Saturday, May 09, 2009

Premier League Preview: West Ham United vs. Liverpool

Having looked early doors like they were in for another season near the foot of the table, West Ham United have evolved into one of the more difficult teams to beat in the Premier League. Under the guidance of Gianfranco Zola, they have risen to seventh in the standings, a point ahead of Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham in the race for a Europa League place.

However, the Hammers have lost on two of their last four outings and have scored more than one goal in only one of their last 12 games. On the upside, last weekend's win at Stoke City has boosted their continental ambitions, and they have conceded only five goals in their last nine games.

The Irons will have to be on top of their game to keep out a rampant Liverpool side who has been finding the net for fun of late. And while the Londoners downed the Reds in the corresponding fixture last season, and kept them goalless at Anfield this term, Zola knows his side will be up against it this weekend.

The Italian said on Thursday, "In my opinion they are a team you'd rather play at their home than away as if you look at their record away it must be one of the best in the Premier League. So it is a really tough match for us but my players are determined to beat one of the really top sides."

Indeed, Liverpool's record on the road this season is second only to Chelsea's, as they have won 11, drawn four and lost two - their only defeats of the campaign thus far, somewhat ironically. Rafael Benitez's men have triumphed in seven of eight league games since their shock loss at Middlesbrough, a run which has seen them storm back into title contention.

The Merseyside giants sit three points adrift of Manchester United, the league leaders, and must win all of their remaining three games to have a realistic chance of winning their first championship since 1990. Victory at Upton Park will put them top of the table, with Sunday's Mancunian derby to determine whether they stay there.

Although they haven't won in their last two meetings with West Ham, they bring brilliant form into this clash. They could easily have ended up with seven or eight goals against Newcastle United last weekend, and their determination to hang in the title race until the bitter end is palpable.

Steven Gerrard said this week, "I honestly believe that this team will win the Premier League. I believe I'll get my hands on it. If I said, 'I don't think we're going to win it', what would be the point of carrying on?"


West Ham United

May 02 Stoke City 0-1 West Ham
Apr 25 West Ham 0-1 Chelsea
Apr 18 Aston Villa 1-1 West Ham
Apr 11 Tottenham 1-0 West Ham
Apr 04 West Ham 2-0 Sunderland


May 03 Liverpool 3-0 Newcastle
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


West Ham United

Star striker Carlton Cole is expected to remain on the sidelines as he nears a return from groin trouble; Scott Parker is likewise afflicted, while James Collins and Kieron Dyer have calf and hamstring problems respectively.

Savio Nsereko should make the matchday squad after shaking of an illness, while Jack Collison is also in the mix after a spell out with a knee injury. Dean Ashton, Valon Berhami and Danny Gabbidon are all out for the season.

Probable XI: Green - Neill, Upson, Tomkins, Ilunga - Collison, Kovac, Noble, Stanislas - Tristan, Di Michele


Fernando Torres will reclaim his starting spot after missing the Newcastle game with a reoccurrence of his hamstring problem, and Javier Mascherano has overcome a minor niggle.

Xabi Alonso might not be so lucky, though. The Basque was mowed down by Joey Barton last weekend and will have a late fitness test on his foot, with Lucas Leiva on standby.

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


West Ham United

The Irons were forced to work hard to hold off Stoke, with goalkeeper Robert Green and centre-back Matthew Upson putting in very solid shifts. The pair will have to be on their toes again this weekend against the Reds' in-form attack.


Who else but Steven Gerrard? The skipper is enjoying another fine season and has once again broken the 20-goal mark in all competitions. Will be eager to find the net in London after somehow failing to score against Newcastle last weekend.

Liverpool Are Manchester United's Closest Rivals In Premier League

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes that his team provides the greatest threat to Manchester United's dominance of the Premier League.

The Reds, who are second in the table at present, could yet win the title this season, although they are three points behind the Red Devils, who have a game in hand to boot.

Whether or not the Merseyside outfit does win their first championship for 19 years, the Spanish tactician feels that the 2008-09 campaign has seen their emergence as prime contenders for England's top trophy.

Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League last season, and the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea have been ahead of them in the running for the title in recent seasons.

However, Benitez is certain that the Reds have finally announced themselves as genuine contenders and is confident they will be there for years to come.

"There is stability about us now and the fact that the manager is staying is another positive message," Benitez is quoted as saying by The Daily Mail.

"I feel it is fair to say that we are now best equipped to challenge United.

"We are better placed than the others and I have confidence we can still pip United for the league this season.

"Even if we just fall short, the experience of going so close is going to be fantastic for the players and staff. Next season they will be going into games determined not to drop a single point.

"It will be a different mentality, a title winning one, and it will keep us up at the top. United can be sure this season was no one-off."

Martin Skrtel Still Harbours Liverpool Title Dreams

Liverpool's Slovakian centre-back Martin Skrtel is echoing the attitude of many of his Reds team-mates to this season's title race, which most observers have already awarded to Manchester United, in that he believes winning the Premier League is still an overt possibility for his side.

"In football, especially in England, any team can cause a surprise so, when you are not 100 per cent concentrated on your opponent, slip-ups can happen," he told Sky Sports News.

"Hopefully, it happens to United because we are only thinking about us.

"We have got back into the race and have managed to place some pressure on Manchester United at the top of the Premier League table.

"United are still the favourites - they are at the top of the table so they should be. But we have been able to get ourselves into a position where we can take advantage if they have more slip-ups.

"There are only a few games remaining and they have the advantage but we must make sure that we are winning our games in case they make a mistake."

Liverpool travel to east London to take on West Ham United this weekend, and Hammers manager Gianfranco Zola has asserted that his men will be targeting the Reds as they look to claim a 'big four' scalp.

Skrtel though assured supporters that the Merseysiders would be well motivated for a game in which a win would keep their season alive.

"We are playing well at the moment because we are working hard every day in training, we have good players, a very good manager, and we have belief in ourselves," he explained.

"We have made our own luck in games and taken an advantage from that."

Negredo Wary Of Anfield Switch

Almeria striker Alvaro Negredo has poured cold water on a possible move to Liverpool amid fears he may not be able to hold down a place in the side.

The forward, who is reportedly a summer target for Anfield boss Rafa Benitez, has been in devastating form in Spain, netting 19 La Liga goals, and is widely expected to be on the move in the summer.

The striker admits his preference would be to return to the Bernabeu where he spent two seasons from 2005, while Valencia are also thought to be keen on the 23-year-old.

But after leaving Madrid in order to get regular football, he is determined not to move to a club where he will again be left on the bench.

"My first option is Madrid," said Negredo.

"If I'm going to be the fifth striker at Madrid, the option of returning will be ruled out. I have to think long and hard because my future depends on this. What I want to do now is to play, to have minutes.

"If I'm going to go to Liverpool and they make another signing, on top of Fernando Torres and the current strikers they have, it's perhaps not best for me to go there," Negredo told radio station Cadena Ser.

Liverpool's Title Challenge Will Help Attract Players

Rafael Benitez believes Liverpool are only “one or two” top-class players away from a championship-winning side.

And the Anfield manager is convinced his team’s prolonged title challenge this season will make it easier to snap up his summer transfer targets.

While still harbouring hopes of overhauling Manchester United in the race for this season’s Premier League crown, Benitez is already planning for the new campaign.

The Spaniard is expected to be handed at least £20million by the Anfield board but has already conceded he must sell players to facilitate the required big-money transfers.

Although the pursuit of Valencia forward David Silva has momentarily stalled, Benitez is tracking a number of other high-profile targets.

And confident the spine of his side is already in place and bolstered by a crop of promising youngsters, the Anfield manager reckons his squad now requires just a touch of fine-tuning.

“The spine of the team is there,” said Benitez, whose team travel to West Ham United this evening. “We have very good players in the spine and that’s often the most important thing.

“We can improve a little bit in certain areas, but overall we don’t need to change a lot of players.

“When we first came here, we had to improve a lot and we often didn’t have the money or the options to bring all the players we wanted and we weren’t quite there.

