Saturday, February 21, 2009

Steven Gerrard Unfit For Liverpool's Manchester City Clash

Steven Gerrard will not be ready to play for Liverpool against Manchester City on Sunday, as he continues his recovery from the hamstring strain he suffered whilst on duty for the Reds in their Mersey derby FA Cup defeat to city rivals Everton.

Manager Rafael Benitez had indicated that the injury was caused by Gerrard being tired due to the unreasonable demands placed upon him, and many observers expressed concern about what might happen to Liverpool in his absence.

With the Reds' Champions League knock-out tie against Real Madrid taking place next week, the Spaniard will not risk Gerrard for the Lancashire derby with Manchester City. He is looking to the clash with the Spanish giants for his skipper's possible return.

"Steven will not be ready for this game," Benitez told the club's official website regarding the City match.

"We don't know if he'll be back for the game in midweek but clearly he will not be involved against City.

"He is improving but we cannot take any risks so he won't be in the squad."

Keirrison's Reds Link Played Down

Palmeiras have played down reports which have suggested striker Keirrison could be on his way to Liverpool.

The 20-year-old Brazilian has been the subject of speculation which has intimated a summer switch to Anfield could be on the cards.

Keirrison is regarded as one of the brightest emerging talents in South American football having finished top scorer in the Campeonato Brasileiro last season when he was with Coritiba.

Palmeiras' director of football, Toninho Cecilio, insists the striker - who has scored eight goals in only six appearances for his new team - will stay with the Verdao for the foreseeable future.

"I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about this Liverpool issue as it is not true," Cecilio said.

"There is nothing official and we were not consulted about this.

"We have an excellent relationship with Liverpool, who signed goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri, and, if there was something, we will be the first to know about that.

"Instead, the intention of the Palmeiras board is to keep him here as long as possible here, before he continues his career in Europe."

Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez: Man United Are Not 'Untouchables'

Rafael Benitez has emphasized Liverpool’s appetite for a title fight by declaring Manchester United are not “untouchables”.

But the Anfield manager accepts the next fortnight will determine whether his team can challenge the champions during the Premier League run-in.

Arsene Wenger caused a minor stir earlier this week when he declared United as “untouchables” shortly before they moved 15 points clear of his Arsenal side with their ninth successive Premier League victory on Wednesday when beating Fulham 3-0.

That result opened the gap between Sir Alex Ferguson’s men and second-placed Liverpool to five points, which could be stretched even further today with United hosting Blackburn Rovers before Manchester City visit Anfield tomorrow.

Benitez, though, believes United can still be overturned, especially as Liverpool have already beaten the Old Trafford outfit earlier this season.

And asked if United have an aura of ‘untouchables’, the Spaniard said: “I don’t think so. I can only talk about my team. We know they are a good team and we will have to play really well if we want to beat them, but we have won against them once this season already.

“In football now every game is so difficult that anything can happen. They will win more games than the other teams because clearly they are a good side. But to say you cannot beat them, I don’t think so.

“I don’t think there’s a danger teams will be intimidated by United. Everybody knows they are a good team, but it’s the same if a team plays Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool.

“When I was talking about facts, one fact is United are good team. I knew they could be winning games and they have very good players. Everybody knows that. When you go to Old Trafford, you know it’s going to be difficult and other teams could be worried about that.”

Liverpool Seeking To Improve Out Of The Blocks

One of the quirks of football’s rich past meant it was commonplace for the more resourceful supporter to sneak into game after half-time to catch a glimpse of their heroes without paying.

Fast forward to the present day, and there are many Anfield regulars who would probably be happy doing the same thing.

After all, the opening 45 minutes have not exactly proved a fertile period for Liverpool at home this season.

In 18 games at Anfield this season in all competitions, Rafael Benitez’s have led only four times at the interval, with only two of those occasions coming in the Premier League.

Indeed, Liverpool have netted only seven goals in the first half of their 12 home league games this season, a contributory factor in drawing five of those encounters.

Benitez’s side can begin altering that statistic when they entertain Manchester City tomorrow.

