Sunday, May 03, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Newcastle United

Liverpool enter game-week 35 of the Premier League sitting just three points off the top, although leaders Manchester United - who play Middlesbrough on Saturday - hold a game in hand. Nevertheless, the fact they are in with a shout as the season approaches its climax is a mini-triumph in itself for the Scousers.

With no cup competitions to fall back on, it is make or break for Rafael Benitez and his men as they plump for their first piece of silverware since 2006. They must win every remaining game and hope that their arch nemeses from up the East Lancs Road stumble down the straight.

Thus, anything less than three points against Newcastle United will all but end the Reds' campaign. However, given what occurred when these two teams last met, the home side will feel fairly confident of doing the job on Sunday afternoon.

For it was at St. James' Park in their last fixture of 2008 that 'Pool announced themselves as title contenders with a 5-1 demolition of their hosts. Such a result this weekend is not only possible, but downright likely, given the Merseysiders' tally of 23 goals in their last seven league games.

After a scrappy 3-1 victory at Hull City last time out, the 18-time English champions will hope to return to their fluent, fearful best as they meet a team fighting for their life in the top flight.

Its panic stations at Newcastle. With four games left this term, they sit three points shy of the safety zone in 18th place. They have not won in the league since early February, when they downed West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at the Hawthorns.

Last Monday's home clash against Portsmouth marked a golden opportunity to make up some ground on their fellow strugglers. However, the Magpies could only manage a goalless draw, much to the frustration of the 40,000-odd fans in attendance.

The north east club have picked up just two points since Alan Shearer took over as interim boss at the start of April. It will take something of a miracle for them to add to that tally when they visit Anfield this weekend - especially when you take a gander at the stats sheet.

Not only do Newcastle come up against arguably the form side in England at the moment, but they do so having managed just two away wins this term. Furthermore, they have won just once at Liverpool in the Premier League era - 15 years ago - and they haven't scored a single goal there since Patrick Kluivert netted in a 3-1 defeat back in 2004.

So the odds are stacked firmly against Shearer and his Toon Army, whose plight is made all the more perilous by a series of absentees, most notably in their already frail rearguard.



Apr 25 Hull City 1-3 Liverpool
Apr 21 Liverpool 4-4 Arsenal
Apr 14 Chelsea 4-4 Liverpool (Champions League)
Apr 11 Liverpool 4-0 Blackburn
Apr 08 Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea (Champions League)

Newcastle United

Apr 27 Newcastle 0-0 Portsmouth
Apr 19 Tottenham 1-0 Newcastle
Apr 11 Stoke City 1-1 Newcastle
Apr 04 Newcastle 0-2 Chelsea
Mar 21 Newcastle 1-3 Arsenal



The big news for the Reds is that Steven Gerrard should start, having missed the last four games with a groin problem. Lucas Leiva is expected to make way for the captain, who will slot in behind Fernando Torres in attack.

Benitez faces something of a selection dilemma on the left flank. Yossi Benayoun's impressive form could see Albert Riera remain on the bench. Either Fabio Aurelio or the young Emiliano Insua could get the nod at left-back.

Probable XI: Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun; Torres

Newcastle United

As if it couldn't get any worse for the Magpies, injuries to Steven Taylor and Jose Enrique now leave them stretched wafer-thin in defence. Hence, Damien Duff could be forced to play as an auxiliary left-back, while the last centre-halves standing are Sebastien Bassong and Fabricio Coloccini.

On the bright side, midfield bad-boy Joey Barton could return to the starting XI. Mystery shrouds Kevin Nolan and Ryan Taylor, both of whom were completely overlooked for the Pompey game; it is unknown if they earn a reprieve.

Probable XI: Harper; Beye, Coloccini, Bassong, Duff; Butt, Barton, Guthrie; Owen, Viduka, Martins



When the Reds ran riot on Tyneside earlier in the season, it was Steven Gerrard who did the vast majority of the damage. The skipper has returned from injury just in time to dish out some more punishment to the Geordies as he goes in search of a maiden Premier League medal.

