Sunday, April 05, 2009

Match Report: Fulham 0 - 1 LiverpooL

Four minutes into injury time Rafael Benitez looked like becoming the latest Big Four manager to experience the curse of the Cottage.

Then up popped substitute Yossi Benayoun to smash a right-foot shot past Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer to send Liverpool the top of the Premier League.

Two points clear of Manchester United, at least for 24 hours.

"Now you're going to believe us, we're going to win the league," chanted the Liverpool faithful. And who could disagree with them?

What a finale. What drama. Arsenal and Manchester United had lost this season at this footballing idyll by the Thames. Chelsea had drawn.

It looked as if Liverpool would leave with less than they wanted too. And if they had only the man upstairs would have known how.

Four times Liverpool hit the woodwork. Through Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso. And Andrea Dossena twice. They played some magical football, too, but try as they might they struggled to breach the iron curtain Fulham manager Roy Hodgson has draped around Craven Cottage this season.

Much is made of the importance of confidence in football and Liverpool have been stacking that commodity like beans in Tesco this past month.

They had scored 11 goals and conceded just one in their last three league games, a period which had also seen them dispatch Real Madrid from the Champions League.

Another huge Champions League encounter, a quarter-final against Chelsea, loomed on Wednesday and on other days Benitez might have had one eye on that match.

Not this day. Benitez fielded arguably one of his strongest sides, with the possible exception of midfielder Javier Mascherano who was left on the substitutes' bench.

And in that first 45 minutes, in particular, they looked world beaters.

Rarely can a side have dominated a football match quite so dramatically and gone in at half-time goalless.

Benitez's men began as if they were under orders to get the business end of the match over as quickly as possible so as to give their star performers a breather. In truth, Fulham should have been buried.

First, Andrea Dossena strode into space in the penalty area and his left-foot shot was tipped over the bar by Schwarzer.

From Gerrard's resulting corner Martin Skrtel thundered in another left-foot shot which flicked the head of Dossena before clipping the Fulham crossbar and bouncing to safety.

It was the first of four times Schwarzer's woodwork was to rattle in those first 45 minutes.

And that is not counting the good work of Schwarzer, whose superb left-handed block denied Torres when the red tide was threatening to overwhelm Fulham.

Alonso, outside the area, unleashed a thunderous right-foot volley which crashed against the Fulham crossbar.

Then it was Torres' turn after wonderful interplay with Gerrard had sliced open the Fulham defence, only demonstrating the threat of arguably the best striking partnership in world football right now.

Unfortunately, the Spain striker's angled shot come back off the post.

Incredibly, two minutes later the woodwork was trembling again. Gerrard again was the provider, swinging in a right-wing cross which Dossena threw himself at only to see his header come back off Schwarzer's bar.

Liverpool could have been excused for wondering if this was not to be their day in the week Benitez picked up the manager-of-the-month award.

Perhaps it was the organisation and imagination of manager Roy Hodgson, who has done wonders at Craven Cottage this past 18 months.

But in the 65th minute Benitez, seeing the possibility of crucial points being squandered, threw on Ryan Babel in place of Dossena.

And then Benayoun entered the fray for Kuyt.

What a decision. What a goal. And maybe we should start believing those chanting Liverpool supporters.

The Pressure Is On Manchester United Now - Liverpool's Rafa Benitez

It was tense times at Craven Cottage last night, as Liverpool bombarded Fulham's goal for the full duration, hitting the woodwork four times in the first half alone.

Fulham held the Reds until 92 minutes in, when substitute Yossi Benayoun was fortunate enough to pick up on a loose ball and drill home a well placed injury time winner.

The win over Roy Hodgson's outfit saw Liverpool leapfrog Manchester United and reclaim top spot in the Premier League. And despite United having two games in hand, Rafa has said that the pressure is now on Sir Alex.

"We know we are still in the title race. I think it puts a bit more pressure on Manchester United," Benitez told BBC Sport.

"They have experience and quality but they will be under pressure."

In a game that looked sure to end goalless, the Reds' gaffer said that he was positive a goal would come.

"We were creating chances so we were disappointed we could not score.

"But to score the late goal we are really pleased.

"We were doing the right things all the time, it was just the finishing that needed to improve - and also their keeper was doing well. But if you are playing well you just have to keep going.

"We had confidence until the end, this team has belief that we will be able to score right at the end.

"We are playing with confidence and it's easier to play better when you have confidence. It is a positive cycle - you are playing well, you are creating chances, you are scoring goals, you are winning matches."

A win on Sunday would put Manchester United back in pole position, but with Rio Ferdinand doubtful, Nemanja Vidic out due to suspension, and a recent slump in form, the team that looked unbeatable all season are starting to show some cracks.

