Saturday, April 11, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs. Blackburn Rovers

Liverpool were high on confidence heading into their Champions League clash with Chelsea on Tuesday. A last-gasp win over Fulham the weekend prior had extended their winning run to seven games and put them atop the Premier League table, if only briefly.

Then Guus Hiddink's Blues breached Pepe Reina's goal thrice to leave the Reds' European hopes hanging by a thread. That defeat has underlined the great anomaly of Liverpool's season to date; for while they are enjoying their finest league campaign in yonks, they have been less than fearsome on their own patch.

They are unbeaten at home in the Prem but, despite claiming crucial wins over Manchester United and Chelsea, they have drawn with the likes of Stoke City, Hull City, Fulham, West Ham United and Manchester City.

So this weekend's clash with Blackburn Rovers could prove a particularly tricky one for Rafa Benitez and his charges as they look to plaster over the cracks that were exposed by Branislav Ivanovic and Didier Drogba. They sit just one point behind United, but any slip-up at this stage of proceedings could prove costly.

This will be as big a test for 'Pool as they have had all season. They showed at Craven Cottage that they are now capable of snatching results even when things don't go their way, and they must build upon that performance this weekend - and put Wednesday's disappointment behind them - if they hope to continue their push for a maiden Premier League crown.

Blackburn have spent much of this season mired in the bottom three, following a disastrous six-month stint under rookie manager Paul Ince. At the turn of the year, it seemed they were destined for another spell in the second tier of English football.

However, things have improved since Sam Allardyce took the reins, and last weekend's win over Tottenham Hotspur shot them up to 14th place, five points clear of the relegation zone. But Allardyce, the man who transformed Bolton Wanderers into Premier League stalwarts, knows that his Rovers have plenty to do before they can even begin to contemplate another season in the top flight.

Speaking after the win over Spurs, 'Big Sam' said, "I don’t think that ends our relegation worries. Thirty-four points is nowhere near enough for this season."

Thus, Blackburn head to Merseyside this weekend still seeking sanctuary from the relegation dog-fight, but they are unlikely to be granted such a boon at Anfield. They haven't won a league game at Liverpool since Benitez's arrival back in 2004, and the hosts will be desperate to keep pressure on Manchester United.



Apr 08 Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea (Champions League)
Apr 04 Fulham 0-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Mar 22 Liverpool 5-0 Aston Villa (Premier League)
Mar 14 Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool (Premier League)
Mar 10 Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid (Champions League)

Blackburn Rovers

Apr 04 Blackburn Rovers 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League)
Mar 21 Blackburn Rovers 1-1 West Ham United (Premier League)
Mar 14 Arsenal 4-0 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)
Mar 11 Fulham 1-2 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)
Mar 04 Blackburn Rovers 0-0 Everton (Premier League)



Javier Mascherano is available once more after missing the Reds' last two fixtures through a combination of fatigue and suspension. The Argentine should replace Lucas Leiva in the starting line-up.

Competition on the left flank is hotting up, as Fabio Aurelio and Albert Riera are being pushed by Emiliano Insua and Andrea Dossena, respectively. Neither of the former two were at their best against Chelsea, so a Rafa reshuffle could be on the cards.

Martin Skrtel's once-imperious form in central defence has tapered somewhat, meaning the fit-again Daniel Agger could be up for a rare start.

Probable XI: Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Insua - Alonso, Mascherano - Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera - Torres

Blackburn Rovers

Allardyce will be missing a whole host of first-team regulars for the short trip through Lancashire. Morten Gamst Pedersen has a calf problem, and Jason Roberts is out for at least three weeks with a stress fracture of the foot. Brett Emerton is a long-term absentee, Vince Grella is still not 100 per cent, and Roque Santa Cruz is battling through tendonitis.

Furthermore, Johann Vogel has left the club after having his contract terminated, leaving options in midfield rather scarce.

Keith Andrews deputised at right-back last week but could lose his place to the departing Dutchman, Andre Ooijer. Carlos Villanueva should be the default choice to fill out the team-sheet in attack.

Probable XI: Robinson - Ooijer, Samba, Nelsen, Givet - Diouf, Mokoena, Andrews, Warnock - Villanueva - McCarthy



The only Red who managed to foil Petr Cech in midweek was Fernando Torres, and he will be hoping to exploit a fairly heavy-legged Rovers rearguard with his considerable pace and guile - not to mention finishing ability. The Spaniard has only started 14 league games this term, due to persistent injuries, but has notched up nine goals nonetheless.

Blackburn Rovers

Some thought Allardyce was having a bubble when he suggested Christopher Samba could be used as an auxiliary forward, but the former Bolton boss was as good as his word and stationed the Congolese giant up front in the second half against Tottenham last weekend. He surely won't start in attack, especially at Anfield, but he should get forward whenever possible and will be a huge threat from set-pieces.

