Sunday, April 12, 2009

Match Report: LiverpooL 4 - 0 Blackburn Rovers

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez's gut reaction was right, his side were good enough to beat relegation-haunted Blackburn without Steven Gerrard.

The club captain was left on the bench as Liverpool cruised to a victory that keeps their title hopes alive.

They wiped away the bitter memory of the midweek Champions League defeat by Chelsea, thanks to a couple of top-line goals from Fernando Torres, taking his total to the season to 14.

The first was a tremendous hooked volley after five minutes, the second a fine header from Xabi Alonso's free-kick.

And in the closing minutes Daniel Agger and substitute David Ngog wrapped up the points with further goals.

Gerrard was only named on the substitutes' bench, such was the concern over his groin injury, and he can now be expected to lead the side at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday in the Champions League quarter-final second leg .

Liverpool made four changes from the side that lost to Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday, with Agger, Yossi Benayoun, Javier Mascherano and Emiliano Insua replacing Gerrard, Martin Skrtel, Lucas Leiva and Fabio Aurelio.

Blackburn were without El-Hadji Diouf, Jason Roberts and Morten Gamst Pedersen from the side that beat Spurs last time out with Benni McCarthy only on the bench from that side.

Andre Ooijer, Tugay, David Dunn and Keith Treacy came into the team.

With the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster on Wednesday, the match was preceded by a minutes' silence.

And Blackburn's former Liverpool player, Stephen Warnock, carried a wreath onto the pitch and laid it on the turf in front of the Kop prior to kick-off.

Blackburn started with five across the back and just Christopher Samba up front.

Liverpool have had trouble with this style of defence all season at Anfield, but Rovers' resistance was broken after just five minutes with a sensational Torres goal.

Jamie Carragher's long ball was taken down by Torres on his chest and with a turn and shot that had a touch of Marco van Basten about it, the Spaniard's stunning hooked volley flew past Paul Robinson into the far corner.

Agger was booked for body-checking Treacy a minute afterwards, but Liverpool continued to attack and it could have been two after 15 minutes.

Dirk Kuyt broke at pace from a Blackburn clearance and set up Mascherano for a shot that Robinson saved. However, Torres arrived first to the rebound and managed to lift his eight-yard effort over the bar.

Robinson then produced a great save to keep out a close-range Kuyt header from Insua's cross. Somehow Benayoun blazed over from the rebound.

Robinson saved again, this time from Mascherano before Keith Andrews was booked for a foul on Albert Riera after 33 minutes.

And from the resulting Alonso free-kick out on the left, Torres scored his second with a fierce header having run virtually unattended from the corner of the box to meet the set-play.

Blackburn sent on Aaron Doran at the break for Aaron Mokoena, but the pressure continued. Twice Riera saw long-ranger shots clear the far post as Liverpool went in search of more goals.

Liverpool tried to be over-elaborate, Kuyt firing over and Agger mis-hitting one wide from 20 yards before Blackburn sent on Carlos Villanueva for Dunn after 59 minutes.

Seven minutes later Tugay was withdrawn, with Vince Grella taking over.

But Liverpool had taken their foot off the pedal, not the best course of action against any top-flight side, but you sensed they had Chelsea on their minds.

Torres departed after 73 minutes to be replaced by Nabil El Zhar, again with Chelsea in mind.

Alonso was booked for a trip on Doran before Jose Reina - playing his 200th game for the club - was called into meaningful action.

He saved well from Warnock and Villanueva before diving to his left to claim a low Samba effort.

Warnock cleared off the line from Riera while Mascherano wasted a close-range opportunity.

But the third eventually arrived when Agger ran from 40 yards out to blast a swerving foot shot past Robinson from just outside the box.

Substitute Ngog scored the fourth when he headed home in the last minute.

Allardyce Backs Anfield Title Bid

Sam Allardyce insisted Liverpool can still win the title after seeing his side cut down at Anfield.

Liverpool were determined to keep the heat on Manchester United, regardless of the depression following the midweek Champions League defeat by Chelsea.

There was no Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain left on the bench to nurse his groin injury, but the plan worked as the home side won on cruise control.

Gerrard will now almost certainly be launched into Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final, second leg at Stamford Bridge in a last-ditch attempt to keep Liverpool's European dreams alive.

And they certainly kept their Barclays Premier League hopes on course with a fine display, Fernando Torres scoring two outstanding goals in the first half to set Liverpool on the way to their 27th successive unbeaten home game.

And Allardyce, a frequent critic of Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez, agreed that they could win the title.

He said: "They are certainly capable of winning the title, even if Manchester United have a game in hand.

"If Liverpool keep playing like that and continue with that pace and confidence, it is possible they can win it.

