Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Match Report: LiverpooL 2 - 0 Sunderland

Liverpool discovered an unlikely new hero as they finally gave manager Rafael Benitez something to smile about.

French teenager David Ngog, making his full home debut, scored one goal and helped create the second for Yossi Benayoun as Liverpool cut Manchester United's lead at the top to four points.

Of course Chelsea did the same by winning at Portsmouth, but what was Liverpool's second home league win since Boxing Day lifted the gloom that has descended on Anfield following the shambles at Middlesbrough at the weekend.

Benitez had looked like a man with a huge weight on his shoulders before this match, but he found some comfort in a decent display ahead of next week's Champions League showdown with Real Madrid.

Manchester United may well have two games in hand on Liverpool, but at least the title race is not a procession just yet.

Benitez made four changes from the side that lost to Middlesbrough.

And he chose to use Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano at right-back.

Left out were Sami Hyypia, Fabio Aurelio, Ryan Babel and Nabil El Zhar, with Albert Riera, Yossi Benayoun, Emiliano Insua and David Ngog in the starting line-up.

Sunderland made only one change from the side that drew at Arsenal last time out, with Grant Leadbitter taking over from the injured Teemu Tainio.

Benitez is clearly running out of options at right-back with Alvaro Arbeloa still injured. Jamie Carragher seems not to fancy the job any more so Mascherano was removed from his critical ball-winning midfield role to fill the void.

It left Liverpool with almost a 4-4-2, with Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso in centre of midfield. Dirk Kuyt's roving role behind Ngog meant the French youngster was left on his own against Danny Collins and Anton Ferdinand.

And he did pretty well at times. His pace and energy not quite able to make up for the loss of Fernando Torres' brilliance, but Ngog certainly showed spirit.

Sunderland should have been ahead after just four minutes when Kenwyne Jones ran clear after Martin Skrtel's slip, but Jose Reina saved well to his right.

Gerrard, twice, Ngog and Riera all had shots charged down, while Marton Fulop saved well to his left to keep out a Dirk Kuyt drive.

Ngog's enthusiasm got the better of him when he was then booked after 15 minutes for a foul on Tal Ben Haim.

Fulop made an outstanding save after 31 minutes, finger-tipping the ball away at full-stretch from his right post, when Riera's low drive was deflected off Leadbitter.

Mascherano then saw a dipping 30-yard effort graze the bar, before Insua, Xabi Alonso and Gerrard all tried their luck with Sunderland increasingly forced back into their box on defence.

One break inspired by a fine Gerrard tackle on Kieran Richardson allowed Ngog to set up Mascherano on the right, but his drive was into the side-netting.

Liverpool started the second period at a higher tempo, with Benayoun willing to run at defenders.

And it was Benayoun who swept the ball out to Riera on the left to pave the way for Liverpool to take the lead after 52 minutes.

Riera sent over a deep cross that Gerrard headed back into the six-yard box for Ngog fire home his first league goal for the club.

Sunderland were forced to come forward, and Steed Malbranque saw a shot from the right fly over the bar.

After 62 minutes Sunderland brought on Djibril Cisse for Leadbitter, the former Liverpool man getting a rousing reception from the Anfield crowd.

Four minutes later Liverpool got their second. Again Ngog was involved, hooking the ball back across goal for Fulop to palm away only as far as Benayoun, who punished the error.

The next ovation was for Ngog. He had been struggling with cramp and was replaced by Lucas after 71 minutes.

Lucas, with a header, and Babel - shooting from the edge of the box - threatened to extend the lead, before El Zhar came on for Benayoun in the final minute.

Sunderland Boss: Kenwyne Jones Let Liverpool Off The Hook

Sunderland had a glorious opportunity to take the lead early on in their encounter against Liverpool but their star man Kenwyne Jones for once opted for the wrong option when one-on-one with Reds 'keeper Jose Reina. David Ngog and Yossi Benayoun left the Trinidad & Tobago international and the rest of the Mackems camp ruing the missed opportunity.