And the Spaniard admits: “Clearly, we need to improve. Look at the game against Portsmouth. I was watching the replay of the game and the commentators were talking too much about team changes and us being defensive, but we scored three goals.

“It’s better to score early on when we have plenty of possession. Against Portsmouth, we had control of the ball and were controlling the game in the first half.

“We’ve done that a lot this season, and it shows how important it is to score an early goal. It will make the game less stressful for the team and it will give the fans more confidence and be better for my heart.

“When you have quality players and are playing at home, then it’s much better to score first as it brings the other team out and their defence will play higher and you have more space to attack.”

Benitez adds: “A couple of years ago we were scoring the first goal and winning majority of these games. It’s difficult to explain why we aren’t doing that now.

“In football there are too many things that can change games. Maybe the other team is strong, or we can’t take out chances.

“Maybe it’s easier in the second half to score because the other team gets more tired, but we I can guarantee we try to score from the very first minute.”

By contrast to their first-half woes, Liverpool have developed a habit of snatching victories with late goals.

Both Chelsea and Portsmouth were beaten in recent weeks with last-minute strikes, and, earlier in the campaign, an injury-time Dirk Kuyt strike earned a 3-2 win at City from a game in which they were 2-0 down.

And Benitez accepts that ability to transform potential draws into wins must be retained for Liverpool to continue a realistic championship challenge.

“At the end of the season every game is very important,” he says. “You don’t want to lose points, but the other team could lose even more. You never know.

“But it’s clear the top sides don’t drop that many points. Every single game will be important. But the nearer you get to the end of the season, you cannot allow the gap to get too big.

“It’s better to be five points ahead than behind, but if you win games in a row then you can close that gap.

“Each week will be different. Games that are supposed to be easy might end up being difficult. I think every game will be difficult between now and the end of the season.

“But it doesn’t matter what people say, the most important thing is what you can do on the pitch.

Tomorrow’s visit of City would appear the ideal fixture for Liverpool top begin rectifying their home woes, with Mark Hughes having steered his side to just a single victory on the road this term, with four draws and seven defeats.

However, Benitez warns opposition players are always more motivated when visiting world famous stadiums like Anfield.

“You can analyse how teams perform away all season but it's different at Anfield,” he says. “Clearly Anfield is a window, especially for players with quality.

“They could show this more than in other stadiums. They have good players, players who can change games so it will be tough. The only thing will be whether we can score one or two goals in the first half.”

Meanwhile, Benitez has warned Hertha Berlin their efforts to sign Andriy Voronin on loan for another year are doomed for failure.

The Ukrainian, on a season-long loan at Hertha, shot his team to the top of the Bundesliga last week with both goals in a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich.

And Benitez says: “We are not surprised he is a very good player but always the first year in the Premier League is difficult and with the players that we have it was difficult for him to play every week.

“He is playing every game now, he is playing really well and the fans love him. He has confidence.

“He is our player and we are monitoring him. We have to decide at the end of the season. But they will not keep him on loan for another season. That cannot happen.”

Rafa - Crucial Fortnight

Rafa Benitez believes that the next two weeks could make or break Liverpool's chances of Premier League glory.

The Reds face testing games against Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland in the league, as well as a trip to the Bernabeu for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.

Achieving success in these four games would then set them up for the home tie against Real Madrid, shortly followed by the crunch meeting at Manchester that could well decide the destination of the league title.

For the moment though, Benitez insists that his side must gain maximum points from the upcoming games in order to make the upheaval of United's lead a real possibility.

"It now depends on one or two weeks to see what happens. Everything can change in just a few days," said Benitez.

"This is a crucial time, we have four games in a few days and that can make a massive difference to whether we will be fighting for trophies at the end of the season.

"At this stage, you can only think of taking three points and then seeing how your rivals do. We cannot influence what happens to other teams so we must concentrate on our own job and see whether someone else loses a match or two."