“Now, everybody knows we are so close that if we want to bring a top-class player it will be easier. We can say ‘come to Liverpool as you will win trophies in the future’ and I think these players will come.

“We have some young players improving, and if they improve maybe we don’t need to bring anyone in. But clearly we need to bring in some quality players to take us a step forward.

“If we can keep the consistency of this year, then one or two players could make a massive difference. If we can keep Gerrard and Torres fit for most of the season, which will make a difference also.”

Benitez also expects young players such as David Ngog and Lucas Leiva to feature more prominently next season.

“Every year we try to improve the squad,” he said. “This squad now is much better than in the first year, so it makes it more difficult to improve.

“For example, we have Ngog who is a young player, has quality and talent, and if he keeps progressing then maybe he can be a solution in attack. But you never know, you can’t rush young players and their development, so maybe you have to bring other players in.”

And while mindful of the Champions League quota for homegrown players, Benitez believes quality and not nationality will again be the priority during the transfer window.

“We had the same problem this year,” he said. “We have two local players (Gerrard and Carragher) and we have youngsters Darby, Spearing, Kelly and Irwin, so we had young players we maybe didn’t use that much in the Champions League.

“Both the fans and the staff want good English players, but mainly good players. So if the good players are English, that is better.”

Both Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano are available for this evening’s visit to Upton Park, although Xabi Alonso misses out as he continues to nurse the ankle injury sustained in the red-card challenge by Newcastle United’s Joey Barton last Sunday.

However, the Spaniard is expected to be fit for next week’s trip to West Bromwich Albion.

Rafael Benitez And Fernando Torres Hail Yossi Benayoun

Liverpool's Premier League title dream may or may not be fulfilled, but the fact that Rafael Benitez's side have hope at all is down in no small part to Yossi Benayoun.

The slender schemer's Anfield arrival was barely noted, drowned out by the fanfare accompanying Ryan Babel and Fernando Torres.

Unveiled on the same day as the Dutch international, few of the Anfield faithful would have imagined it would be Benayoun who was Benitez's joker in the pack.

Yet the Israel international returns to Upton Park on Saturday to face West Ham, the side he took a 50 per cent pay cut to leave, knowing that none of his more illustrious team-mates have made a more telling contribution in Liverpool's best league season for a decade. His injury-time winner at Fulham was arguably the most important strike in Benitez's side's season.

He is the first name on Torres's notional teamsheet – "I need a player like him with a quality pass, always looking for the striker. I always say to him that if I was manager, he'd always play," according to the Spanish striker – and Benitez is clearly delighted with his impact.

"We knew when we bought him that he was a very good player, but players of his type are normally less consistent than others.

"Yossi is in a positive cycle right now. He is playing well, which means you can keep him on the pitch for longer and that gives him more confidence," he said.

Ironically, though, the six goals since the turn of the year which have made Benayoun the Premier League's most prolific midfielder may have threatened his long-term chance of earning the first-team slot he craves.

Benitez believes Liverpool can use their success this season, whatever happens, as a springboard to become Manchester United's most consistent, regular challengers.

To do so, though, the Anfield manager will no doubt return to the transfer market this summer.

Competition for places more intense than ever, Benayoun may find his path to Benitez's first XI blocked not just by Steven Gerrard, Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt, but also by Valencia winger David Silva and Tottenham's Aaron Lennon.

Rafa's Long-Term Challenge

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez reckons his side are best placed to challenge Manchester United in the future.

The Reds have mounted their first serious challenge for the Premier League title under Benitez with the Anfield outfit currently in second spot, three points behind United.

Benitez believes he now has a squad capable of challenging for the championship and feels a couple of top signings could see Liverpool end their long wait for the Premier League crown.

"The spine of the team is there now," said Benitez.

"We can improve a little bit in certain areas but overall we don't need to change a lot of players.

"Stability is always good for any club and because the squad is better it means you don't need to change too many players - and the manager staying is another important message.

"I think we are better placed than the others for challenging United in the long term."

Benitez is expected to be busy in the transfer market, but the Spaniard thinks he only needs to make minor adjustments to his playing staff.