League Is Priority, Says Carragher

Jamie Carragher has illustrated the significance of today's lunchtime encounter with Blackburn to Liverpool's pursuit of Manchester United, making the bold declaration that it is the most important league game of his 13-year career at Anfield. "I'm not just saying that because of what happened against Chelsea, but the league has always been the priority of everyone at this club," said Carragher, ahead of a game for which Rafael Benitez will delay a decision on Steven Gerrard until the last minute.

"In the 13 years I have been involved in the first team, this will be the biggest league game I have been involved in, it really is that important. If we win we can go top of the league with just six games to go, and if anyone had told us at the beginning of the season we would be in this position now, we would have been delighted." Rovers have whipped up some vitriol, midfielder David Dunn saying he wants Benitez to be "having a moan at us on Sunday" after a performance that is certain to physical.

"I don't think we give a toss what people think of us at the minute. It is whatever gets us results," Dunn said. Despite Rovers' physical threat, Gerrard's health is a more pressing concern. Liverpool were aware of his worsening groin problem before last weekend's win at Fulham and it seems he will have to be nursed through the final weeks of the season. Benitez admits the injury will not stand two games in four days and Blackburn appears to be a priority over Tuesday's Champions League tie against Chelsea.

John Aldridge: If Any Team Can Come Back Liverpool Can

One thing we have learned from watching Liverpool in Europe over the years is you can never write them off.

But I’m sure every Liverpool fan will admit Rafa Benitez’s side are faced with a massive mountain to climb if they are to continue their run in this season’s Champions League.

Chelsea are now odds on favourites to go through and it would take something really special from Liverpool – probably on a par with the magnificent comeback in Istanbul – for them to get through to the semi-finals.

It is hard to see Chelsea conceding three at home, particularly given the way they performed at Anfield, but every single Liverpool player must go to Stamford Bridge ready to play for pride and with a genuine belief they can turn things around.

It might be that Benitez has to do something to get a reaction from his players, something that gets them really wound up and ready to go out there with a desire to put the record straight.

I can remember when I was managing Tranmere and we were 3-0 down at home to Southampton in the FA Cup. At half-time I had some harsh words with the players and some cups got thrown around and they went out and won 4-3.

You don’t expect something like that to happen but you can never give up and you have to keep going no matter how bad the situation might be.

If Liverpool are looking for inspiration then their recent victory over Manchester United should do the trick.

Winning 4-1 at the home of the reigning champions is an incredible result and it proved that on their day Liverpool can produce the kind of performance which even the very best cannot live with.

Another positive is that while Chelsea will be without John Terry we will have Javier Mascherano back.

I don’t think you could overstate just how badly Mascherano was missed in the first leg and having him back will be a massive boost. While Chelsea are unlikely to be as solid at the back without Terry who is a big influence for them.

If Liverpool can get even a one goal lead by half time then who knows what might happen? But they will have to defend a hell of a lot better than they did at Anfield if they are to stand a chance.

It is up to Rafa to come up with a strategy and to instill a belief in the team that they can still win.

This Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and as ever my thoughts will be with the families and friends of the 96 who lost their lives that terrible day.

I can’t believe that 20 years have passed and I’m sure Anfield will be packed for the annual memorial service because people have not forgotten what happened at Hillsborough and I’m sure they never will.

THE best way Liverpool can respond to what happened on Wednesday night would be to go out and beat Blackburn today.

We need three points to keep up the title challenge and if we get them then it will be interesting to see how Manchester United react.

They’re going through a bit of an iffy period just now and they’ve looked visibly tired of late so Liverpool have to try and put as much pressure on them as they can.

Blackburn will come to Anfield and try to get at us but if Liverpool get back to their best then they should have too much.

Rafa Benitez Goes On The Attack Against His Critics

RAFA Benitez has launched an impassioned defence of Liverpool’s zonal marking system, insisting their record of defending set pieces is comparable with anyone else in the Premier League.

Liverpool again came in for criticism following the midweek defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League in which Branislav Ivanovic scored two headers from corners.

One TV news channel even went as far as claiming Liverpool have the worst record in the top division for conceding from set pieces even though the statistics suggest otherwise.

Benitez has no plans to ditch his zonal marking system, believing it is the best one for his team and will simply ask his players to defend better against Blackburn today.

"I think that when you have statistics you can manage them in whatever way you want," said the Reds boss in a clear reference to his critics.

"But when you analyse our record at defending set pieces you will see that it is not bad.

"I think Arsenal have conceded seven goals from set pieces, Chelsea have also conceded seven, Man United have conceded six and we have conceded eight.

"So there is not a massive difference between the teams in the top four when it comes to this.

"Then you have Blackburn and Everton who have both conceded ten.

"You can talk about percentages, which depend on the total number of goals you concede, or you can talk about figures but it doesn’t matter.

