Monday, May 18, 2009

Match Report: West Bromwich 0 - 2 LiverpooL

West Brom's top-flight life was squeezed out of them by a Liverpool side who tightened their grip on second place in the Premier League.

Liverpool scored a goal in each half to extend their unbeaten run to 10 games, including nine victories.

But Liverpool were left with the hollow feeling of knowing that even the best points total in the club's history had failed to stop Manchester United equalling their record of 18 titles.

Albion, sticking to their attacking policy to the last, have been battling the drop all season and this was their third relegation from the top flight in seven years.

They fought to the end, and there were more cheers than tears from their defiant fans at the end.

But Liverpool were a class above as Steven Gerrard struck his 24th goal of the season - his best ever tally - in the first half and then set up Dirk Kuyt for the second just after the hour mark.

It was enough to take them to within one point of securing second spot.

West Brom made three changes from the side that beat Wigan last week and were rocked before kick-off by Sunday newspaper allegations against striker Roman Bednar, who was suspended pending a club investigation.

Boss Tony Mowbray brought in Robert Koren, Ryan Donk and Youssouf Mulumbu for Borja Valero, Marek Cech and Graham Dorrans, the latter out for the season with a broken foot.

Liverpool recalled Daniel Agger and Emiliano Insua for Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio.

Initially the edge may well have been taken off Liverpool's challenge, but certainly not from Albion, who hurled themselves into the battle knowing that defeat would see them relegated.

And after just four minutes they were almost ahead. Chris Brunt's corner curled in from the right to Jonathan Greening on the far post who forced a stunning save from Jose Reina. The goalkeeper also blocked the follow-up.

Reina then pushed away another Greening effort, this time from the right, as corners and crosses rained in on the Liverpool defence.

And the tackles were flying in. Mulumbu caught Gerrard from behind, while Agger and Insua were both dispossessed.

Liverpool were not being allowed to play the game at their own pace and looked uncomfortable.

Liverpool needed to impose themselves on the game with a goal and it almost came when Fernando Torres had two efforts saved from Gerrard's free-kick, with Insua's follow-up being blocked by a mass of Albion bodies.

Greening was booked for a foul on Lucas after 25 minutes, before a shocking piece of defending gifted Liverpool the lead after 28 minutes.

Defender Shelton Martis, with plenty of time on his hands to clear, hesitated in possession and scuffed the ball straight to Gerrard.

The Liverpool skipper surged away and clipped the ball over Dean Kiely for his 24th goal of the season.

Liverpool were gaining a measure of control by now, and five minutes later Gerrard drove wide from a Kuyt lay-off before Kiely touched a Torres header onto the bar following a Gerrard chip into the box.

Then Jonas Olsson was booked for a foul on Torres before reacting furiously to what he considered was a Gerrard dive in the box.

Five minutes into the second half Liverpool replaced Javier Mascherano with Xabi Alonso, the Argentina captain having struggled with a thigh injury for much of the first period.

Albion were still showing great spirit, and Reina saved low to his left from a Juan Carlos Menseguez drive.

Albion then sent on an extra forward in Valero, replacing Martis, with attack now being the only thing that would save them.

They had strong claims for a penalty turned down after 60 minutes when Lucas' last ditch challenge sent Donk tumbling as he went for a Menseguez cross.

But after 63 minutes Liverpool struck again. Gerrard fed Kuyt and the Dutchmen surged at retreating defenders before drilling the ball past Kiely from the edge of the box.

Liverpool sent on Ryan Babel for Torres, with Albion replacing Mulumbu with another forward in Luke Moore.

Moore struck a post, Jamie Carragher hurled himself to block a Marc-Antoine Fortune effort and was involved in a remarkable exchange of words and pushes with colleague Alvaro Arbeloa.

Fortune then had an effort disallowed for offside while Babel and Lucas missed chances at the other end.

Albion kept going to the end, but this time the great escape was beyond them.

Carragher Explains Bust-Up

Jamie Carragher has explained his astonishing on-field bust-up with Alvaro Arbeloa at the Hawthorns on Sunday.

Liverpool were 2-0 up against West Brom when the pair were involved in a heated exchange after Carragher had to block Marc-Antoine Fortune's close-range shot.

The referee had to tell the pair to calm down, while Reds boss Rafa Benitez - while pleased with their character - was disappointed in the way their passion was shown.

Afterwards, Carragher admitted goalkeeper Jose Reina's bid for this season's Golden Glove award was behind the disagreement.

He told the club's official website: "We can't win the league now but there are a number of targets we can aim for.

"We want to keep a clean sheet and we want Pepe to have a chance of the Golden Glove for the third season running.

"Pepe is one behind (Edwin) Van der Sar now and there's a chance Van der Sar won't play next week, so we wanted to make sure he got a clean sheet today.

"To be honest we were a bit lackadaisical in our defending all through the game and they had too many chances.

"Maybe we took it a bit too easy and let them attack us too much, but that was one of the toughest games I've played in all season.

"We go all over Europe playing top teams and we play against the best sides in this country, but that was one of the hardest games we've had."

The Kop favourite is already looking forward to making another challenge on the Premier League title next year.

"It's hard to win the Premier League because our top four sides plus Barcelona probably make up the best five sides in Europe," he said. "That's the challenge we face.

"You can look at the statistics from this season and it's impressive that we've only lost two games and scored lots of goals, but United have got more points than us and credit to them because that's what matters.

"We have to make sure we finish second now and win our last game of the season next weekend."

Benitez In Fergie Title Snub

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has refused to end his on-going row with rival Sir Alex Ferguson despite Manchester United ending the clubs' on-pitch battle by retaining the Premier League title this weekend.