Tonight Fergie's side play hosts to Aston Villa, a side who are very much looking to get back on the horse after some poor performances. This, coupled with the fact that Liverpool managed the three points at Craven Cottage - something that United failed to do - are factors that Benitez is confident will be turning the screw on the Old Trafford side.

We Have The Winning Mentality, Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez Says

Rafael Benitez insisted Liverpool have the "winning mentality" after watching substitute Yossi Benayoun come off the bench to score the winning goal two minutes into injury-time against Fulham to take his side to the top of the Barclays Premier League.

The 1-0 triumph at Craven Cottage put Liverpool in pole position, two points ahead at least for 24 hours until Manchester United play Aston Villa today.

It left the travelling supporters singing "We’re gonna win the league" - perhaps for the first time in 19 years.

And it saw Benitez leaping into the air in a show of uncharacteristic emotion at the final whistle.

He said: "I haven’t seen myself yet but it was a very, very important goal at a crucial time.

"There was relief. You cannot say you will score in the last minute but we always play to the end.

"We have the winning mentality. It is better not to say things but to do things and the players always believe they can score in the last minute."

Benitez had started Benayoun on the bench because he was suffering from a slight hamstring problem and the chances are he will fulfil the same role on Wednesday in the Champions League quarter-final first leg at Anfield against Chelsea.

"We had to protect him, he is not 100% fit," said Benitez, who otherwise played a virtually full strength side and saw them hit the woodwork four times in a dramatic first half, twice through Andrea Dossena and once each through Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres.

It looked as if the Craven Cottage curse which has seen Arsenal and Manchester United lose and Chelsea draw at Fulham this season was to claim another high-profile victim.

But then came Benayoun’s late, late, right-foot winner from 10 yards.

Benitez revealed he would probably watch United’s match on television tomorrow unless he was relaxing with the family.

But he was delighted to have sent Liverpool’s fans home with renewed hope of a first league title since 1990.

The Spaniard said: "Hopefully we can keep them happy to the end.

"Today I was really pleased. We have a lot of confidence, but as a manager you have to be calm."

Fulham manager Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, was devastated after seeing his side fight so hard, only to lose out so close to the final whistle.

Hodgson said: "It’s a bitter blow to lose in injury-time after such a battling performance against an in-form team. That is frustrating and disappointing.

"We had dangerous situations. They had more possession but we dealt with things reasonably well. I cannot fault the players for their commitment.

"But when you can bring on players like (Ryan) Babel and Benayoun it is a great advantage. Benayoun’s goal was a bit fortunate but he took it very well."

Asked who he thought would go on to win the league, Hodgson said: "They are two great teams and I have respect for both clubs and managers."

Liverpool’s Fitness Is The Key To Our Success – Steven Gerrard

Liverpool talisman Steven Gerrard has paid tribute to his side’s fitness and revealed that this has been key to their recent good form.

The Reds have roared back to the top of the Premier League table on the back of five consecutive wins, including a stoppage time winner that saw them overcome Fulham at Craven Cottage yesterday.

Speaking to the Sunday Mirror, Gerrard paid tribute to his team’s physical conditioning and insisted it had given them the confidence that they could claim the league title.

“Our fitness has been the key to our recent success,” he said.

“It has been instrumental in keeping us going and ensuring we maintain our challenge for silverware on two fronts. Belief is also a key factor.

"Confidence is very high and we have the momentum at the moment.

“And I'm the captain. I have to be confident, I have to have the belief we can do it, we all have to.”

Rafael Benitez’s men could be knocked off the top of the table should Manchester United beat Aston Villa this afternoon, but Gerrard insisted the title race was far from over.

“We've got nothing to lose. In terms of the Premier League we know United are still favourites and we know that Chelsea are not out of it,” he added.

“But it's vital to keep that momentum going and not fall into the same trap United fell into a few weeks ago.

“Everyone presumed that the title race was over, but there is always going to be twists and turns. One thing for sure, though, we will give everything we've got.”

The skipper also highlighted the return from injury of Fernando Torres as another reason for his team’s recent good form and admitted he was hoping the striker would stay fit until the end of the season.

“It's crucial to our team and paramount to the team's success that Fernando stays fit. He is priceless,” said Gerrard.

“If we can do that from now until the end of the season, it's going to be an exciting finish to the campaign.”

Gareth Barry Is Up Four It

Gareth Barry is out to do Liverpool a favour today and send the title hopes of Manchester United into tailspin.

The irony for Barry would be if he helps revitalise Aston Villa's chase for a Champions' League spot he could wreck a mooted move to Anfield.

Villa boss Martin O'Neill said last summer when Barry's move to Liverpool was blocked that he wouldn't stand in the way if Villa did not finish in the top four.

Barry insists he won't be affected by how the outcome would shape his future.

He said: "I won't be torn. Not at all. I want us to finish in the top four and play Champions' League football.

"That's my aim for the eight remaining games. It's a big ask but more than achievable with the players we've got."

