Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Arsenal

For the first time in the best part of two decades, Liverpool are seriously contending for the league title heading into the final few weeks of the season. Manchester United are but a solitary point ahead (albeit with a game in hand), Chelsea are three points behind, and Reds fans the world over are hanging on every minute of their side's every league fixture.

What's more, there is now nothing else to distract them from their goal, as this is their only remaining chance of collecting silverware this term.

Last Wednesday, Rafael Benitez's men headed to Stamford Bridge hoping to overturn a 3-1 deficit in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. What ensued will go down as one of the most entertaining encounters in the history of European football, but the 4-4 scoreline saw the Blues advance and the Reds - for the first time since 2006 - fail to reach the last four.

While some supporters will be miffed that Liverpool's status as the kings of Europe is under threat, the vast majority may be quietly thankful that Benitez has no other competitions to concentrate on. There can be no question now as to what is the club's top priority - for even though the Spanish tactician has often declared that the Premier League is his main concern, his team selections either side of certain cup ties have perhaps indicated otherwise.

Tuesday's game is, on paper, the toughest in the Merseysiders' run home. And although they are in red-hot form on the domestic scene (five wins on the trot, tallying 16 goals in the process), their opponents are in pretty decent touch themselves - weekend activities aside.

Arsenal have also won their last five Premier League games; and they too have racked up 16 goals in that stretch. And even though they did what Liverpool couldn't by booking a spot in the Champions League semi-finals, they too failed to contain Didier Drogba and so were downed by Guus Hiddink's Pensioners in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Arsene Wenger may have had some harsh words to say about the Wembley pitch afterwards (sentiments seconded by Sir Alex Ferguson following Everton's penalty shoot-out win on Sunday), but he refused to play the blame game and instead vowed that his Gunners would rebound instantly and fiercely.

"The season is not petering out. We are in the last four in Europe, we have just played in the semi-final of the FA Cup and we still have to get as close as possible in the Premier League," the French manager said.

"We dropped out of things last season but I believe we have shown we are mentally strong in adversity this season. Now we have a good opportunity to show it."

Sitting some ten points behind league leaders Man United after 32 games, Arsenal cannot hope to claim domestic honours this term. However, with third spot - and a direct route to next season's Champions League - still within reach, they won't go soft on Rafa's Reds as they look to maintain their unbeaten league record against the rest of the 'Big Four'.



Apr 14 Chelsea 4-4 Liverpool (Champions League)
Apr 11 Liverpool 4-0 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)
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)


Apr 18 Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea (FA Cup)
Apr 15 Arsenal 3-0 Villarreal (Champions League)
Apr 11 Wigan Athletic 1-4 Arsenal (Premier League)
Apr 07 Villarreal 1-1 Arsenal (Champions League)
Apr 04 Arsenal 2-0 Manchester City (Premier League)



Steven Gerrard has missed the Reds' last two outings with a groin problem and remains sidelined for this clash, meaning Lucas Leiva should retain his starting place in midfield.

Otherwise, Benitez has more or less a full squad to choose from. Daniel Agger could replace the somewhat out-of-sorts Martin Skrtel, but there shouldn't be too many changes from the side that scored four - and shipped as many - at the Bridge.

Probable XI: Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio - Mascherano, Alonso - Kuyt, Lucas, Riera - Torres


Strike duo Robin van Persie (groin) and Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring) will both sit out, paving the way for Eduardo da Silva and Nicklas Bendtner to lead the line.

Gael Clichy has a back problem, while William Gallas and Johan Djourou are both nursing knee injuries. Lukasz Fabianski will stand in once more goalkeeper Manuel Almunia (ankle), and Bacary Sagna could reclaim his place at right-back after a spell in the infirmary with a virus.

Probable XI: Fabiaski - Eboue, Toure, Silvestre, Gibbs - Walcott, Song, Fabregas, Arshavin - Bendtner, Eduardo



With Captain Fantastic out, it will be up to Xabi Alonso and Lucas Leiva to make sure the Scouse superstar is not too sorely missed. The former has been in imperious form this season (as noticed by Real Madrid), while the latter is still yet to win over the Kop.