"We are really pleased in the way that we are working. We know that this is the best system for us and we know that it has been good for us in the past and will hopefully be good for us in the future."

Steven Gerrard remains a major doubt for today’s game with Benitez yet to decide whether to take a chance on his skipper who is suffering from a groin strain.

Should Gerrard not make it, Yossi Benayoun is likely to be asked to play just off Fernando Torres.

The Reds boss is looking for his team to get back to the imperious form they were showing before Wednesday’s setback at the hands of Chelsea and he is confident his players will respond positively to that defeat.

He said: "Clearly we have to change something from the other night. Firstly, we will change the opponent which is very important and the mentality will also be different. People were very surprised because we lost against Chelsea but this is something you can analyse in a positive way because it means we were doing really well previously and it raised people’s expectations about us."So now we have to go back and start doing the same things that we were doing before.

"We have to play well and pass the ball and approach the game with a lot of confidence because we know the fans will be behind the players so hopefully it will be positive."

Should Liverpool win they will go back to the top of the Premier League at least until Man United take on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light later today and Benitez is looking for his team to put even more pressure on the reigning champions by collecting all three points against Blackburn.

"If we can win, they will be under pressure," he added. "They are in a better position now so it still depends on them, but we still have to do our job.

"We have to do everything almost perfectly, and that means winning almost every game."

Sir Alex Ferguson Delighted To Get Under Rafael Benitez's Skin

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has suggested that Liverpool's Rafael Benitez is becoming consumed by the war of words between the two.

He claims it was "fantastic" to hear his Liverpool counterpart renew hostilities while preparing for the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea.

In what is becoming an increasingly bitter rally of verbal exchanges, the Liverpool manager's most recent contribution – the suggestion that Ferguson was "maybe a little bit scared" of his Anfield team – prompted a broad smile on Ferguson's face as he prepared for United's Premier League trip to Sunderland.

Liverpool have reduced United's seven-point lead at the top of the table to just one point since winning 4-1 at Old Trafford on March 14 and the faltering form of Ferguson's team has reignited a title race that, a month ago, appeared to be a United procession.

But with Benitez criticising Ferguson's tactic of commenting on Liverpool's performances and prospects, the United manager has now responded once more by seemingly questioning the Spaniard's focus.

Ferguson said: "If you ask me a question about other teams, I'll give you an opinion. There's no fault in that.

"Arsene Wenger was talking about Manchester United a couple of weeks ago when he was asked a question and he gave a fair answer.

"But the interesting thing as far as Rafa Benitez is concerned is that he's got a European tie [against Chelsea] and he's talking about Alex Ferguson. Fantastic. I didn't know I was that important."

When asked whether he felt he had successfully "got under Benitez's skin", Ferguson grinned before replying: "I have no more comment to make."

Regardless of the outcome of Liverpool's Anfield encounter with Blackburn this lunchtime, United can end the day in top spot with a victory on Wearside.

But having watched Chelsea's impressive 3-1 success at Anfield, Ferguson risked another riposte from Benitez by claiming that Guus Hiddink's team are now the real threat to United's title hopes.

Ferguson said: "Chelsea will be absolutely buoyed up [by the victory at Liverpool]. You saw the celebrations at the end. They knew it was an emphatic result and they will be flying at the moment.

"That was a good performance by them. I remember when we won the treble in 1999 that just lifted everyone and from then on we were unbeatable.

"It does that to you when you get a very important result, but hopefully Chelsea are beatable. I'd be happy with the race going down to the last day, though. It would do me fine because we're used to that. We've done it four times."

Although Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans (both groin) will miss the Sunderland fixture, Ferguson insisted that Wayne Rooney will play after dismissing reports that the forward suffered a rib injury against Porto on Tuesday evening.

And despite United's recent run of just one victory in four games, Ferguson is confident that his players can ride the storm and deliver the title.

He said: "We've lost two league games to Liverpool and Fulham and people are saying we're cracking up. So what I think I have got to do now is to remind the players where we are at the moment.

"It doesn't matter what happened against Porto, we're still in the European Cup with a chance, we're still in the FA Cup semi-final with a chance, we're top of the league with a chance – so what more can I do but just remind the players why we got here? We're in a fantastic position."

Robbie Fowler: I Tried To Win The Premier League Title For 15 Years - But This Time Liverpool Can Do It

Anfield legend Robbie Fowler believes Liverpool can upset the odds to produce the most dramatic title win of all time.

The former England international is backing his old club to claw back Manchester United’s lead at the top of the table and end their 20-year wait to become champions.

And Fowler admits he will be overjoyed to see the club he served for almost 20 years lift the Premier League trophy and fulfill the one dream he never achieved.

Many critics suggest Liverpool now have no chance of catching United after their disastrous Champions League result against Chelsea in midweek, with the conventional thinking suggesting their confidence will be shattered.