"Now it will be easier. We can say (to players) 'come to Liverpool as you will win trophies in the future' and I think they will come.

"We need some quality players to take us forward. If we can keep the consistency of this year, then one or two players could make a massive difference."

Lucas A Cut Above As Trim Inspires Improved Liverpool FC Form

In recent weeks Lucas has scored his first ever league goal in front of the Kop, had his name chanted by the Liverpool fans and played a significant role in some of the Reds most notable victories of the season.

His upturn in fortunes is a world away from the night when he was booed onto the pitch as he came on as a substitute against Sunderland during a spell when his struggles for form coincided with a costly sending off in the Merseyside derby and the concession of a points costing penalty against Wigan.

Unlike Samson who lost his strength following the cutting of his hair, the trimming of Lucas’ locks has coincided with things all of a sudden going right for him leading to suggestions that a simple short back and sides may be the secret of his recent success.

“Maybe,” laughs the man himself. “I have scored twice since then so maybe it was a good change for me and I don’t think I will have long hair again.”

Joking apart, the Brazilian is in no doubt about what lies behind his improved form and it has nothing to do with a trip to the barbers.

As far as the former Gremio man is concerned it is a combination of the faith that has been shown in him by his manager and team mates and the hard work that he has put in himself.

He said: “I am happy right now because the players and the coach have helped me a lot and now I just have to keep on going and hopefully next season will be even better for us than this one.

“The goal I scored against Newcastle is one way of repaying the faith that the manager has had in me because he has always showed his confidence in me.

“Even when I don’t start games I usually get to come on and play some minutes and now it is up to me to show that I have the quality to be part of this team.

“I know not everyone trusts in me but I cannot afford to worry about that – the most important thing is the team and the staff are happy with me and hopefully soon I will be able to show my real quality.”

Lucas’ headed goal against Newcastle was a special moment for him.

Firstly because it marked the end of a wait of almost two years for his debut Premier League strike.

But also because it was a moment when the 22-year-old delivered something tangible on behalf of the team as he guaranteed a victory which may not have been in doubt but still needed rubber stamping.

Now he is hoping to be able to keep on delivering whenever the opportunity presents itself, particularly with Liverpool today going in search of the three points which will allow them to keep up the pressure on title favourites Manchester United.

“My first league goal was a very special moment for me and it made me really, really happy, especially as it came in front of the Kop,” said Lucas.

“The most important thing though was that the goal helped the team.

“I was only on the pitch for 15 minutes but whenever you come off the bench you have to try and do something that helps the team and I am happy that I was able to do this against Newcastle.

“I have been waiting for this goal for a long, long time because although I have scored in other competitions I hadn’t scored in the league before this one.

“I am trying to improve every day and I am feeling much better now.

“Unfortunately, we are coming towards the end of the season right now but there is still a lot to play for and we must all give everything that we possibly can in the three games that we have left, starting with the game against West Ham.

“We keep on saying that we hope Man United will drop some points but that hasn’t happened up to now.

“But this doesn’t mean that it will not happen because strange things can happen in football, all we can do is keep on winning our own games and then we will see what happens.”

One thing which Rafa Benitez has continually been at pains to point out is Lucas’ relative youth in comparison with those whom he competes with for a place in Liverpool’s starting lineup.

As far as the Reds boss is concerned, the Brazilian international has both the time on his side and the necessary talent to make his own name at Anfield and Lucas is in full agreement.

He added: “It’s really difficult but it is good because when you are fighting for places with players like Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard it means that you always have to do everything you can to try and improve because if you don’t improve then it will be impossible to play.

“This is what I am trying to do now in every single training session and whenever a chance comes my way I try to take it.

“I am learning but I think that I can be an important player for Liverpool. Steven is almost 29, Alonso is almost 28. Mascherano is almost 25 and I am 22.

“So I am young and I have to enjoy this time when I can train with them, play with them and learn from them and hopefully in one or two years time I will be a key player like them.

“But for now I want to give everything for the team because if we can win against West Ham then it could turn out to be a very important result for us.”