Since returning from a long-term knee injury (sustained against Liverpool, funnily enough), Cesc Fabregas has reminded everyone that he just might be the best young midfielder in world football. He was in fine fettle as the Londoners sank Villarreal last week, and he had plenty of help from the electric Theo Walcott.

Lee - Bring Back Dalglish

Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee believes Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish's return to the club would be a 'great addition'.

Former Reds player and boss Dalglish has long been linked with a move back to Merseyside, with the Scot linked with a role in the club's hierarchy.

However, recent speculation has suggested that the ex-Blackburn and Newcastle chief could be offered a position involved with youth development.

And Lee, who played with Kop idol Dalglish during Liverpool's glory years in the 1970s and 1980s, would welcome the move.

"Kenny has had a development on this football club over the years and if there is a future involvement it can only be good for the club," he said.

"For me he has never really been away. He is hanging around everywhere, he's always watching games and is terrific to have around.

"The impact would be very positive. He is a terrific character, he has terrific knowledge and I think he can only be a great addition to what is already a very good staff.

"I'm sure everyone would welcome it, not least me as he has a worse accent than me!"

Riera - Reds Must Stop Fabregas

Albert Riera is confident Liverpool can keep a lid on Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas in Tuesday's crucial Premier League clash.

The Reds welcome the Gunners to Anfield with eyes on top spot in the table as they bid to end a 19-year wait for a league title.

And Riera is confident Liverpool can overtake rivals Manchester United, who host Portsmouth on Wednesday, by stopping Fabregas and collecting three points against Arsenal.

Gunners skipper Fabregas was rendered ineffective in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea after being expertly marshalled by Michael Ballack.

And Riera, who plays with Fabregas for Spain, has revealed that Rafa Benitez is equally keen to nullify the midfielder, saying: "The main Arsenal danger is through Cesc.

"But we know his style of game and believe we can stop him. And if Cesc is not comfortable they cannot play their best game.

"Our objective is clear - to win all our matches and to leap on any slip-ups by Manchester United.

"They will be playing under much more pressure in the next few weeks."

Martin Skrtel: Champions League Exit Can Inspire Liverpool To Premier League Success

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel says the pain suffered after during the Champions League quarter final defeat to Chelsea can drive them forward in their quest to lift the Premier League trophy this season.

As it stands, sitting one point behind leaders Manchester United, who also have a game in hand, means that winning the league is out of their hands should the Red Devils win their seven remaining fixtures.

However, the 24-year-old Slovakia international is calling on his team-mates to make sure they are in a position to take advantage should United stumble by winning their last six league games, starting with Arsenal at Anfield on Tuesday evening.

"Every player wanted to win so badly," Skrtel told the club's official website when asked about their defeat in the Champions League.

"And it hurts that we didn't but we can turn this pain into something positive by remembering how we felt at the end of the game and trying to make sure that we do not feel this way in any other games this season.

"I still feel that we have a good chance in the Premier League because we are in good form right now and even though we lost against Chelsea we still showed our winning mentality and our desire.

"If we keep showing these same qualities then the season could still end really well for us.

"The important thing now is just to look forward because there is still a lot for us to play for this season."

Rafa Targets Six Wins Out Of Six

Rafa Benitez has challenged Liverpool to win all their remaining games in their bid for title glory.

The Reds are just a point behind Manchester United at the top having played a game more.

And they can return to the summit, for 24 hours at least, if they overcome an injury-hit Arsenal at Anfield tonight.

Benitez though is already looking at the rest of the run-in facing his side, and knows they could need maximum points to pip United to the title.

"For us the important thing is to do our job, to prepare properly for every game and look to take three points from each of them," he told Liverpool's official website.

"If we do that and then still can't win the league then there's nothing else we can do. It still depends on United, but we have to keep the pressure on them. If we win tonight then we go back to the top and put them under more pressure for tomorrow night.

"Hopefully the other teams around us are distracted by the Champions League. When you are playing in two massive competitions it can be difficult and so we have to be ready if other teams make a mistake."

Liverpool have had a week to rest since that heartbreaking Champions League exit at the hands of Chelsea.

But Benitez says his team have recovered well both mentally and physically from their breathless 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge, which saw them eliminated 7-5 on aggregate.

"When you lose games it can be difficult but the way we lost it wasn't too bad. We played well, scored four goals at Stamford Bridge and so I am sure our confidence hasn't been affected.