But Fowler has always been of unconventional mind and he believes that losing in Europe could just be the nudge Liverpool need to win the title the Kop craves.

"I know people are saying it’s all over for my old team now and I even heard that the United manager was saying Liverpool are out of the title race because of the Chelsea result," Fowler said.

"But I disagree and I think in a strange way it can help them because they will be able to concentrate every single ounce of their energy and concentration on winning the league.

"Let’s face it, they need a miracle to win 3-0 at Chelsea and stay in Europe but if they can put the result behind them, then they might even be favourites to win the title.

"You can’t under-estimate how draining a Champions League campaign can be and if you don’t have that distraction, then you’re much fitter and fresher.

"If Liverpool are out of Europe they will play once a week in the league and will be able to play their best team every single game – which is a massive advantage.

"United could be involved in Europe, in an FA Cup semi and the title race, and already that is beginning to show in some of their performances.

"They’ll have a lot of games to cram in and they already look shattered. It’s hard to keep it all together in so many competitions, especially when you’re being challenged by rivals who are much fitter, fresher and have more focus."

Fowler has just flown to Australia to join up with his new club North Queensland Fury, where he began pre-season training. He has a two-year contract with the newly-formed A-League club and will start the season in August.

But he has kept an eye on events back home and admits he is desperate to see his old club win the title that eluded him during his years at Anfield.

"I know how much winning the title means to the Liverpool fans - I spent 15 years desperately trying to bring it to them," he said.

"My biggest regret is that I couldn’t win the league with Liverpool. I won every other trophy and even went to the Champions’ League final with them but the league was painful for us.

"We got close and should have won it in 1997 when we were in a great position, but then blew it at Easter.

"It would mean so much to the fans there and I really believe that Liverpool have a great chance of doing it now, after all these years.

"I know they could be four points behind with only seven games to go if United win their game in hand, but there is an awful lot in their favour. United are faltering lately and look really vulnerable. Playing European games and the FA Cup will put them under even more pressure and Liverpool could well have the advantage of just having six matches left after next week’s Champions’ League tie.

"If Liverpool have a weakness, it’s when they have to rotate, because they don’t have the quality in their squad that United have.

"But if they are only playing once a week they can play their best side and Torres and Gerrard can destroy any team at any time.

"I fancy Liverpool to win all their remaining league matches and I don’t think United will, so they could easily be Champions."

Fowler is settling into life in Australia and plans to fly out his wife Kerry and four children shortly.

And he admits the challenge of joining a new franchise in the A League is an exciting one.

"I don’t feel ready to hang up my boots just yet and the quality out here has impressed me," he said.

"There are a good set of lads here and it’s going to be exciting trying to get a newly-formed team off the ground."

Liverpool Skipper Steven Gerrard: Hillsbrough Victims Will Never Be Forgotten

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard experienced for himself the bitter nature of the tragedy that occurred at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium 20 years, when 96 fans died in a crush at the FA Cup semi-final between the Merseyside outfit and Nottingham Forest.

Gerrard's own cousin John-Paul was one of those who tragically lost their life that day, and he remembered receiving the terrible news of his death when discussing the tragedy with Liverpool's official website, and how it had driven him on to become the outstanding player he is today.

"I was still a baby. I was only nine years old at the time so I only have small memories from back then. But I've learned more about the actual events as I've got older," he explained.

"I was really shocked and deeply saddened when I watched the scenes live. I was completely and utterly shocked, whilst wondering if there was anyone we knew personally at the game.

"It was exactly the same for every Liverpool fan at the time because I'm sure everyone was wondering if they knew anyone who was at the game too. I remember going to bed that night, lying there praying, and keeping my fingers crossed that it didn't get any worse than what we had already heard.

"Unfortunately for myself and my family we got the dreaded knock the next morning to say that a member of our family was at the game and had been tragically killed.

"Obviously it was a difficult time to know that one of your cousins had been at the game and had been tragically crushed. Seeing the reaction of his Mum, Dad and family helped drive me on to become the player I have developed into today."

Gerrard went on to highlight the central place the tragedy now occupies in the history of both the city of Liverpool and Liverpool FC, and emphasised that the memory would not be forgotten, as he expressed his admiration for the way in which the families of the victims have conducted themselves over the last 20 years.

"It is central and very important to this club," he said.

"The 96 will never ever be forgotten, and nor will the people that got hurt. But it is important these people get remembered individually and not just as the number 96.

"This club has fought for justice ever since and will continue to do so. We have stuck together since that day, like we always do here and that shows what kind of football club we are, sticking by each other when times are tough. We are not just about what happens on the pitch but we are all one off it as well.

"They [the victims' families] have behaved impeccably and the club are very proud of them and the way they have handled this tragedy. The players will continue to be a support for them, I can guarantee that."