Sunday, March 22, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Aston Villa

Liverpool are feeling pretty darn pleased with themselves at the minute - and well they should, considering they put four goals past Manchester United last Saturday to launch themselves back into the Premier League title race. The gap at the top is now just four points, although the Red Devils have a game in hand and Rafael Benitez's men sit in third place due to Chelsea's superior goal difference.

It was the perfect end to a week that saw the Reds trounce Real Madrid to book their place in the Champions League quarter-finals, where they will meet Guus Hiddink's Blues, but the Anfield boss - who penned a new five-year deal in midweek - knows that his side cannot afford to drop any more points in the run home.

Benitez said, “Realistically, we have to win all of our games. But part of winning the war is winning football matches. We have more belief and more confidence now. It will be difficult but we can do it.”

This weekend, the Mersey men come up against a flailing Aston Villa side determined to rediscover their best form - and a team against which they could only manage a 0-0 draw back in September. Clearly, they must manage a better return this time around.

While the Reds were the Premier League frontrunners at the turn of the year, so were Villa the dark horse to challenge for the title. However, since storming into a seemingly sealed top-four position, things have taken a nasty turn for the West Midlands club.

Suddenly, after a run of just one win in their last six league games, Martin O'Neill's men find themselves in fifth spot, shunted out of the Champions League places by a resurgent Arsenal. They have scored just five times during that stretch, and much of the blame has fallen on the misfiring Gabriel Agbonlahor - although the young striker expects to find his scoring touch again sooner rather than later.

“If you look at last season, I went through a similar run and ended up in double figures. The goals will come. They always do. I am not worried at all,” Agbonlahor said.

Nevertheless, the England hopeful and his fellow attackers could be hard pressed against a Liverpool defence that conceded just once against Real Madrid and Man United over the course of three games. But it just may be that they have to gain some sort of result on Merseyside if they wish to keep their CL dreams alive.



Mar 14 Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool (Premier League)
Mar 10 Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid (Champions League)
Mar 03 Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland (Premier League)
Feb 28 Middlesbrough 2-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)

Aston Villa

Mar 15 Aston Villa 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League)
Mar 04 Manchester City 2-0 Aston Villa (Premier League)
Mar 01 Aston Villa 2-2 Stoke City (Premier League)
Feb 26 CSKA Moscow 2-0 Aston Villa (UEFA Cup)
Feb 21 Aston Villa 0-1 Chelsea (Premier League)



Only good news for Benitez, as Alvaro Arbeloa (hamstring) and Xabi Alonso (ankle) - both of whom missed the 4-1 win at Old Trafford - are in with a real chance of starting this weekend. Yossi Benayoun, another hamstring victim, has also returned to training and could be available. Daniel Agger, too, is back in the fold.

Liverpool squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Skrtel, Dossena, Aurelio, Babel, Benayoun, Mascherano, Riera, Gerrard, Alonso, Torres, Kuyt, Agger, Cavalieri, Lucas, Ngog.

Possible XI: Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio - Alonso, Mascherano - Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera - Torres

Aston Villa

A selection dilemma for O'Neill, as John Carew is nearing full fitness after a back injury and may force either Agbonlahor or Emile Heskey to the bench. Steve Sidwell is also in contention, while long-term absentee Wilfred Bouma - who hasn't played since having his ankle broken in pre-season - has been included on the roster.

Aston Villa squad: Friedel, Guzan, Reo-Coker, L. Young, Knight, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey, Bouma, Milner, Gardner, Petrov, Barry, Sidwell, Salifou, A. Young, Agbonlahor, Carew, Heskey, Delfouneso, Harewood.

Possible XI: Friedel - Reo-Coker, Davies, Knight, L. Young - Milner, Barry, Petrov, A. Young - Carew, Agbonlahor



The Villa Park faithful didn't see the best of Fernando Torres earlier in the season, as he limped off with a hamstring strain in the first half of that stalemate. The Spaniard has scored in each of his last two outings - against Real Madrid and Man United, no less - and should cause the Villans' rearguard all manner of problems.

Aston Villa

If there is one player in the Birmingham club's squad who is capable of flummoxing the Reds' rearguard, it is Ashley Young. His last visit to Merseyside saw him almost single-handedly lead his side to a thrilling victory over Everton (with a little help from Phil Jagielka), and he may fancy himself against either an ageing Jamie Carragher or a not-quite-right Arbeloa on the flank.

Liverpool Are Obsessed With Winning Premier League

Steven Gerrard has admitted he is desperate to win the Premier League and would rather claim domestic glory that pick up another Champions League title.

Liverpool have hit a hot run of form, thrashing Real Madrid and Manchester United in succession, and entertain Aston Villa today hoping for a win that would close the gap at the top of the league table.