Few expect that Sir Alex Ferguson's experienced side will surrender their commanding lead at the top, but Benitez remains convinced that the game at Old Trafford can be the key to the title - so long as his charges are still in touch with the champions when they take to the field on 14th March.

"If we win our games before we go to Old Trafford, and then we win, the gap will be just two and then we will wait to see how that affects the situation," the Spaniard added.

"It does not matter what other teams say about us being challengers or not, we just have to do our job and win our games.

"Five points is a significant lead. But it is not impossible."

Rafael Benitez Clueless Over New Liverpool Deal, Considers Aston Villa Title Challengers

The Liverpool gaffer revealed that he still does not know when he will sign a new contract, is focused on his own team, and warns of Villa's potential title charge.

Liverpool's seeming reluctance to offer manager Rafael Benitez the new contract that he desires has prompted endless speculation regarding the Spaniard's short-term future, as well as who could suitably replace the man who has led the club to two Champions League finals.

Benitez though remained cagey in a scheduled pre-match press conference when he questions were posed as to whether there was any news with regards to his contract.

"There is no news," he said. "I have to stay focused on football because we have many important games coming up. I don't know when [there will be any news], but we need to concentrate on football."

Liverpool's title rivals Manchester United have recently been dubbed as the "Untouchables," from Arsene Wenger, the man who groomed the "Invincibles," a team that went on a 49-game run without defeat.

Blackburn Rovers' boss Sam Allardyce who are Sir Alex Ferguson and United's weekend opposition, today intimated that the club are "formidable, not 'untouchable'," but Benitez has skirted the issue, by declaring that it is more beneficial for a team to focus on their own home, rather than admire the way another is decorated.

"We have to think about ourselves. We need to go and get three points in the next game, with no need to think about the other team. We just need to play well, win, and see what happens."

Many commentators have cited that the race for the Premier League crown will be competed between two thoroughbreds. But again, this is a sentiment that Benitez contests, as he feels Aston Villa could prove be worth a punt.

"Aston Villa are a team in a good position, as are Chelsea who are still in a good position. Anything can change.

"I think it was the same before. United are a good team and winning many games so you know you need to win as many games as you can but as I said, anything can change in one or two games time."

Liverpool host Manchester City this weekend.

Liverpool FC coach Mauricio Pellegrino: Never Mind The Gap - Just Close It

If, as expected, Liverpool go into Sunday's Premier League clash with Manchester City eight points behind league leaders Manchester United there will be no shortage of doubters ready to write off their title hopes as an impossible dream.

But when you have been part of a team that clawed back an identical deficit to a Real Madrid side during the Galacticos era then you are surely entitled to believe that impossible is nothing.

Liverpool coach Mauricio Pellegrino looks back with great pride on the season when Valencia surprised everyone in Spain by reeling in the Real of Raul, Zidane and Beckham having lagged well behind them with three months of the campaign remaining.

Now he believes the Liverpool squad he helps train daily has both the characteristics and quality to ensure United will not be able to rest on their laurels even if they do give themselves an eight -point cushion.

"In football and in sport in general anything is possible," said the man who was described by Rafa Benitez as "a born winner" upon his return to Anfield in the summer.

"As long as your rivals do not have too many points with too few games left to play then of course they can still be caught – there are so many examples of this happening.

"When I was with Valencia as a player there was a time when we were eight points behind Real. This was in the 2003/04 season. We had won La Liga in 2001/02. This time we were behind and lots of people did not think we could catch them.

"But we went on a run in which we won seven games in a row and Real Madrid lost two or three games and we ended up being champions.

"We never gave up and we kept on believing in ourselves and because of this we were able to take advantage when the leaders did not win as many games as they had been expected to.

"We had a very strong team and we had confidence to keep going right up until the end and it paid off.

"In football you never know and things can change from one week to the next. With three points for a win gaps can be closed very quickly.

"If you look at the Premier League table the gap between Manchester United at the top and Aston Villa in third place is not so big.

"We still have chances, Villa still have chances and Chelsea in fourth still have chances.

"Our target now is to ensure that we get towards the end of the season with our chances still intact.

