Sunday, February 22, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Manchester City

Rafa Benitez heads into one of the most crucial phases in his Liverpool tenure as he searches for the elusive domestic title that has evaded the Spaniard since arriving on Merseyside.

The Mighty Reds sit eight points behind Manchester United and need to win against Manchester City to remain in touching distance of last year's champions. The Anfield outfit relinquished their league leading status as Manchester United began their amazing fourteen game clean-sheet run, which was ended by Blackburn after playing 1,334 without conceding a goal. Benitez will be eager to stay close to the Red Devils but will have a tricky tie in the shape of the unpredictable City.

The return to form of Fernando Torres comes as a relief to the Spanish gaffer who already off-loaded Robbie Keane in the January transfer window after the Irishman failed to impress as Torres’ strike partner.

With three goals from two games, El Nino's return to form might give the Liverpool the push they need to truly re-enter the title race. However, Benitez has several key injury concerns on his hands for this crucial encounter, especially with the tantalizing date with Real Madrid in the Champions League looming on the horizon.

Mark Hughes has been managing more off-the-field than on it in the last few weeks as he has had to deal with the Kaka debacle and two first-team player arrests, all while trying to shape and steer a side towards a successful run of results.

The former Blackburn manager has found nothing easy since arriving at Manchester City in the summer, yet simply finding himself still with a job after the Citizens' inconsistent run of form under immense media and boardroom pressure is impressive at this point of the campaign.

The Blues still find themselves in the hunt for silverware via the UEFA Cup, although they stammered slightly in midweek when they twice gave up the lead to allow FC Copenhagen to earn a draw in the first leg of the round of 32 clash.

The disappointing meltdown, coupled with their dismal performance against Portsmouth last weekend, will have Hughes desperate for a good result, but points may be hard to come by at Anfield this weekend. If the Citizens are to take anything away from it, they will have to be at their best.



Liverpool 1-1 Everton (EA)
Wigan 1-1 Liverpool (EPL)
Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea (EPL)
Everton 1-0 Liverpool (FA)
Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool (EPL)

Manchester City

Man City 1-0 Wigan (EPL)
Man City 2-1 Newcastle (EPL)
Stoke 1-0 Man City (EPL)
Man City 1-0 Middlesbrough (EPL)
Portsmouth 2-0 Man City (EPL)



Benitez will not be risking the hamstrung Steven Gerrard for this clash ahead of the Reds Champions League encounter with Madrid this Wednesday. But midfielder Lucas returns after serving his ban following his dismissal against Everton.

Xabi Alonso, on the other hand, will miss out as he serves his own one-match suspension.

Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres should find themselves in the starting line-up after coming on as subs against Portsmouth in the last round of the Premier League.

Manchester City

Shaun Wright-Phillips will serve the second of his three-match suspension, while Richard Dunne makes his first appearance back since his four-match ban for kicking out at Amr Zaki.

Micah Richards recovered to play against Copenhagen midweek after missing last weekend’s tussle with Portsmouth, and should be fit to start against Liverpool.

Both Nedum Onuoha and Vincent Kompany have impressed while deputising, yet with Dunne returning from suspension one will have to make way for the captain’s comeback.

Nigel De Jong should return to the starting line-up after not making the UEFA Cup squad list, while Gelson Fernandes remains out with a hamstring injury.



Fernando Torres has three goals in his last two games and has found his form at the right time. When it seemed injuries were going to get the better of the Spaniard this season, he has bounced back to show his true form and will lead the line as the Reds look to challenge for the Premier League title.

Manchester City

Feisty Welshman Craig Bellamy returns to Anfield, and to yet another one of his old clubs, as the striker looks to continue his impressive scoring run. He may not be the target man Hughes had in mind for the January window, yet his pace, finishing, and experience have earned City valuable points since his arrival.

Spanish Inquisition: Why Liverpool Should Fear Real Madrid

As two of the most successful and illustrious clubs in Europe prepare to lock horns,’s KS Leong explores the reasons why Real Madrid have every right to believe that Liverpool are afraid of them.