Newcastle United

All eyes will be on Michael Owen as he returns to play in front of the Kop once more, but the Reds' rearguard should also mind Mark Viduka. The Australian, recently returned from injury, was pivotal in Newcastle's survival run last term and will take some of the pressure off his beleaguered captain.

Liverpool Lose Fernando Torres For Newcastle Clash

According to the News of the World, Liverpool will be without their superstar striker, Fernando Torres, when they host Newcastle United on Sunday afternoon.

The tabloid's Anfield expert, Chris Bascombe, claims that the Spaniard has suffered a recurrence of the hamstring injury that has troubled him throughout the campaign.

While the problem is only minor, it is understood that Reds boss Rafael Benitez has decided to wrap his compatriot in cotton wool ahead of the Toon's visit to Merseyside.

If proven true, this news will be a huge blow for the club, who may now have to wait another week to partner Torres and the returning Steven Gerrard in attack.

Liverpool need all three points against Newcastle if they are to keep in touch with Manchester United, who beat Middlesbrough on Saturday to skip six points ahead in the Premier League race.

Gerrard Happy He Stayed Put

Steven Gerrard insists he has no regrets about staying at Liverpool and turning down Chelsea.

In 2005 after asking for a move from his beloved Reds, Gerrard was all set to seal a move to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.

But Gerrard later turned his back on Stamford Bridge and he has now helped turn Liverpool into genuine title contenders.

"The reason the whole Chelsea thing came up was down to frustration that we were so far away from the title race," Gerrard told the Daily Telegraph.

"That's why their interest maybe turned my head slightly. But I look back now and I'm really pleased I decided to stay because I am part of a top team here that can be successful.

"It would mean an awful lot more to be successful at Liverpool than it would at any other club.

"Don't get me wrong, I might have won more medals somewhere else but if I was to win the league here, along with a few more cups, that would mean a lot more than winning seven or eight trophies somewhere else. I can share it with my family, with the Liverpool supporters because I've been one of them all my life."

Gerrard admits the pressure of captaining his hometown club is sometimes hard to cope with.

"Yeah, every day I am captain of one of the biggest clubs in the world, where you are expected to win every single game," he continued.

"Sometimes that can get to you. Sometimes after a defeat, sitting on that bus, you feel as if you've got the world on your shoulders. Phone calls are coming in left, right and centre from family and friends who idolise Liverpool Football Club. If you haven't played well or feel slightly responsible for the result it can get on top of you.

"On the other hand, if you get on that bus and you've played well, scored a goal, maybe won a cup final and lifted a trophy above your head, then you're on top of the world. I've had those experiences playing in this team and I wouldn't change them for the world. The pressure is well worth it for moments like that."

Gerrard is confident Liverpool are very close to assembling a side to rival the best.

"People talk about the spine of this team and when you look at it - at people like Pepe Reina, Carra, Xabi and me - we've played together for about four years now," he added. "We know each other's games inside out. The manager, meanwhile, is trying to strengthen other areas of the side. We're very close to having a top team. Very close."

Despite being in the title run-in, Gerrard admits the Liverpool fan in him stops him wanting to see rivals United make the Champions League final.

"It's a difficult one because obviously I want them to be as busy as possible but I don't really want to be saying I want to see them in a European Cup Final," he concluded.

"But I think the next two league games are crucial for us, in maybe getting another chance, because Man U have tough league games either side of their second leg.

"They've got to play Middlesbrough Saturday lunchtime, which might mean Sir Alex Ferguson makes a few changes. And then, after the second leg at the Emirates, I think they've got the derby against City. If they can come through those two games then it's basically all over, but if they make any kind of slip up it does give us hope."

Liverpool Will Not Re-Sign Michael Owen

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has reportedly ruled out a return to Anfield for Michael Owen.