"There will be a lot of twists and turns yet and they certainly believe they can do it."

Benitez hailed Liverpool's "perfect response" to that mauling from Chelsea.

Two Torres goals in the first half put Liverpool in charge before Daniel Agger and substitute David Ngog added further goals near the end.

Benitez said: "We had plenty of very clear chances and in the end it was easy.

"After what happened in midweek against Chelsea, that was the perfect response.

"We had confidence and we were always in control. The first goal was very important, it opened the game up and we were able score more because we had more space.

"Torres' goals were special, we did not have Steven Gerrard but we know we can rely on our other top players. This was Fernando's day to show that."

Benitez, aware that Sir Alex Ferguson had continued their war of words 24 hours earlier by showing surprise that the Spaniard was thinking about him ahead of the Chelsea match, added: "Sir Alex is talking again about Liverpool, I do not mind that but he is maybe showing he is nervous.

"I was more concerned with the way we played, the chances we created and the goals that we scored.

"My only concern was that we did not score more. Goal difference will be very important if this title race goes to the wire.

"So I was pleased that we managed to get another couple near the end. I felt we were always in control and it just depended on whether we made any mistakes to let them back into the game."

Allardyce was critical of his own team.

He said: "I had watched how Didier Drogba had caused them so much trouble in midweek and decided to use Christopher Samba in that role.

"Obviously he is not that quality of player, but it was the same idea. The problem was that we did not support him at all and allowed Liverpool to pick up possession.

"We did not compete enough and they were deserved winners. Samba did okay but he had no help.

"Maybe a bit of fear crept into our lads. It is hard to come to Anfield with several top players out and get anything."

George Gillett In New Kop Bid

George Gillett is to make a last-ditch attempt to oust co-owner Tom Hicks from Liverpool.

The Anfield war betwen the two Americans is entering its final stages as the pair have three months to raise their share of a £350million debt to keep the club.

Both are desperately trying to get funds by selling shares in their other sporting franchises, while also keeping the door open to potential partnerships with Arab businessmen.

After looking the most financially vulnerable of the duo, Gillett is now increasingly confident the imminent £272m sale of his Montreal Canadiens hockey side will allow him to to pile the pressure on Hicks.

Gillett, who attended the Champions League clash with Chelsea at Anfield and is due in London for the second leg on Tuesday, believes Hicks has debts of £350-400m in the United States.

The Texan is trying to offload shares in the Texas Rangers baseball team and ice hockey's Dallas Stars. Despite that, Hicks has been pushing ahead with ambitious plans for Liverpool's future and has done nothing to suggest he's about to walk away.

Gillett made it clear earlier this season he'd leave Liverpool if Hicks went with him.

That stance appeared to soften after he became the prime target of criticism from some Kop fans and he took a back seat as Hicks played the pivotal role in securing manager Rafa Benitez's future.

There were fears Gillett was prepared to step aside and allow Hicks to pursue his own bid for power.

But the picture will change with the sale of the Montreal Canadiens. Now the duo are effectively embroiled in a high stakes race to see who can raise finance first and force the other out, ending what's been a tiresome and damaging power struggle.

Sources close to Gillett insist he's still ready to explore all options - either cutting his ties completely, taking a joint-ownership role with a new partner or remaining as a minority shareholder under a new board.

It's understood the only scenario Gillett won't accept is remaining at Anfield with Hicks. Waiting in the wings are Dubai and Kuwaiti investors, who think the Americans are more vulnerable by the week.

They are sure to make fresh bids at the end of the season.

Recent new deals for Benitez, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt, and the forthcoming securing of Fernando Torres on a five-year, £120,000-a-week contract, are designed to reassure the banks and potential investors of the long-term security of the club.

Martin O'Neill Doing Utmost To Prevent Gareth Barry Leaving Aston Villa

According to a report in the British tabloid The Daily Mirror, Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill is doing everything he can to persuade Gareth Barry to stay at Villa Park.

The England international was refused a transfer to Liverpool last summer, but it seems that he will be allowed to join the reds at the end of this season should the Villans fail to qualify for the Champions League.

With Arsenal, in fourth place, moving nine points clear of the Midlands based club on Saturday it is looking increasingly unlikely that Villa will be competing in Europe's elite competition for the 2009/10 campaign.

However, it is suggested that O'Neill is talking-up the 28-year-old in the hope that it will convince him to extend his current contract, which expires in 2010.

"Young Gareth has a heart the size of a lion," O'Neill is quoted as saying by The Daily Mail at a club dinner which Barry had also attended.

"He wants to play every single week and wouldn't take a break if you asked him.

"He doesn't get a break in the season and plays international matches. It is great for him, absolutely fantastic and he is very, very talented."