Real Madrid vs. Liverpool. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve reached the showpiece final of this season’s Champions League. But we’re only in the first knockout stage and sadly, one of these two European superpowers will have to depart the tournament shortly.

These two sides have amassed 14 titles between them in the history of the competition, four of which have come in the last ten years alone. Yet, the Merengues and the Merseysiders have not met once since the tournament was re-branded the UEFA Champions League. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1981 European Cup final, which the Reds won 1-0, for their last ever competitive meeting.

It’s not too surprising, though, considering both clubs have had such contrasting fortunes over time. Madrid, after winning the title three times in a span of five years between 1998 and 2002, have never come close again to making another final.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have won it once, made two finals and one semi-final in the last four years since Rafa Benitez took charge of the Anfield hot-seat back in June 2004.

You can understand then why the Spaniards – from both camps, mind you – have been so anxious to build-up the contest by voicing their strong opinions and predictions for the match. Rafael van der Vaart lit the spark when he trumpeted that Liverpool have every reason to be afraid of Madrid.

But Reds goalkeeper, Pepe Reina responded by saying there’s absolutely nothing for his side to fear. In riposte, Blancos defenders, Pepe and Sergio Ramos boomed that they were optimistic of eliminating their English rivals, who retorted with their own show of confidence from Xabi Alonso and Reina again.

On paper, it would seem that there’s nothing to choose from between these two. But upon closer inspection, perhaps Madrid are the slight favourites. Perhaps Liverpool should be afraid.

If this encounter were to take place two months ago, the Red Army would not have hesitated to put their money and their mortgage on their Liverpool side going through to the quarter-finals. And the Madrid faithful probably would, too.

But things have changed dramatically since the turn of the year. Never mind that Benitez’s boys have been in sputtering form or that they have been struggling for consistency, Madrid have simply been in an irresistible hot streak. Nine wins in a row (ten in their last 11 games in all competitions), 25 goals scored, 10 of which came in the last game and a half, and more satisfyingly, conceding just four times.

Los Blancos may not be playing the kind of swashbuckling football to convince bookmakers to install them as favourites to win the competition, but they are getting there; and truth of the matter is that under new coach, Juande Ramos, they know how to grind out a sufficient result. Even more importantly, they know how to keep a clean sheet, which will be extremely crucial considering a single away goal could prove the difference between going home and going to the quarter-finals.

It’s not just the team collectively who have recovered their form. Individually, the players are also back to their very best, from Iker Casillas to Fabio Cannavaro to Arjen Robben and Raul. Confidence and morale will also be a huge factor and around the Bernabeu camp, there are bucket-loads of that to go around, especially after tonight’s 6-1 demolition of Real Betis.

Two months ago, while the English were busy contemplating calling up their bookies and putting their houses on the line, Madrid’s squad were in ruins, not unlike people’s mortgages.

Most of their players could barely string three games together without falling injured, while their key figures such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mahamadou Diarra, Cannavaro, Pepe, Robben were dropping off like flies one after the other. At one point, they had more first-team players in the treatment room than they had in the dressing room.

But now, once again, things have improved significantly for the nine-time European champions. For some mystical, mysterious reason, the ‘Men in White’ are not getting injured as much under Juande as they did under Bernd Schuster. Even the Dutch Porcelain, Robben, managed to reel off seven straight games before picking up the most minor of niggles while on international duty two weeks ago.

The wing-wizard, who is in imperious form, will return in time to face Liverpool, as will midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Guti. But the Blancos are generally expected to be much fresher and fitter than their counterparts. While they’ve been playing one game a week for the last two-and-a-half months, the Reds have been busying themselves with FA Cup obligations and occasional midweek outings.

In short, Madrid have played only ten competitive matches since the conclusion of the Champions League group phase, compared to Liverpool’s 13 (inclusive of their clash with Manchester City on Sunday). It doesn’t help either that Steven Gerrard is carrying an injury while Fernando Torres is struggling with fitness.