"Jones should have scored - and on any other day, he probably would have done so," Sky Sports 2 quoted Ricky Sbragia, the Black Cats' manager, as saying after the game.

"If we had scored then the game would have been very different. Liverpool would have become anxious and we would have given ourselves something to hang on to.

"Liverpool would have been under pressure. We did okay in the first half - but once they went ahead, it was always going to be difficult."

Sunderland remain rooted in 12th position as a result of the loss, with just five points separating them from the relegation zone.

When pressed on how many points they likely need in order to ensure survival, Sbragia responded, "Maybe nine or ten. We have got the points in the bag. It is up to others to catch us as well. I think ten points probably."

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool Won't Throw In Towel In Title Tilt

The Spaniard, despite writing off his sides chances earlier in the week, feels Liverpool have been rejuvenated by their win over Sunderland.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has insisted that his side have not given up hope of hunting down Manchester United in the battle for the Premier League Championship.

The Reds' eventually saw off Sunderland 2-0 at Anfield this evening, just their thired win in eight league matches, after a maiden home goal from David Ngog and and a clincher from Yossi Benayoun cut Manchester United's lead at the top of the title to four points.

The Red Devils still have two games in hand however, including a trip to St. James' Park tomorrow night to face Newcastle United, and are still firmly in pole position to secure their third successive title.

However, Benitez believes that sealing the three points tonight against a lacklustre Sunderland outfit has given their chances of returning to the summit a welcome jolt.

Sky Sports reports that the former Valencia coach commented, "They [Manchester United] have a good team and a good squad, but this is football so you never know.

"We have to keep going and approach every game thinking about the three points and we will see what happens. Old Trafford will be crucial. We need to reduce the gap."

Benitez also took time out to praise the display of his stand in striker, David Ngog, who replaced Fernando Torres this season and found the target to boot.

He added, "He [Ngog] showed he has quality tonight. He is a young player who has just arrived and I think he has a great future here."

Liverpool make their crunch visit to face their arch-rivals Manchester United on 14 March.

Rafa Hails Reds Reaction

Rafa Benitez heaped praise on his Liverpool charges after bouncing back from Saturday's defeat to Middlesbrough with a convincing 2-0 victory over Sunderland at Anfield.

David Ngog finished off an excellent attacking move from close range on 51 minutes before Yossi Benayoun tapped home from a weak Marton Fulop save to seal the comfortable victory over Ricky Sbragia's men 14 minutes later.

Benitez told reporters after the match that the win was the perfect tonic to lift the players' confidence.

He said: "Clearly after the defeat of the other day it was very important to get three points and try to play a good game.

"It was difficult in the first half - they had a very good chance to go in front but after that we were keeping the ball and the game became more open after we scored the goal in the second half.

"We needed to win because we knew that we were in a very good position before the Middlesbrough game. We were very disappointed after that defeat so we had to show a lot of character to win against Sunderland.

"I think that David Ngog did a very good job, he had a good game. Yossi Benayoun also played well and Pepe Reina was also very important for us when he saved early on in the game.

"But the whole team was always trying to pass the ball, we were very well organised. They were very good on the counter attack so we had to keep calm - we created a lot of chances.

"The reaction of the players was very good."

With the Reds now lying four points behind league leaders Manchester United - who have played two less games - Benitez admitted he will be watching Alex Ferguson's men take on Newcastle at St James' Park on Wednesday and hoping for the Magpies to do Liverpool a favour.

"We have to approach each game with confidence and just think about ourselves," said Benitez.

"But it also depends on what happens with the other results and we have to wait and see what happens with United on Wednesday.

"If United cannot win then it will be very good for us, clearly it will be very good if Newcastle can win."

Benitez: Winger Can Be Secret Weapon

Rafa Benitez insists he was not surprised when Yossi Benayoun headed the winning goal in the Bernabeu - and claims the diminutive Israeli can be Liverpool's secret weapon from set pieces.

The 28-year-old scored arguably the biggest goal of his Reds career following a cross from Fabio Aurelio to secure a 1-0 win against Real Madrid last week.