Defeats for both United and Chelsea yesterday mean that a victory at Anfield this afternoon would see Rafael Benitez’s men move to within a point of leaders United.

And speaking to the News of the World, Gerrard has insisted that having gone 19 years without a league title the Anfield outfit can think about little else.

“There is an obsession with the league here and there always will be until we win it, but it can be a healthy one,” he explained.

"We all think about it all the time. I know it's something I'll be thinking about until we finally do it.

“That's why I’ll always put the league before the Champions League. I’m sure every Liverpool fan will say exactly the same.”

Last weekend’s 4-1 win over Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has breathed new life into the title race, and Gerrard admitted that the Merseysiders were buzzing.

“I sense everyone is really looking forward to every game between now and the end of the season. There’s a buzz around here I can’t remember for a long, long time,” he confessed.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be in United’s position than ours, but now people aren’t expecting us to win the league it could have worked to our advantage.”

The 28-year-old also insisted that confidence was high at Anfield and the club were aiming to win all of their remaining games and pile the pressure on the leaders.

"I get the feeling there’s a confidence around Liverpool with everyone just wanting to give everything for the last nine league games,” he admitted.

“We can do no more than try to win every match. It still might not be enough, but at least we can make sure United have to work hard to win this title and keep breathing down their necks.”

Reina Set To Beat Liverpool FC Clean Sheet Record

Rafa Benitez has hailed the “complete” Pepe Reina as he looks to break one of the club’s longest standing goalkeeping records.

Reina needs just one clean sheet to clock up a century of shut-outs and should he reach the landmark in his next three games he will eclipse a record set by the great Ray Clemence more than three decades ago.

Reds legend Clemence reached his century of clean sheets after 200 games, while Reina’s current total is 99 after 196.

Benitez is hoping that the keeper he brought to Anfield almost four years ago in a £6m deal with Villarreal can make another mark in Liverpool’s history books by getting the clean sheet he needs – perhaps even in tonight’s home game with Aston Villa.

“Clearly the team is defending well as a team,” said Benitez.

“I can remember a lot of situations when Pepe was one versus one with a striker and he has made some fantastic saves so I think that he deserves this record if he can break it because he is a very good goalkeeper.

“Hopefully it will happen this weekend because if it does it will mean that we have a better chance of winning.”

“I think that Pepe is a fantastic goalkeeper with a great character,” he added.

“He is very positive and he is very offensive in his play and that is very important when you talk about a goalkeeper because it means he is always looking to launch a counter attack.”

Fernando Torres Targets Liverpool Goal Record

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has set a target to beat a goal scoring record that has stood for 103 years, by becoming the first Reds player since Jack Parkinson in 1906 to score 35 goals in 50 league games if he scores twice against Aston Villa on Sunday.

The Spain international was one of the scorers against Manchester United last weekend in the massive 4-1 win at Old Trafford, which led to the title race being back on for the Reds.

Manager Rafael Benitez has praised his striker and captain Steven Gerrard for their contribution to the Reds' season so far.

Speaking to, Benitez said, "People talk about them as two strikers these days. How many will they score? Certainly more goals than anyone else we have.

"They are fantastic players, very important for us, so for us to see Torres and Gerrard maybe scoring 20 goals each every season would be a massive boost.

"We need them and we know the team is better when they play together."

The pair scored an astonishing 54 goals between them last season, but that has nearly halved this year to 29, with both players suffering injuries this term.

However, despite the slow stop start season, Torres has endured says he is now relishing the rest of the season and hopes to bag more important goals for the Reds.

"People seem to be marking me tighter and getting closer to me than last season, but that is only normal.

"After last season, they are more aware of me and how I like to play. They know how me, and Steven, like to play, passing the ball between us.

"Unfortunately, we have not been able to play together as much as we would have liked this season because of injury. But when we do, it is up to us to adapt to overcome whatever is put in front of us.

"We have had a lot of league draws this season, too many at home, but in general the opposition's approach to us seems to be different to last season.

"We have been up near the top of the table for a long time, so a draw against Liverpool is like a victory for some teams.

"That is why it has sometimes been difficult for us to play well at home. Teams just come to Anfield to defend, we know this and we have to improve at home when teams play like this against us.

"We have drawn six home league games, which is not normal for a team in our position in the league, but that is the nature of the Premier League."

Liverpool boss Benitez now feels that thanks to their 4-1 triumph over bitter rivals United, the club are now back in the title race.

"I know how much winning at Manchester United means to our fans. You only had to be on the motorway coming home with them last weekend to realise that.

"But we must put that result behind us now and concentrate on winning against Villa.

"We are four points behind Manchester United and they have a game in hand, so only by winning every game we have left can we have a say in the title race."