"Man United will be the favourites because they are the champions and they are at the top of the table but our team is having a good season and we will try to continue in this way.

"The team has confidence, the players have energy and they want to fight to the very end.

"We have tried from the very start to compete at the top of the table and we are doing that but we know that we can still improve some details.

"Some of the players are increasing their level and some of them are coming back from injuries so the future could be good."

The impending arrival of City brings similarly evocative, if more recent, memories for Pellegrino.

The last time the two sides met Liverpool staged one of the comebacks of this or any season to record a memorable victory after being two goals down.

And the 37-year-old believes the character they showed in that game is emblematic of what he sees in the squad all the time.

"Our squad has shown great character on many occasions this season," he said.

"If you go back to the first home game we were behind against Middlesbrough with only a few minutes remaining and we came back to win.

"It was similar in our last match against Portsmouth which we won 3-2 after being behind twice.

"The best example though is probably the win over Man City when we came back from two goals down away from home. That takes character and this means that we do not need to worry about pressure because the players have already proved that they can cope with it."

If Liverpool are to overhaul United then they must first deal with their Mancunian rivals and Pellegrino knows just how vital a win on Sunday could turn out to be.

"We have won our last two games so now we want to make it three," he said.

"Man City will be a tough opponent but we are confident that we can get the result that we are looking for.

"If we do win then we can look ahead to the Champions League game with Real Madrid with even more confidence and belief."

Having conquered Madrid once, Pellegrino now wants to do it again but it is United who occupy his thoughts most right now.

The similarities between United and Real are not lost on the Argentinian and now he wants Liverpool to do what Valencia did five years ago and show that even the hottest of favourites can be defeated.

"You can find comparisons because each country has powerful teams who the press is always pushing because they are expecting them to win the title," he said.

"We know this is the business but at the end it is eleven against eleven on the pitch and if you do your job well, with confidence and you play as a unit then this can be more powerful than the other things – the press or the money or the power.

"I trust in our players. It is an amazing squad to work with and they deserve to have a chance right up until the end because they have worked hard from the very first day.

"We are at a crucial stage in the season and the next month will decide if our possibilities will increase or decrease but, like I said, I believe in the Liverpool players."

Pepe Reina Dimisses Liverpool To Atletico Madrid Switch

Pepe Reina has dismissed speculation suggesting he is seeking a move to Atletico Madrid.

Reina’s father recently declared that the Liverpool keeper is desperate to seal a transfer to Atletico, but the 26-year-old insists he is happy at Anfield.

“It’s my father who made this declaration because he wants me to play for Atletico, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t,” he said.

“If one day I was to think of moving back to Spanish football, Atletico would be my first option because it’s a club I have a lot of affection for.

“Nevertheless, saying that I want to move to Atletico right now is wrong because I’m happy at Liverpool.”

Technical Ability Will Give English Clubs The Edge In Champions League - Alan Hansen

New Football Pools pundit Alan Hansen talks exclusively to about three of next week's Champions League clashes involving English clubs - and expects the Premier League representatives to have the edge over their continental opponents.

Alan Hansen was a colossus on the pitch for Liverpool and Scotland, becoming a true Anfield legend and collecting a host of medals in a glittering playing career. And since hanging up his boots he's become a giant of football punditry too, renowned for his forthright views and analyses which are eagerly anticipated by millions of viewers of BBC TV's Match of the Day every week.

Looking forward to the potential treats in store as Champions League action resumes on Tuesday and Wednesday, Alan Hansen spoke to about the likely outcomes of three key matches...

Real Madrid v Liverpool

The Real Madrid v Liverpool clash is an absolutely massive match between two of the biggest clubs in world football. The Spanish champions are playing well at the moment but Liverpool have showed in the last 5 years or so that they can produce fantastic results in this competition.

The atmosphere for the 2nd leg at Anfield will simply be out of this world. The atmosphere for European nights is already superb but with Liverpool still in the title race and the level of opposition they are facing, it will take it up a notch or two. Usually Liverpool are only competing for this trophy at this time of the season so the fact they are still in with a chance of the Premier League too should add to the excitement of this game.