The ‘White House’ could not have chosen a better candidate to replace Schuster to lead Madrid into the knock-out stage of the tournament. Juande Ramos is an expert when it comes to cup competitions and he might just be the right man to end the club’s Champions League jinx and guide them to the elusive ‘Number 10’.

In a space of just three years, the man from La Mancha won five various titles with Sevilla (two UEFA Cups, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercopa and UEFA Super Cup) before adding another to his résumé with Tottenham Hotspur (League Cup).

In sharp contrast, Schuster, despite guiding tiny Getafe to the 2006/07 Copa del Rey final prior to his Bernabeu switch, had a dismal track record with Madrid in cup games. There was the flop in the two-legged Supercopa against Juande’s Sevilla, the embarrassing exit in the early stages of the Copa two years in a row, and of course, last season’s disappointing elimination to Roma in this very stage of the Champions League, even though his side earned the advantage – for the first time in four years – of playing the pivotal second leg at home.

This could very well be tagged an ‘all-Spanish clash’. There’s a very high likelihood that Liverpool could have more Spanish players on the pitch than Madrid. Well, let’s just put it this way: there will be more Spaniards on the field than there will be Englishmen, even if you count Madrid’s newly appointed Anglo-Saxon groundsman.

But that fact in itself has little significance on the game. The key element here is that the Merseysiders have a distinct edge over their opponents thanks to the heavy Spanish influence in their squad. But Madrid have their own secret weapon. They have their own English contingent… or rather, ex-Premier League contingent.

Players like Gabriel Heinze, Lassana Diarra, Julien Faubert, Robben and coach, Juande himself, all have substantial knowledge of and insight into the English game, their mentality, their subtle tricks, their strengths and weaknesses, to nullify Liverpool’s advantage. Their presence will also come in handy in the return leg at Anfield where Rafa’s side will be playing with 12 men, including the Kop.

Madrid’s wretched form in this competition over the past half a decade has made them extremely hungry for glory. And after watching some of their closest continental rivals such as Barcelona, Milan and Manchester United succeed over the past few years, that hunger has turned into an obsession.

While it’s one thing not to win the Champions League or go all the way to the final, it’s quite another not to have progressed past the round of 16 four seasons in succession. For a club of Madrid’s stature and history, it’s nothing short of a catastrophe.

Liverpool will no doubt have their own burning ambitions to win Europe’s top prize for a sixth time, but there’s no denying that lifting their 19th domestic crown – and their first since 1990 – has become their very own obsession. This season, they have perhaps their best chance in a long, long while to put an end to that barren spell.

But for Madrid, having already won back-to-back league honours, they have an unfathomable desire to become the very first club to reach double digits in the Champions League trophy count. And besides, with La Liga still looking a tad out of reach, although they have now cut the gap down from 12 to seven points in a space of a week, this may be their best shot of major silverware this campaign. If they can pull off the double, even better.

Barca Fan Reina Is Desperate To Down Real As Keeper Counts Down To Bernabeu Clash

Jose Reina was a Barcelona fan as a boy, but that is not the only reason the Liverpool goalkeeper so desperately wants to finish on the winning side against Real Madrid next week.

Reina has never been on the winning side against Madrid at the Bernabeu.

He gets another chance on Wednesday when Liverpool face Madrid in the last-16 of this season's Champions League.

It will be Liverpool's first-ever visit to the Bernabeu for a competitive European match, but fans will be quick to point out that in the only previous meeting between the clubs, they ran out winners.

Alan Kennedy's goal in Paris won the European Cup Final for Liverpool on May 27th, 1981. What Liverpool would give for a repeat result on Wednesday to set them up nicely for the second-leg at Anfield on March 10.

But Liverpool could hardly have a tougher task next week. Madrid have not lost this year and caretaker boss Juande Ramos has made a genuine impact on a club who have been all-but blown away by Barcelona this season in La Liga.