Liverpool currently sit in third place going into the crunch match against Villa on Sunday, hoping to make up even more ground on United.

Agger And Kuyt Set For New Liverpool Deals

The Liverpool duo of Daniel Agger and Dirk Kuyt are reportedly set to be offered new deals at the club, in order to secure their Anfield futures.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, Rafael Benitez, having committed his own future to the club, is now intent on encouraging his most essential stars to do the same.

The newspaper reports that Benitez is confident that Kuyt, along with the two full-backs Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa, will extend their deals shortly and he is also hoping that Agger will choose to stay.

The Dane has been linked with a move away from Anfield this season, with AC Milan reportedly interested in signing the defender in the January transfer window.

However, that deal appeared to fall through and Agger remains on Merseyside, although he has struggled to force his way back into the starting line-up due to the good form of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel.

Yet Benitez appears confident that Agger can be persuaded that his future lies at Liverpool and revealed that he has spoken with the player and received positive feedback.

“Agger has been injured. He knows that he's a player that I have a lot of confidence in,” explained the Spaniard.

“My conversation with him was very positive.

“He knows my ideas and he knows if he's not playing well, he will have problems and if he's injured he can't play but if he's fit he will have the same chance as the others or maybe more.”

Agger signed for the Reds from Brondby in 2006, but has managed only ten league starts for Liverpool this season.

Benitez also admitted that the cost of having to find replacements, should any of these players decide to leave Anfield, was prohibitive.

“We've already started talking, so hopefully it will be done sooner rather than later. If you have to go to the market to sign players of this level, you know you have to spend a lot of money."

Liverpool Is Land Of The Free Agents

Fabio Aurelio was smiling – and not just because after the grey slog of a Mersey winter, last week’s weather felt a bit more Brazilian. Thursday was a particularly good day at training. The sun shone and the session began with Rafael Benitez making a speech. After months of will-he-won’t-he, Benitez had agreed to an extension of his contract. He gathered his squad “and said thank you to everyone because at the end of the day he knows what players do on the pitch makes the difference between whether a coach will stay or leave. It’s good for him, good for the club, good for us,” Aurelio said.

“He’s shown he’s getting better [in England] every season and this is a good moment to give him the opportunity to even get bigger. He lives for football and that’s what makes the difference between him and other coaches.”

Aurelio knows Liverpool’s manager better than most, having spent three seasons with him at Valencia and then having been at Anfield since 2006. Both are keen to extend their association. Like Dirk Kuyt, Alvaro Arbeloa and Daniel Agger, Aurelio is a free agent next summer. With his own future settled, Benitez wants to tie up new deals for all four as quickly as possible. “If the club and the boss are happy with my work, for sure I’ll be happy to continue, so it should not be complicated,” Aurelio said.

“I had one talk with the boss at the beginning of the season but he was telling us he would like us to wait until he decided his situation before talking to the players who were finishing contracts. Now he’s staying, it should be easier. But, honestly, I haven’t been thinking about it. I’m very happy in the moment I am in now.”

No wonder. The Brazilian is enjoying the sort of prolonged good health and form for which he has yearned since 2003. Then, having helped Valencia to the first of Benitez’s two Spanish league titles in 2001-02 and scored a remarkable 10 goals while playing largely at left-back, the following season, a knee injury put him out of football for 18 months.

Knocks continued to afflict him but at last looks the player Benitez promised when he signed. “He can cross the ball superbly and he is maybe a better passer of the ball than Xabi Alonso,” said the manager three summers ago. “People will say, ‘Oh really?’ But you will see the quality of his left foot. At set-pieces he is fantastic.”

Edwin van der Sar discovered this last Saturday. Aurelio was one of the main protagonists in Liverpool’s destruction of Manchester United, quelling Cristiano Ronaldo with his canny and nimble defending before scoring with a free kick placed so expertly that Van der Sar did not even dive to try to stop it. Aurelio describes himself as “quite quiet, I don’t talk a lot on the pitch”, but celebrated his strike without inhibition. “Oh yeah,” he blushed. “I was excited. We knew that goal [making it 3-1] killed the game off in our favour. The moment you strike a free kick you know whether you’ve hit it well or not and when you see the keeper doesn’t even move and it’s going in the net, you feel even better.”

He is not the first Brazilian with dead-ball skills [“I think you have to have more or less a good touch” he said by way of explaining this national trait] but his were honed in a quirky milieu. His mentor was Rogerio Ceni, goalkeeper for Aurelio’s first club, Sao Paolo, who not only takes free kicks but has scored almost 50 of them in his career.

“He’s the world record holder for goals as a keeper [with 83] and he kicks really well,” said Aurelio. “As a kid I took free kicks but I didn’t practise. Then, when I was 17 and joined the first team of Sao Paolo, I saw that every day Ceni was practising free kicks and I joined him. I kept it going at Valencia and now here. If you practise 30 free kicks three times a week, the percentage you score in games will be higher.”