Let’s get it right, Real Madrid are truly formidable opposition but over two legs Liverpool are definitely strong enough to go through. You can only beat what is put in front of you and we all know Real Madrid have plenty of attacking threat but they are definitely vulnerable when they aren’t in possession of the ball. You can have the best attackers in the world but if you don’t play with a structure then you will suffer which has been the case of the Spaniards in this competition in recent years.

Real are not short of top class defenders, they possess the likes of Sergio Ramos, Fabio Cannavaro and Gabriel Heinze; but it’s not all about the back four, it’s about how they defend as a team and I think Rafa Benitez’s side could exploit that. Liverpool will be resolute in the first leg at the Bernabeu in front of a fanatical home crowd. I must admit that I envy the Liverpool players walking out on that pitch as despite numerous European games for the club I never played in that fantastic stadium.

You think of Real Madrid and you think of flamboyant attacking football. They’ve always had top players, I grew up watching the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento who were part of a truly great Real Madrid team. However, despite their style and size the Spanish champions have not won the Champions League for a while and are struggling to retain their domestic title, so Liverpool have a great chance in what promises to be a truly fantastic tie.

Inter v Manchester United

Having watched Inter in the Milan derby last week I did notice that they look a lot stronger under Jose Mourinho’s management. However, the way Manchester United are playing at the minute you have to fancy them to go through.

The thing about football is that one bad performance or one bad result can really upset a team to the extent where you don’t know where the next win is coming from. The problem for anyone facing Manchester United at the moment is that Sir Alex knows exactly what to expect so knows how to avoid complacency setting in. The fact that United have such a strong squad also helps the manager in that area as there is always someone ready to take another player's place in the side. This in turn keeps everyone on their toes.

The fact that Mourinho knows all about United will definitely help the Italians and we all know what a good tactician the Portuguese manager is. Then there’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is a good forward but does not necessarily stand out for me as much as his reputation merits. The Swede looked big and strong in the Milan derby but the way United’s defence is currently performing, I don’t see him causing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic too many problems. For me, Sir Alex’s side should progress to the next round as they are without a doubt the form side.

Chelsea v Juventus

The Chelsea v Juventus encounter sees former manager Claudio Ranieri return to Stamford Bridge. The Italian side sit 2nd in Serie A but remain 9 points behind leaders Inter so are unlikely to win their domestic title. Chelsea have also been struggling but I still would expect them to progress from this tie.
Ranieri should get a good reception from the home crowd though his time in charge of the club was marred by his failure to win the Champions League when they really should have at least reached the final. During the semi-final defeat to Monaco, the Italian made some of the worst substitutions I have ever seen and ultimately it cost them. If he had managed to win the trophy he may well have still been in the job. Unfortunately his time in the Chelsea hot-seat will be remembered due to his numerous unnecessary changes. After all, he was nicknamed the ‘Tinker-man’.

Chelsea should have too much power and pace for Juventus but that doesn’t mean that the Blues are lacking in technical ability. The Premier League is often accused of lacking the technique of the Italian and Spanish sides. I have to disagree with that. You don’t get three English clubs reaching the last four of the Champions League as happened last season, if they don’t have plenty of technical ability.

On Chelsea and Hiddink...

The arrival of Guus Hiddink at Chelsea should have an immediate effect on the dressing room in terms of giving the players a lift. Obviously the Dutchman has an excellent track record as a coach which is why he was employed, but then again, so did Big Phil Scolari. One thing’s for certain - Hiddink will need to heal the obvious factions at the club, though once these factions appear it can be extremely hard to get the team spirit back.

We don’t know if Hiddink wants the job full-time or not but he has walked into a great job, they remain in contention for the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League so he has a great chance of picking up silverware. He also inherits a great set of players too, if he can get them playing for each other again then anything is possible.

It’s important that Hiddink recreates the ‘team’ ethic that Chelsea were renowned for and if he can mould the numerous individual talents into a unit then he could turn it around at the club.