Madrid are not going to retain their title this season, barring a miracle, but they will surely qualify for the Champions League next season.

That means the pressure is off them domestically, so a serious tilt at the Champions League is on the cards.

For Liverpool, the pressures are all home-grown. It will be interesting to see how boss Rafael Benitez's pitches this first leg with the Premier League crown still very much on their radar.

Reina, with 16 clean sheets already this season, desperately wants another as he seeks a first win at the famous stadium after five previous visits with Barcelona and Villarreal.

'I have yet to win in the Bernabeu,' he said. 'Two draws is the best I have managed.

'In many ways it is similar to Anfield, as a real tough place to get a result. That has always been the case.'

Reina grew up a Barcelona fan because his father Miguel was a goalkeeper at the Nou Camp before joining Atletico Madrid.

Reina said: "When my dad played against (Madrid) in the 60s and 70s it was the same story. So our job won't be easy, but we still know we can do it.'

Liverpool were very much written off when they went to Barcelona in 2006-07 on the way to the Athens final defeat by AC Milan.

But that day they won 2-1, with goals from Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise, with an unexpected attacking display.

So Liverpool know they can produce the unexpected in Spain.

'I was a Barcelona fan because it was my dad's team, so it would be really special for me to help eliminate Real from there Champions League,' Reina added.

'They are one of the world's greatest clubs, so defeat would be no shame. But we are not thinking like that, we will be doing our utmost to make sure that doesn't happen.

'And I am confident we will reach the quarter-finals. The competition has been very good for us in recent years, and we want that run to continue.

'Every player dreams about playing in the biggest games at the best grounds and this is certainly one of those.

'I have plenty of friends at Real, like Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas. We are all close, but that does not stop me wanting to make sure Liverpool go through to the next round.'

Barry Vow To Aston Villa

Gareth Barry is ready to commit his future to Aston Villa — IF they qualify for the Champions League.

The England midfielder is yet to sign a new deal at Villa amid fresh rumours of a summer move to Liverpool. But Barry, who wanted to make an £18million switch to Anfield at the start of the season, is prepared to snub the Reds’ renewed advances if Villa secure a top-four finish.

Barry, who turns 28 tomorrow, said: “There’s nowhere else I would want to be playing at the highest level. It’s easy for me to want Aston Villa to play Champions League football. It is also easy for me to give 100 per cent when I am playing for Villa — and to want them to finish as high as possible

“It has been great to be loyal to one club for all these years and have that good rapport with the fans. To play at the very top level is even better. The games are coming thick and fast now but I am looking forward to each one of them.

“I feel fresh because the manager has rotated the squad well.”

Lassana Diarra Sends Warning To Javier Mascherano Ahead Of Real Madrid vs. Liverpool

Real Madrid midfielder Lassana Diarra has sent Liverpool's Javier Mascherano a note of caution ahead of the upcoming Champions League tie between the two clubs.

Both players are well-known for their battling qualities in the middle of the park, but the 23-year-old French international is confident he can come out on top.

The former Portsmouth midfielder, who completed his €22.3 million move to the Bernabeu in the January transfer window, has suggested he is ready to show the Spanish public a side to his game they are yet to experience.

"We have the same thing in our head, we don’t like losing," Diarra is quoted as saying in British tabloid The Sun.

"When two players like that face each other, sparks fly.

"I am new in Spain so I try to stay short of kicking someone. But against Liverpool, if I have the chance, maybe."

Benitez Wary Of City Threat

Rafael Benitez has refused to condemn Manchester City for their lavish spending.

The Spaniard also considers the Eastlands side as genuine threat to their Premier League aspirations, when the teams meet at Anfield.

It is the start of a ten-day spell that sees Liverpool play four matches which the Reds manager believes will make or break their campaign.

Steven Gerrard will miss the City game with his hamstring injury, and a judgement will be made on Monday as to whether he can travel to Spain for next week's Champions League tie with Real Madrid.

First up are an erratic City, who have spent over £100 million since the beginning of the season.