"The players have trained really well and yesterday's session was fantastic. The atmosphere among them is really good and I feel we are in a good moment."

Benitez Prays For United And Chelsea Stumble As Liverpool Target Title Surge

Rafa Benitez hopes title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea will be distracted by the Champions League as Liverpool chase their first Barclays Premier League crown.

The Reds were knocked out of Europe last week after a thrilling tie against Chelsea, leaving Benitez to focus solely on ending their 19-year title drought.

'Hopefully the other teams around us are distracted by the Champions League,' he said. 'When you are playing in two massive competitions it can be difficult and so we have to be ready if other teams make a mistake.

'For us the important thing is to do our job, to prepare properly for every game and look to take three points from each of them. If we do that and then still can't win the league then there's nothing else we can do.'

Although Liverpool's fate is out of their hands, Benitez has called on his players to pile the pressure on United by beating Arsenal at Anfield tonight.

'It still depends on United, but we have to keep the pressure on them,' he added. 'If we win tonight then we go back to the top and put them under more pressure for tomorrow night.'

Unlike their title rivals and tonight's opponents, Liverpool were not involved at the weekend and have had a week's break to prepare for the visit of Arsenal.

'We've had a full week to prepare for Arsenal which has been good because we have been able to look at all of the small details, which I always like to do,' said Benitez.

'The players have trained really well and yesterday's session was fantastic. The atmosphere among them is really good and I feel we are in a good moment.

'It will be hard for Arsenal to lose fourth place in the table now so I think their main emphasis will be on the Champions League. They still have to play all of the top three so it would be a good message if we can beat them tonight.

'They are a team who always look to play football so I'm not expecting them to defend. They will try to play against us, but if we can play at our level, with a high tempo, and look to get at them from the first whistle then I am sure we can beat them.'

Liverpool Line Up Swoop For Roque Santa Cruz

Rafa Benitez is eyeing up Blackburn’s in-demand striker Roque Santa Cruz.

Liverpool boss Benitez, given a huge £30m transfer kitty this summer, could be ready to rival Manchester City for the Paraguayan centre forward.

Benitez is keeping close tabs on Santa Cruz, 27, to strengthen his strike force and to work as a possible foil for Fernando Torres.

City bid £20m for Santa Cruz in the summer and manager Mark Hughes wants him - but the Eastlands boss is under huge pressure himself.

Liverpool have been scouting and reporting to Benitez on Santa Cruz who would prefer Champions League football to what City could offer him as Blackburn prepare to launch a big money auction this summer.

Benitez has already targeted Valencia’s David Silva as a big-money buy but Santa Cruz is on his radar in what would be a major shock but shows the level of Liverpool’s ambition.

Liverpool Youngster To Extend Loan Deal With Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town boss Lee Clark recently reiterated his intent to retain the services of on-loan Liverpool centre-back Martin Kelly.

The 20-year-old is reportedly enjoying his time with the club, something that Clark wishes to take full advantage of.

"I've spoken to Martin. He's enjoying his time here and would have no qualms about returning to us next season. I've explained where we want to be and how we want to go and he'd like to be a part of it," Clark revealed to the Huddersfield Daily Examiner.

"The wheels are already in motion. We have made it known that we'd like him on a season-long loan next season.

"Obviously Liverpool and Rafael Benitez have got other things on their minds between now and the end of the season, but they will have meetings about what they want to do with their young players next term."

Liverpool's Hugh McAuley Won’t Take Things For Granted

Liverpool continue to concentrate their efforts on the FA Youth Cup this week, with FA Premier Academy League fixtures on hold.

Hugh McAuley’s side look almost assured of a place in the FA Youth Cup final for the third time in four seasons after their excellent 3-0 victory over Birmingham City at St Andrews last Thursday.

The scheduled league fixture against Sunderland was postponed and Liverpool will have to fit in their final four games around a possible Youth Cup final appearance. If they do progress they will face either Arsenal or Manchester City, with the Gunners leading 2-1 ahead of tomorrow’s second leg at the Emirates Stadium.

Liverpool will be following that contest closely, although they will not be taking anything for granted ahead of the semi-final second leg with Birmingham at Anfield this Friday (kick-off 7.45pm).