Rafa - Fergie Feeling Nervous

Rafa Benitez believes Sir Alex Ferguson is feeling 'nervous' as the Premier League title race hurtles towards a gripping climax.

Liverpool are breathing down Manchester United's necks at the top of the table having been galvanised by last month's 4-1 win at Old Trafford.

Benitez's side briefly dislodged United at the summit on Saturday after thrashing Blackburn Rovers 4-0 before the reigning champions laboured to a 2-1 win at Sunderland.

The rival managers have also been involved in a spot of verbal jousting, with Benitez and Ferguson questioning the motives for talking about each other.

But Liverpool chief Benitez says his United counterpart is trying to use his fabled mind games because he is feeling the pressure.

"Ferguson is always talking about us which shows they are really under pressure," said Benitez after Liverpool's win over Blackburn.

"I don't care, but I know he's nervous, so it's good. You can see he's under pressure."

Benitez added: "Mind games are against managers who are affected by them.

"I am focused just on my team before every single game. I don't see that what's said about my team will affect my team. I don't think so.

"Maybe once in every 10 times, but not every time. Anyway, I don't care. It doesn't matter.

"I prefer to talk about football, but sometimes you have to hit back."

Agger Still Hopes To Stay

Daniel Agger is hoping to stay at Anfield, but is unsure if he will still be a Liverpool player next season.

The Danish defender's contract expires in 2010 and the Premier League title chasers have been discussing an extension.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez has confirmed he has been holding talks with Agger and is optimistic about hanging on to the 24-year-old.

Agger, who has been linked with AC Milan and Juventus, did not go into detail about his contract talks, but confirmed he is keen to stay on Merseyside.

"I am at the stage of my career where I need to play - and want to play - but that situation has nothing to do with the contract talks," he said.

"It is nice to hear the manager wants to keep me, but the most important thing is what he tells me when I look him in the eyes.

"It's not what he says in the papers, it is what he says behind closed doors. I keep talks with the club confidential, so I cannot tell you what has been said.

"I don't know when things will be decided. I don't have a clue. In my heart, I hope I will be here next season. But, really, I don't know.

"I know there have been some reports in Denmark that my agent has spoken to clubs in Italy, but they were wrong."

Juventus Chase Sebastian Leto

Liverpool flop Sebastian Leto could be set for a shock move to Juventus.

The 22-year-old midfielder has spent the season on loan at Olympiakos and looks unlikely to return to Anfield in the summer with boss Rafael Benitez ready to offload the Argentine.

Leto had been linked with a switch to Paris Saint Germain. But Juventus boss Claudio Ranieri looks set to win the race for Leto, who is determined to kick-start his career.

And Blerim Dzemaili will end his Bolton misery by joining Torino for around £500,000 even though they could be relegated from Serie A.

The Swiss midfielder, 23, has not started a game for Bolton since he was signed in January 2007 and has been at Torino on loan.

Minute's Silence Marks Hillsborough Anniversary

Commemorations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium tragedy began Saturday with a minute's silence before Liverpool's 4-0 victory over Blackburn.

Before the kickoff at Anfield, Blackburn's former Liverpool player, Stephen Warnock, carried a wreath on to the pitch and laid it in front of the Kop.

The number 96 featured in red on the white floral tribute, marking the number of Liverpool fans who lost their lives after a crush in a fenced-in standing area of the Sheffield stadium. Liverpool was playing Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semifinals on April 15, 1989.

Current Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard lost his 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley at Hillsborough.

"The memory of Hillsborough is very central and very important to this club and the 96 will never be forgotten, as well as the people that got hurt," Gerrard said. "It is important these people get remembered individually and not just as a number of 96. This club has fought for justice ever since and will continue to do so."

Relatives of the victims and fans' groups have argued that police caused the disaster by herding spectators who arrived late for the match into overcrowded pens in a fenced-off area behind one of the goals. Most victims were crushed to death.

A memorial service will be held on Wednesday's anniversary inside Anfield. At 3:06 p.m., the time the game was abandoned, there will be a two-minute silence across Liverpool.

"We have stuck together since that day like we always do at this club and that shows what kind of football club we are, sticking by each other when times are tough," said Gerrard, who was nine at the time of the disaster. "Time has gone by, but the scars will never ever be healed and the fans will never ever forget."

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said the response of Saturday's crowd to the commemoration had helped his side once the match was underway. Striker Fernando Torres scored twice to put the Reds 2-0 ahead inside 33 minutes.

"We've got our memorial on Wednesday and obviously it is the 20 year anniversary," Carragher said. "Whenever it is around that time we play at home.

"The crowd is probably a little bit more up for it and it certainly helps us. That's why we came together before the game. I'm sure it gave the crowd a lift and we got an early goal."