Hiddink Hails Stevie Gerrard As Special One

Among the Champions' League quarter-finalists there can be no such thing as a one-man team. Yet to hear the levels of respect for Steven Gerrard emanating from Chelsea in the last few days was to wonder whether Guus Hiddink might need to start talking him down rather than up.

In his capacity as manager of Russia, Hiddink himself is already on record as having voted for Liverpool's captain as the world's best player. "My focus was that Gerrard was a team player and on top of that he's very determined and decisive in what he's doing," he explained on Friday.

Since being employed at Stamford Bridge, of course, Hiddink feels obliged to throw in a couple of Chelsea names as well when describing players who act as an inspiration to their team-mates: "Most players become legends when they stop. When you talk about Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, they're an example to English football. They're very important as role models, the way they play and also the way they are as people. They're terrific models for the upcoming generation of young English footballers."

Leave aside the occasional off-field incident and you take the point. What was more startling was to hear the indomitable Terry admit to a shade of apprehension about the prospect of returning to Anfield for Wednesday's first leg: "I'm sort of dreading going there to play Stevie because he is different class. With the backbone Liverpool have got – Reina, Carragher, Stevie G and Torres – what a spine that is. Steve is the heartbeat of the team just like Frank is with Chelsea."

It is, as Lampard says, "like Groundhog Day". By the time these two legs are resolved, there will have been 24 meetings in five seasons, only five of which so far have been decided by more than a single goal – none of them in the eight European encounters. At the knockout stage of those ties it can be crucial whether the goal is scored at home or away. In last season's semi-final, the turning point was right at the end of the first leg when, with Liverpool heading for another Anfield 1-0 win, John Arne Riise nudged Salomon Kalou's cross into his own net; despite having played poorly, Chelsea were suddenly set up perfectly for the return, an unusually expansive 3-2 success that took them to the delayed heartbreak of the final.

Neither side will therefore need reminding about the importance of an away goal. What they may not realise is how much of an expert Hiddink is on the subject. When he led PSV Eindhoven to the greatest triumph in their history, the 1988 European Cup, they won both the quarter-final and semi-final with a scoring draw on the opponents' ground in the first leg, followed by a goalless draw at home. But nor will he ever forget that it should have been PSV, not Milan, facing Liverpool in the epic Istanbul final of 2005; the Dutch side were 3-2 ahead on aggregate going into added time of the semi-final, only to concede an away goal in the last minute and allow the Italians through.

Belatedly then, he catches up with Liverpool, having taken a Holland team to Anfield twice but not a club side. "The atmosphere is threatening to any team that does not have control of their nerves," he said. "When you get there the first time you can shiver a bit. I hope our players have the experience. It's a beautiful atmosphere, no violence, there's a good intimidating atmosphere, which is normal in football." How much they dislike Chelsea up there, he is about to discover.

So just stop Gerrard, to silence the crowd and stop Liverpool? "That's important, of course, but beside that they have now a very balanced team. It's not just him, though he will be very determined at Anfield. If he's not having his day there are other very skilful players who can be decisive as well."

Torres On A Mission For Gerrard

Fernando Torres wants to reward Steven Gerrard's loyalty with a glut of trophies over the next four years.

The Spaniard is delighted his captain has signed a contract extension until 2013 for Rafa Benitez and is determined to help Gerrard become one of Liverpool's most decorated skippers.

And Torres said: "Stevie has been getting a lot of praise from some of the best players in the world.

"That is quite right because I think he is the best in the world. He is a great team player but he can also win a game on his own when maybe we are not playing so well.

"I would love to see him have lots more success. I cannot think of a player I would rather be playing with.

"We know it is not going to be easy against Chelsea but both Stevie and I are happy with our form."

Kuwaitis Up To Buy Reds

Liverpool are edging closer to a £450 million Middle East take-over which would give Kop boss Rafa Benitez more transfer funds.

Talks between American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to sell all or a majority of their Anfield investment to a mega-rich Kuwait family are very advanced.

Despite denials, Nasser Al Kharafi – who is worth £9bilion – is closing in on a deal to become the new owner of the club.

His nephew Rafed Al Kharafi, who has attended recent Liverpool games as a guest of the club along with his chief negotiator Abdulla Al-Sago, are confident of striking a deal in the coming weeks.

What hasn’t been finalised is what percentage of the club the Kuwaitis will end up with.

While Gillett has given an indication he will sell all of his holding for the right price, it’s Hicks would like to still be involved – and could end up with 25 per cent of the club.

The pair, who are facing a July deadline to refinance a £350m loan that secured their ownership, now value the club at £500m.

They know that, without a huge cash injection, the planned new stadium would have to remain on the back-burner and Benitez would be handicapped in the transfer market.

That’s why the interest from Kuwait has been encouraged.