McAuley said: “It was a great result, but it is only half-time. We need to make sure we don’t take anything for granted. Prepare properly and approach the game in the right manner. We need to finish the job and if we do that then we can look forward.”

Mark Lawrenson: Why Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez Must Keep His Mouth Shut

I for once was quite pleased to see Sammy Lee emerge for Liverpool’s Press conference yesterday.

Mainly because the absence of Rafael Benitez ensures he won’t get drawn into any further into the war of words with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Benitez knew the score yesterday. He knew that he would be pressed into a response to the Manchester United manager’s latest verbal volley towards him.

And if recent form was anything to go by, he would probably have found it very difficult to bite his tongue.

And then Fergie gets the evidence he is craving that he is getting to his title rival and Benitez gets more stick for having a go back.

It’s a never-ending cycle and after a while it all gets a bit too ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ for my liking.

So the Spaniard was wise to stay away on this occasion.

But when he does next appear in front of the media, the stance must remain. Say nothing.

The best thing to do is to let Ferguson say or do whatever he wants. He always does anyway.

The best reply is to just concentrate on getting the results that continue to put pressure on him.

Which brings us to Arsenal tonight. A win is essential and I draw parallels with the home game against Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Liverpool have to control the tempo of the game and make their opponents hurry.

Give Arsenal time on the ball and they have the players to hurt you and take the sting out of the game.

But get in amongst them and quicken the pace up and then a Real-style collapse could be on the cards.

Rafael Benitez's Silence Speaks Volumes

Rafael Benítez’s absence from one of the most eagerly awaited press conferences of the season yesterday was put down to “business meetings” to attend to, but the Liverpool manager’s no-show in itself spoke a thousand words.

It was a warning to Sir Alex Ferguson, his Manchester United counterpart, that, as far as Benítez is concerned, the time for talking has stopped.

Ferguson may have accused Benítez of being contemptuous, arrogant and lacking in humility last week, but by refusing to rise to the United manager’s goading, the Spaniard played a blinder and he can only hope that his players do the same against Arsenal at Anfield this evening.

It is perhaps the ultimate irony that Benítez said more by saying nothing than either he or Ferguson have managed in their increasingly venomous war of words, one that has provided a riveting if rather childish sideshow to a title run-in that has gone from a procession to an enthralling nip-and-tuck race in a matter of weeks.

For the third week running, Liverpool will have the opportunity to leapfrog United at the top of the table should they defeat Arsenal and to listen to Sammy Lee, who filled the breach in Benítez’s absence yesterday, there is the conviction that they can pull off one of the great comebacks and deny United the title that would draw the league leaders level with the Merseyside club’s record haul of 18 championships.

“When I look at the players, I see belief,” Lee, Benítez’s assistant, said. “Belief and, in that, determination and a will and desire to go on and be the best they can be.

“That is not making any false or silly promises. They have done it all season and hopefully they will continue to do that over the last six games.”

Steven Gerrard, the captain, will be missing again because of his troublesome groin strain, but even in the absence of their talisman, it is easy to see why Liverpool are infused with self-belief.

They have scored 25 goals in their past nine matches, compared with only ten in the nine games before that, and rather than be dismayed by their elimination from the Champions League last week, have actually taken great heart from the manner of their performance in the scintillating 4-4 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Ferguson was at it again yesterday, reacting to rumours that Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, may field a weakened team against Liverpool by saying “no matter what team he puts out, they will always try because Arsène is a winner”, but Lee and Liverpool appear unconcerned by anything that the United manager has to say.

That said, Lee refuted Ferguson’s claims that Benítez was arrogant by describing the Liverpool manager as “driven, astute, learned and educated” and expressed surprise that Sam Allardyce, the Blackburn Rovers manager with whom he worked at Bolton Wanderers, had not conveyed his dismay about Benítez’s controversial “cut” gesture immediately after his side’s 4-0 defeat at Anfield.

“I was certainly surprised because we sat together after the match and he said nothing about it,” Lee said. “If he felt that strongly I thought he would have said something to me because we have a good working relationship. I am not getting involved in a slanging match with Sir Alex, but we know what our gestures are meant for — they are meant for our players and affecting what we do.”