost between Bootle-born Carragher and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, the 31-year-old defender has a begrudging respect for United’s ability to secure the points in the closing stages of matches and believes that it is a vital commodity for his own team to possess if they’re to thwart the Red Devils from equalling Liverpool’s English record of 18 titles this term by breaking their own duck in the Premier League.

Liverpool have been developing a knack for late winners themselves this term and came from behind twice to defeat Portsmouth 3-2 at Fratton Park on Saturday, a result that ultimately cost Tony Adams his job.

Dirk Kuyt levelled on 85 minutes and Fernando Torres netted the winner on 90 minutes to temporarily lift Rafael Benitez’s side above United at the Premier League summit before their own 1-0 victory at West Ham on Sunday.

Coming just six days after Chelsea were felled at Anfield by two Torres goals in the final two minutes, it was the sixth time that Liverpool had won a game in the final five minutes this season and the third occasion they had struck the winner in the final minute, a statistic which pleases Carragher. He said: “It’s not just a one-off game, we’ve come from behind like that quite a bit this season.

“It’s something Manchester United have done a lot in the past to win titles and you’ve got to take your hat off to them because they’ve done it over the years and this season as well.

“It’s something we’ve not been too good at in recent years but we seem to have it in our locker this season and hopefully that will push us as close to the title as possible.”

Carragher added: “There’s nothing better when you think you’re going to lose a game and you come back and win – it knocks the stuffing out of the opposition and you just want the referee to blow the final whistle as soon as that goal goes in.

“We still had to defend a few high balls into the box (at Portsmouth) but you’ve got to keep your emotions in check as you’re so excited but you realise that the game still hasn’t finished but we were delighted when we got back in the dressing room.”

Following last Wednesday’s energy-sapping FA Cup replay defeat to Everton which went into extra time, Benitez made six changes for the trip to Fratton Park and going into last five minutes with Portsmouth leading 2-1, Liverpool faced the potential of ending the weekend five points adrift of United at the summit with the Red Devils also having a game in hand. However, Liverpool’s last-gasp win keeps them within touching distance of Ferguson’s men with the gap still just two points and with faltering Chelsea replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari with Guus Hiddink following their goalless draw at home to Hull City, the battle for the title looks like an increasingly two-horse race – unless improving Aston Villa can cause the biggest shock in Premier League history.

Carragher maintains that he has never given up on Liverpool’s title aspirations and with a crunch trip to Old Trafford just over a month away reckons his own side’s penchant for late winners will stand them in good stead.

He said: “We never thought our title hopes were dead and buried although we realised we were making things more difficult for ourselves but we’ve got the three points but United have got the game in hand so it’s up to them.

“We’ll only be able to tell in the coming months what effect these two late wins have had but it can only be positive because scoring goals late gives you a massive lift.”

Rafael - Reds Running Scared

Real Madrid midfielder Rafael van der Vaart believes that Liverpool will be scared when the two sides meet each other in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.

The Spanish giants face Liverpool in a clash between two of the most successful club sides in football history.

However, the Holland international thinks that Madrid will have a psychological advantage even before the first-leg kicks-off.

"We're Real Madrid, which is why I think Liverpool are frightened of us. We have great players. It's going to be a great tie," he told Spanish newspaper Marca.

"The team is working hard to be in perfect shape. We're anxious to do well in Europe, and if we end up as champions I will be capable of anything. I will do anything to win the Champions League."

The 26-year-old has recently been relegated to the Real Madrid substitutes' bench, but he does not think his form has deteriorated badly.

"Everything was going well at the beginning of the season. I had a great feeling. I don't think I was playing poorly, but I was benched for a few matches," he added.

"It's not easy to get used to being a reserve because I had been a starter throughout most of my career."

Van der Vaart moved from German side Hamburg to Madrid in the summer of 2008 and is hoping to stay at the Bernabeu for some time yet.

"I signed for five years, but I hope to be here many more years," he said.

"I want to be an important part of Real Madrid's history and win many titles. That's what I've always dreamed about."