Gerrard Desperate For Rome Return

Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard has underlined his desire to take the Reds back to Rome, where they won their first European Cup in 1977.

Gerrard, 29 next month, will lead his side into yet another Champions League battle with Chelsea on Wednesday in a quarter-final first leg at Anfield.

He has already lifted the European crown once after inspiring Liverpool's astonishing comeback in Istanbul to beat AC Milan in the 2005 final.

But Rome means an awful lot to Liverpool and their fans, and Gerrard knows it.

May 27 in the Stadio Olimpico is where Gerrard wants to lead his team for this season's Champions League final, the same venue in which the first of their five European Cups over 20 years ago.

It is a venue etched in Liverpool history.

Back in '77 they beat Borussia Monchengladbach 3-1. Tommy Smith, Terry McDermott and Phil Neal scoring the goals on a wondrous night of Scouse celebration.

In 1984 they were back in the Italian capital again to beat Roma on penalties and lift the crown for the fourth time.

Now Gerrard wants his place in history by completing the hat-trick.

He said: "Of course this season's final venue adds significance for Liverpool.

"Obviously that's the history of the club, and the idea for us players today is to add to that history, we want to be the team that goes to Rome and does it again.

"As fans we remember those magical nights, so if we were to go and do that again, it would be really special."

Talking to the UEFA website, he added: "It means everything to me. I've supported the club ever since I started watching football.

"A lot of my family are Liverpool supporters, a lot of my friends, and I still live in the city. So when we do win and get good results and win trophies, it's nice to be part of it and enjoy it with the supporters.

"I am going to be biased and say that the 2005 final was the best final ever. I don't think there is one that turned out the way that game did - 3-0 down, then 3-3, and then a penalty shoot-out.

"It was fantastic entertainment for the neutral, but to play in it was an unbelievable experience.

"I think everyone has seen by my reaction when I lifted the cup in 2005 how much the trophy means to myself, to my team-mates and to the Liverpool supporters.

"That was the best night of my football life so far. So I want to go and match that and experience that feeling again."

Despite Liverpool's burning desire for domestic success, Gerrard admits European glory is never far from his mind.

"I have still got many more dreams and ambitions to achieve with Liverpool. Obviously the Premier League - that's the only medal that is missing from my collection," he said.

"But it would be nice to lift a second European Cup, so there are still many, many things I want to achieve with the club.

"And obviously for England it would be nice to go to a tournament and be successful. To go one better than a quarter-final, to get into the last four, or maybe a final - that would be a fantastic achievement."

To achieve his club ambitions, Gerrard knows that Liverpool have to get past Chelsea again, with the second leg at Stamford Bridge on April 14.

These latest showdowns will be the ninth and 10th times the clubs have met in the Champions League since 2005.

Last season Liverpool lost in the semi-finals to Chelsea, having beaten them in the 2004-05 and 2006-07 semi-finals. And the clubs also shared two 0-0 draws in the group stages of the 2005-06 season.

They have clashed regularly in all competitions since manager Rafael Benitez took over in June 2004. It is 22 matches now since then, with Liverpool winning seven, losing nine and drawing six.

But Gerrard will use as inspiration his marvellous performance in the 4-0 win over Real Madrid in the last round when he scored twice.

He said: "That victory ranks right alongside the best of my career. I have been lucky enough to play in some big games at Anfield, especially in the Champions League, but the Real Madrid victory is certainly up there with the very best.

"We've got fantastic supporters who raise their performance on European nights. They bring their flags and make an awful lot of noise which gives the Liverpool players a big lift and a big help on the night."

That night was Gerrard's 100th European appearance for the club, and he said: "That made it an even more special night for me, personally. A lot of people were texting me on my mobile phone before the game, reminding me, but I already knew.

"I was very happy to reach that milestone and it makes me feel really proud to achieve that."

Redknapp Reveals Keane Drama

Harry Redknapp has revealed he almost missed out on re-signing Robbie Keane in January as he felt Liverpool would not want to sell the Irish striker - just six months after taking him to Anfield in a £20million deal.

The Republic of Ireland skipper has been instrumental for Tottenham following his arrival back at White Hart Lane in January.

Keane may have struggled to find his best form at Liverpool during his short spell at Anfield, but has wasted no time stamping his authority in north London.

Redknapp handed the Irish striker the captaincy and he has led from the front as Tottenham have gone on a six-match unbeaten run to move away from the bottom three.

Redknapp said: "I didn't see any chance in getting Robbie here. I kept saying to the chairman that Liverpool will not sell Robbie Keane.

"I was always interested in Robbie, but never thought there was a chance of that.

"I gave the chairman a couple of strikers I was interested in and he tried to see where there was a deal to be done with one of them.

"I am delighted that Robbie decided to return to the club. I am sure that if the club had their way these players would never have left in the first place."