Benitez said: "I do not believe their money is changing the face of football, there are other teams who have spent big, big money this season too. There is not a massive difference."

He added: "They will be dangerous opponents. It is not just the money, it is the fact that they have high-quality players.

"This is a crucial time for us with games in quick succession 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."

Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez Stalls Signing A New Contract

Rafa Benitez has raised doubts about his long-term future at Liverpool by delaying signing a third contract offer.

Benitez stunned American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett by stalling on a new four-year deal which had been specially reworded to ensure he had full control over transfers and the youth academy.

Negotiations will not restart until after Wednesday's Champions League clash against Benitez's former club Real Madrid at the earliest.

The manager's stance will cast a new question mark over whether he will be at the club next season as he is clearly reluctant to commit his future while chief executive Rick Parry and Gillett remain in power.

The owners believe they have given enough concessions to accommodate Benitez's wishes and had wanted the deal signed by today's Premier League game against Manchester City.

But for the first time he is contemplating what alternatives are out there.

A source said: 'Rafa cannot carry on working unless the way the club is run changes.

'It has been extremely difficult for the past two years, he does not want four more years of the same. He feels he gets the blame for everything that goes wrong at Liverpool. It is him in the window while everyone else can hide.'

With Hicks and Benitez on one side and Gillett and Parry on the other, the impasse is likely to continue until someone resigns or is sacked.

Benitez hoped the fall-guy would be Parry, but it may be him, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AC Milan keeping a close eye on developments.

John Aldridge: Liverpool Must Put Man Utd Run Out Of Their Minds

The best thing that everyone at Liverpool could do over the next few weeks is to forget all about Manchester United.

It might be easier said than done given the rivalry between the two clubs and the fact that they are fighting it out at the top of the Premier League, but that is the message Rafa Benitez should be giving his players.

All Liverpool can do is worry about their own results. They won't have any say in how United get on until the two teams meet at Old Trafford on March 14, so there is no point in getting distracted by what they are doing.

In recent weeks United have built up a real head of steam and although it hurts us to say it they are top of the table on merit.

Liverpool's job now is to concentrate on their own form and nothing else and if they do that they will give themselves a chance of still being in with a shout towards the end of the season.

They have three games coming up against Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland and, make no mistake about it, each one of them is a must win.

It is absolutely imperative that Liverpool go into that clash at Old Trafford having picked up a maximum nine points from these fixtures, because if they fail to do so it will become increasingly difficult to see how they can overtake United.

At the moment it is hard to see United faltering, but the history of football is littered with examples of favourites coming unstuck when absolutely no-one expected them to.

In my own playing career it happened when I was part of the Liverpool team that lost to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final.

Anything can and often does happen in sport. That's why Liverpool must look to keep putting pressure on United. If they do that then they might just set a few nerves jangling at the other end of the East Lancs.

All you can ever do is win your own games and if your rivals slip up that's even better. You just have to do your own job and forget about everything else.

Will City play as Dr Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Manchester City are Liverpool’s opponents at Anfield tonight but heaven knows which City team will actually turn up.

Will it be the one which demolished Portsmouth 6-0 at home in a wonderful displays of attacking football earlier this season?

Or will it be the one which was comfortably beaten by Portsmouth at Fratton Park last weekend?

City are so inconsistent at the moment it is untrue so all Liverpool followers will be hoping they don’t turn it on because if you look at their side they have clearly got quite a few players who can cause problems to any team.

Craig Bellamy is one obvious danger and seeing as he was let go by Liverpool after just a short spell at Anfield I’m sure he will feel he has something to prove to Rafa Benitez.

Robinho is a class act and can wreak havoc against any team in the world if he is in the mood but the problem for City has been that he doesn’t seem to have been in the mood often enough since he joined them.

But being a player who is used to operating on the big stage from his time with Real Madrid and his international experience with Brazil it could be that Anfield will bring out the best in him.

I’m not expecting it to be easy for Liverpool but the fact is they simply must find a way to win because it is vital that they take all three points.