Xabi Alonso Is A Marked Man

Rafa Benitez today claimed Xabi Alonso’s quality is making him a marked man for Liverpool’s Premier League opponents – as the Reds boss prepares to do without the services of his midfield playmaker at West Ham.

An ankle injury has forced Alonso out of Liverpool’s clash with the Hammers this evening, meaning the Reds boss will have to make at least one enforced change to his starting lineup.

The Spanish midfielder has failed to recover from the knock picked up following a dangerous lunge by Newcastle’s Joey Barton last weekend.

Though Benitez has refused to publicly criticise Barton for the challenge he believes the fact that the Newcastle man became the sixth player this season to be sent off for a foul on Alonso suggests a pattern is clearly emerging.

“I think it is because he is a holding midfielder with quality and all the other teams know that if they push him and put him under pressure it will be more difficult for us,” said Benitez.

“That is the only reason for me. It is not because he is aggressive or has bad behaviour on the pitch or anything like that.

“It’s just because he has quality.

In the absence of Alonso, Lucas Leiva is set to return to Liverpool’s starting line up alongside Javier Mascherano who has recovered from a twisted ankle.

Fernando Torres has been passed fit to rejoin the Reds squad after missing the 3-0 win over Newcastle with a tight hamstring and is expected to start the game.

Benitez has told his players that they must grasp the opportunity to take all three points and return to the top of the Premier League and crank up the pressure on title rivals Man United who do not play until tomorrow when they face Man City.

He said: “I think everyone knows now that it is very close at the top of the league but that it will be very tough for us to finish top.

“But all we can do is do our job, enjoy the moment if we are in a good position in the league and keep on going because it is the only way.

“We have to get three points and then wait. We are doing the right things because we are winning our games and I think that every single week is an opportunity for us.

“We have to do our job and then we will see what happens.

“It could be a difficult game for United this weekend because it is a derby and anything can happen but we also know that United are a good team with good players.

“Like I said, all we can do is win our game and if we can go top at this stage of the season that would be very positive. Then afterwards we will see.”

Jamie Carragher Prepares For Liverpool Life Without Sami Hyypia

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher is already turning his mind towards next season and the absence of a man who has almost become part of the furniture at Anfield - Sami Hyypia.

The Finnish international centre-back, a man who, much like Carragher, has come to symbolise something of the indomitable spirit at the club, is leaving Merseyside for the Bundesliga, and will be joining Bayer Leverkusen on a two-year deal in the summer.
Carragher acknowledges that his absence will leave a void at the club that goes beyond the mere absence of the Finn's name from the team-sheet.

"It will be strange because although you come back to pre-season every year knowing that you will probably see one or two new faces and a couple will have left you just expect to see Sami there," the former England defender told The Liverpool Echo.

"He’s usually at the front when we’re running because he’s such a good trainer and such a good professional so it will take some getting used to.

"I suppose in a way we’ve all known that this day wouldn’t be too far off because Sami hasn’t been playing as much as he would like and he still feels that he has a lot to offer in terms of playing regular first team football.

"But it still hit me when I heard that he will be leaving in the summer because, like I said, he’s just someone who you always expect to be around."

Carragher also believes that Hyypia is one of the best foreign players to ever grace the Premier League, and has often not been granted the acclaim he deserves due to him playing as a defender.

"When you take into account his transfer fee (Hyypia cost a bargain £2.5m when signed from Willem II in 1999) you’d have to say that pound for pound he is one of the club’s greatest ever signings.

"I’ve always said the fact that Sami plays in defence has meant that he hasn’t always been given the credit he deserves. The likes of Zola, Henry and Bergkamp spring to mind straight away and quite rightly so because everyone knows how well they were when they played in this country.

"But for me Sami has to be mentioned alongside them because he has performed so well at the top level for such a long time. He is definitely one of the best foreign players the Premier League has seen and he is arguably Liverpool’s best ever foreign signing, although I’m sure Fernando Torres will make a claim for that title in the years to come."

And Hyypia's defensive partner for so many of their years at Anfield felt that only one word could do his team-mate proper justice.

"I don’t think you could use any other word for Sami other than legend," he concluded.