Benitez does not believe it was a one off, and hopes the header will fill his in-form winger with confidence as Liverpool enter the business end of 2008-09.

"Clearly Yossi will take confidence from this goal because it was the winning goal in such an important game," said the gaffer.

"It was funny because after the game we were on the coach and we were watching it again on video, and some of the players were laughing because they had not expected Yossi to score this kind of goal.

"But I was not surprised about it because I know that he can do this type of thing.

"I was talking to him recently because he is really good when we are defending corners and it is clear that he is able to win headers.

"He is also a very clever player with good movements, so there is no reason why he cannot also be a threat in the opposition box when we have set plays."

Benayoun's form has been one of the plusses of 2009 so far.

Benitez added: "I have been talking with my staff about Yossi and we all agree that he has been playing very well recently.

"When you get to this stage of the season it can sometimes be that players are getting tired but in Yossi's case we have been able to see in training and in games that he is looking good and doing well.

"Yossi is an intelligent player who makes good movements.

"He can beat players, he can keep the ball between the lines and he is very good at spotting the opportunity for the final pass.

"He can provide assists for the other players and he can also score important goals, as we saw against Real Madrid last week.

"Like I said, he is a player with quality and game intelligence.

"He can change games. Hopefully he will be a key player for the rest of the season.

"We always talk about the importance of a squad – the players on the bench and those who are not involved in every game. Yossi is a very good example. Everyone has to be ready."

Loan In Balance After Leto Lets Fly

Liverpool midfielder Sebastian Leto's loan spell at Olympiacos may be over, following a bust-up with the club's coach Ernesto Valverde.

Leto signed a one-year loan deal with Olympiacos in the summer because he could not secure a work permit to play in the Premier League this season.

He was sent to the dressing room during yesterday's training session after he began kicking footballs around wildly, and some hit Valverde's assistant and the coach himself.

The 22-year-old Argentinian was surprisingly left out of the squad for Sunday's top-of-the-table clash with Panathinaikos and began his temper tantrum after also being given a dressing-down in the training session by Valverde when refusing to train with the rest of the team.

Valverde made the unusual move of issuing a personal statement on Tuesday night, confirming: "During yesterday's training there was an issue with Sebastian Leto, which for the umpteenth time was a disciplinary offence - forcing me to send him to the dressing room.

"I have informed the administration about this particular incident, and it is now up to them to decide the action needed. As I have said in the past, discipline is a fundamental concern for the calmness of the team."

Leto's contract with Olympiacos provided that he would have to play at least 30 games with the team this season; otherwise the Greek side would have to pay a fine to Liverpool.

The Buenos Aires-born left winger, who has impressed with his combination of pace and trickery, completed 31 games last week in the UEFA Cup match against Saint Etienne which saw Valverde's men go out 5-2 on aggregate.

Benitez To Steal Spanish Defender From Wenger's Grasp

Rafael Benitez has entered the race for Valencia’s highly-rated defender Raul Albiol only days after reports surfaced in both Spain and England that Arsene Wenger was tracking the player.

It now looks as though both Arsenal and Liverpool will lock horns in the summer for the 23-year-old as the Mestalla outfit look to maximise their income from the player.

Los Che’s financial problems could see them forced to off-load several star players to balance their books. There was a similar forecast this time last year, although the Primera Division side managed to ward off suitors for prized-assets David Villa and David Silva.

While Albiol's current buy-out clause is €60 million, los Che could listen to offers of around €15m for his services given his contract ends in 2011. It is thought given Benitez’s connections at his former club that Liverpool now have the upper hand in any potential negotiations.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Valencia’s sporting director, Fernando Gomez intimated that the summer may be the time to offload several off their most valuable stars.

"It is necessary to study each offer that we receive and after that we will decide," he told Sky Sports.

"The money situation is complicated at the club, but nobody has spoken with us about Albiol on a formal basis.

"But we are aware that the Reds have been scouting around here in recent months."

Valencia announced last week that construction of their new stadium was to be temporarily halted due to the current economic climate.