The Newcastle United striker is widely expected to leave St James' Park at the end of the season when his contract expires and he had been linked with a return to his former club.

However, Benitez, who happily brought Robbie Fowler back to the club, insisted he would not be offering the same opportunity to Owen.

"It's different for Michael than Robbie,” he told the Sunday Mirror.

“He knew it was a fantastic opportunity for him to come back to Liverpool after being injured and not playing many games for City.

“It's different with Michael. He's still young, has years to play and is a top striker who wants to play every game.

“For now, I'm happy with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard as our forward players.”

Benitez’s words are likely to disappoint Owen, who is struggling for form in a beleaguered Newcastle side.

The striker is without a goal since January and heads to Anfield today to take on his former club in a must-win game for the Magpies.

Yet, the latest reports suggest that manager Alan Shearer may decide to drop Owen for the clash and he may have to settle for a place on the bench.

Agger - Deal Agreed

Liverpool star Daniel Agger has revealed that he has agreed his new contract at Anfield.

The Danish defender has been closely tracked by Italian club AC Milan, who over the past 12 months had looked like prising him away from Merseyside.

But Reds boss Rafa Benitez has stood firm over his desire to keep the impressive 24-year-old and he revealed earlier this week that a deal was close.

Now Agger has revealed that his contract has been agreed, although he is yet to put pen-to-paper.

"We are close to a new deal. We have agreed about a new contract," Agger told Ekstra Bladet.

"I don't want to talk about the new deal until it is finally signed."

Barry's Liverpool Move Back On If Benitez Can Offload Alonso

Rafa Benitez is prepared to trade in Xabi Alonso for Gareth Barry in a repeat of last season's long-running transfer saga at Liverpool, but will be beaten by Tottenham in the chase for £10 million England defender Glen Johnson.

With Aston Villa's hopes of playing in the Champions League next season virtually over, Barry is determined to get his dream move to Anfield this summer.

To help finance the deal, Benitez has done little to dissuade Italian giants Juventus from pursuing their interest in Alonso. Alonso has been in outstanding form this season but his personal relationship with Benitez remains strained.

'Alonso was not on the market last summer but Juventus came to us, so we had to talk,' said Benitez.

'I think it will be the same situation this year. I don't want to sell him but when there is a window you have to talk to see what price is being considered.'

Barry is adamant he wants to play Champions League football next season as he tries to nail down a place in Fabio Capello's World Cup side and Villa manager Martin O'Neill has accepted his captain will leave unless Villa can pip Arsenal to fourth spot.

The arrival of Barry will soften the blow of losing out on Portsmouth defender Johnson. Benitez would like the full back at Anfield but the London-born player is keen to move back to the capital and link up again with his first manager, Harry Redknapp at Spurs.

Portsmouth will be forced to cash in at the end of the season to ease their financial troubles.

Stewart Downing Waits On Kop

Stewart Downing will hold out for a £12million summer move to Liverpool before deciding his future.

Middlesbrough winger Downing, 24, is back on Rafa Benitez's list of targets as the Kop boss was turned down in his first bid to sign Valencia's David Silva.

Silva remains Benitez's first choice but he also needs to add more English blood to his squad.

Gareth Barry's arrival from Aston Villa looks a formality but Benitez needs more homegrown players to fill UEFA quotas.

That spells bad news for left-winger Albert Riera, who may find himself sacrificed after one year in England.

Riera, 27, who signed from Espanyol last season for £8m, has been a good addition for the Reds - but unspectacular.

Liverpool could sell him back to La Liga for a similar fee to raise funds.

As revealed by Sport of the World last month, Downing has been assured he can leave the Riverside if Boro go down.

He was the subject of a bid from Tottenham in January but his preferred destination is Liverpool.

Rafa Benitez Wields Axe

Rafa Benitez has told Liverpool's academy director Piet Hamberg to quit before this month's FA Youth Cup final.

The Kop boss is launching a ruthless cull of the lower ranks at Anfield and has already warned Hamberg he has no future at the club.