Of players who have scored more than once directly from free kicks in this season’s Premier League, Aurelio’s conversion rate is the highest. “I’d like to score more goals for Liverpool and I hope now I’ll have more opportunities to take free kicks. Maybe next time [Steven] Gerrard will be more likely to give me a chance,” he said, laughing, his indignation lighthearted.

Aurelio dreams of claiming what once belonged to another free kick specialist, Roberto Carlos: Brazil’s left-back slot. Aurelio played 42 times for his country at youth and Olympic levels but suffered his serious knee injury days after a first call-up to the full Brazil squad. He was close to being selected again in 2006-07 but damaged his achilles. Now he is receiving hints that he is again being considered for the Selecao.

“They say left-back is not a position which is closed and there’s a Confederations Cup at the end of the season so it would be a good time to get involved. It’s a big frustration I got injured before and I’d like to have at least one chance. I think I could take my opportunity.” The quiet man has quiet belief.

“I’m not as strong as he was physically but, technically, I could be better,” said Aurelio when comparing himself to Carlos. His conviction extends to his team. Valencia’s 2001-02 title was secured after the team came from a long way back to overtake Real Madrid and Aurelio feels Liverpool are capable of doing a similar job against United, who slipped up again with a 2-0 defeat at Fulham yesterday.

“It’s more difficult because United have not been conceding a lot of points like Madrid did that season but if we win all our games we’ll have a chance of them making some mistakes and of winning the league,” he said. “We have had many games when we were losing and got a result, but because we had a good week last week, we’re not the best team in the world. If we lose against Villa, everyone forgets about beating United.”

A sad anniversary has just passed. In 2000 Aurelio’s father, Mario, was killed in a car crash. “It happened on March 8. I miss him for sure. I had just got married, in January 2000, and he died two days before his birthday. That summer I went to the Olympics and then moved to Spain. So everything you do you start to think, ‘If my dad had been there to see that . . . ’,” he said.

Aurelio’s father worked in a plastics factory in Sao Carlos, the small industrial city in Sao Paolo state where Fabio grew up, and abandoned a promising football career to provide for Aurelio, his mother, Neide, and his sister – who is married to the Real Betis midfielder Edu.

“My family had food. Most people where I’m from don’t have food. But we weren’t in a good situation. Football brings me a much better condition for me and my family,” Aurelio said. “When I signed my first contract with Sao Paolo at 17 I got my first car and at the same time I gave a car to my father. He’d never had a car. I helped buy my parents a house. But these were just small things. Never can we pay back what our parents do for us.”

His family is his world. Settled in the village suburb of Woolton in south Liverpool, his great pleasures are his wife Elaine’s cooking, and taking his son, Fabio, and daughter, Victoria, to the cinema. “The last films we saw were Hotel for Dogs and Bolt. That was in 3D and the kids loved it,” he said.

“Valencia’s similar to Brazil . . . the weather, the food . . . and everyone I told about moving to Liverpool said, ‘You’re crazy’. I didn’t expect to feel so comfortable here.

“The problem is my kids know more about English. They say, ‘Daddy, read for me’. I start and they correct. ‘Don’t pronounce it like that ’.”

Aurelio’s English, for the record, is actually very good. And his left foot, just as Benitez promised long ago, is starting to prove most articulate too.

Liverpool Failed In Late Andrey Arshavin Bid

Both Liverpool and Manchester City failed in late bids to sign Andrey Arshavin, according to a report in the News of the World.

The Russian joined Arsenal from Zenit St Petersburg in January, yet according to the British tabloid, both Rafael Benitez and Mark Hughes attempted to sign the playmaker.

The paper claims that Arshavin turned down a move to Eastlands, a week before signing for Arsenal.

However, they also reveal that Liverpool wanted to move for the 27-year-old but were delayed by having to deal with Robbie Keane’s transfer back to Tottenham Hotspur.

The tabloid quotes a ‘source close to the deal’ as stating that the Reds may have been able to snare Arshavin, if only they had not delayed talks because of the Keane affair.

“It could have been a different story if Liverpool hadn't waited so long,” says the paper’s source.

“As it was, he had already virtually signed for Arsenal when they made their interest known.”

Keane then returned to Spurs, less than six months after arriving at Anfield in January, whilst Arshavin signed for the Gunners.

The Russian has sparkled in recent weeks and has been instrumental in helping Arsene Wenger’s men to return to their best form.

Arshavin played a full part in yesterday’s 3-1 win over Newcastle United, and picked up his first Gunners goal earlier this month in the 4-0 demolition of Blackburn Rovers.