Hamberg, who replaced Steve Heighway in 2007, is now negotiating a pay-off and could be gone by the end of this week.

Benitez has lined up former Liverpool chief scout and ex-Bolton general manager Frank McParland as Hamberg's replacement.

It has been a turbulent time at Liverpool's academy despite the kids reaching the FA Youth Cup final for the third time in four seasons.

Benitez demanded full control of youth affairs under the terms of his new contract. And the Spaniard will oversee wholesale changes this summer.

Dutchman Hamberg gained his football knowledge in a playing career that included a spell at Ajax in the 1980s. Liverpool play Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup final over two legs on May 22 and 25.

Tom Hicks Starts Selling

Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks has started to sell his US sporting assets to protect his stake at Anfield.

Hicks has sold the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, which he owned for 10 years.

The rodeo was worth less than £7million, but the move underlines Hicks' intention to raise funds to meet his massive debts. And he recently stopped making interest payments on a £360m loan related to his Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars sports teams.

Alongside George Gillett, he must also renegotiate the £350m loan with Royal Bank of Scotland and US bank Wachovia, which enabled them to buy Liverpool.

Gillett is in the process of selling his Montreal Canadians Hockey team. If the pair can't pump in more funds, they are vulnerable to having to sell Liverpool for far less than their excessive £500m valuation.

Sport of the World revealed last week how investors from cricket's Indian Premier League are the latest to be courted by Hicks as the chase for cash becomes increasingly desperate.

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez will be hoping any financial uncertainties can be sorted out soon so he can begin preparing for next season.

Javier Mascherano Is Staying At Liverpool FC

Rafa Benitez has insisted Javier Mascherano is not thinking of quitting Anfield despite the midfielder’s surprise admission that he will be considering his future this summer.

The Reds boss also revealed that his midfield general has already rejected overtures from at least one leading club who are looking to prise him away from Anfield.

Mascherano has almost three years remaining on the four year deal he signed in February 2008 and is considered a key member of Benitez’s squad.

But in a television interview aired yesterday the 24-year-old refused to rule out the possibility that he could leave Liverpool in the next transfer window, saying “you never know what is going to happen”.

His manager believes Mascherano’s comments do not show any desire to look for a move and having spoken to the Argentinian midfielder at Melwood yesterday insists he is happy at Anfield.

“I will say two things about this,” said Benitez.

“The first is that he is happy here. He is very happy with the fans, with the club, with the manager and with the city.

“So the conversation that we had was very positive in this respect.

“The second is that he has already said no to some clubs, including a top side, so this clearly shows that he would like to stay.

“But he cannot stop big clubs asking for him because he is a top class player.

“It can be difficult for players to explain these kind of situations because it is normal that you would be proud if clubs are interested in signing you.

“But I think that Mascherano was just trying to be polite in the interview because I have had a conversation with him and he was very clear that he wants to play for us and I do not see a big problem.”

Liverpool & Manchester United To Battle For Tottenham Hotspur's Aaron Lennon

Premier League giants Liverpool and Manchester United will go head to head for the signature of Tottenham Hotspur's Aaron Lennon at the end of the season, according to a report in the British tabloid The Daily Express.

Apparently, the 22-year-old 11-time capped England international winger could fetch as much as £20 million, provided that Spurs are willing to sell.

It is claimed that Liverpool made an unsuccessful approach for his services during the January transfer window and will return with a fresh bid this summer.

However, it is said that the Red Devils are set to rival any bid the Reds may make as manager Alex Ferguson is looking for replacements for 35-year-old Ryan Giggs, and the duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, who he allegedly fears will leave Old Trafford.

It is thought that should Tottenham allow the player to leave White Hart Lane, the 5ft 5in midfielder will opt to join Manchester United.

Since joining the north London outfit from hometown club Leeds United for £1 million in 2005, Lennon has scored 15 goals in 165 appearances in all competitions.