The Red Devils secured their third successive championship on Saturday to move level with the Anfield outfit's all-time English record of 18 titles and although Benitez offered reluctant congratulations to the team as a whole he pointedly refused to acknowledge Ferguson.

Benitez said: "I will say congratulations to Manchester United. They have done well, but I do not want to say too much. I prefer just to say well done to the club, a big club, a good club."

Benitez and Ferguson have rarely seen eye-to-eye this season, with the Liverpool boss launching an astonishing pre-meditated attack earlier in the season when he presented an A4 sheet of "facts" criticising United and their manager.

Ferguson responded by accusing Benitez of "arrogance" and "contempt" in his dealings with fellow managers and the duo have been sniping at each other all season.

Benitez added: "Normally you have to be polite and respect the other manager. During the season we have seen a lot of things that I didn't like, so that's it.

"I say congratulations to United because they have won. And that's it."

Liverpool assured themselves of second place with a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion on Sunday and Benitez feels he has laid down a marker by pushing United this season.

But the Reds boss could not resist a further dig at Ferguson when asked to define what have been the deciding factors in the title race.

"They have had better quality on the bench. When they played us they had [Paul] Scholes, [Ryan] Giggs and [Dimitar] Berbatov on the bench. I am really pleased that we have got 83 points with the squad we have.

"When you are prepared to pay £20m or £30m for players it is easier to win the title," he added.

Bruce To Beat Pompey For Pennant

Wigan Athletic boss Steve Bruce is set to beat Portsmouth in the race for Liverpool wingman Jermaine Pennant who is available on a free transfer.

The former Birmingham player has been on loan at Portsmouth but it`s his connections with Bruce from their days together at St. Andrews` that will swing a deal the way of the Latics.

With Antonio Valencia off to Manchester United at the end of the season there is a massive void down the Latics right that needs to be filled and Bruce sees Pennant as just the man to do it.

Bruce stuck by Pennant during troubled times and the former England under 21 star hasn`t forgotten that, the deal should be tied up in the next few weeks.

Rafa Targeting Shrewd Summer

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is targeting shrewd summer buys as he bids to close the gap on Manchester United.

The Reds have failed to win a Premier League title but this year came close - taking United almost to the wire.

Benitez knows he must strengthen his squad in the summer to bridge the gap - but as Liverpool lack the financial might of the Red Devils, he must buy wisely.

The Spaniard said: "Clearly they (Man United) have spent big, big money on top class players so they can make mistakes and change players and you don't notice.

"If you remember when we played them they had Giggs, Scholes and Berbatov on the bench - we can't do this.

"We are talking about Gerrard and Torres all the time and they can play Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo or Tevez - it doesn't matter.

"They can hold 35,000 more fans in their stadium and that means more money which is a big difference.

"So how can you reduce the gap? Now, on the pitch we are reducing the gap which is very important. So we have to do the right things during the summer and keep the same mentality on the pitch."

Benitez believes investing in a bigger squad will pay dividends at the business end of the season.

"I think we have performed really well during the season, but it is impossible to keep this level if you don't have a big squad," he said.

"Some Manchester United players have spoken about the value of having a big squad saying that you can notice the difference at the end of the season.

"On the pitch we must perform at the same level, but you need to bring in new players and maintain the same level and keep the competition between the players - with everybody working hard and trying to be positive because there is a big difference every year in terms of money."

Liverpool In Danger Of Being Left Behind By Manchester United

As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, it was not coincidence that Gary Neville and Wayne Rooney were the first to jump off the bench to jump on the backs of their team-mates. The two team-mates were born ten years apart, in 1975 and 1985, but, growing up as rabid supporters of Manchester United and Everton respectively, they longed for this day, the day that every Liverpool supporter had come to dread.

They still have their five European Cups to United’s three — it might well be 5-4 by a week on Wednesday — but, when news reached Liverpool’s supporters on Saturday that their proud record of 18 league titles had finally been equalled by their fiercest rivals, it was if an almighty tremor had gone through their world.

A season that brought their most convincing title challenge of the Premier League era has ended with Liverpool joined on English football’s pedestal and the concern now is that, unless they can overcome the odds next season, they are in danger of being left behind by United as the battle for the nineteenth title gets under way. Perhaps it is why Jamie Carragher’s emotions were running so high yesterday, as he clashed with Álvaro Arbeloa, his team-mate, in the closing stages of a largely routine 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion. Perhaps it is why Rafael Benítez has been highlighting the poverty gap and the desperate need to build a new stadium that will allow Liverpool to compete financially with the rivals.

This was a moment that a Liverpool shareholder foretold during a testy annual meeting at Anfield almost a decade ago, daring to state the unspoken truth that United, having trailed by 18 titles to seven until 1993, were on course to catch up by the end of this decade.

Some have ventured in recent days that Benítez, having spent heavily since his arrival at Anfield in 2004 and having bemoaned the absences of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres for large chunks of this season, has only himself to blame for Liverpool’s failure to widen the gap, in title terms, on United. It is a lazy assessment that ignores the fact that Benítez, like Ferguson when he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, inherited a lousy squad that he has improved year by year.

Benítez has spent heavily in recent years, often with mixed results, but so has Ferguson. United’s latest success has had rather less to do with those players bought in the past two years — Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson, Nani, Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tévez, signed at a projected outlay of almost £100 million — than previous signings, such as Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney, and those who were brought through the ranks, such as Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher.

The same might easily be said of Liverpool this season. They have been far better served by their established players than by last summer’s intake — Andrea Dossena, Albert Riera or Robbie Keane (remember him?) — none of whom remotely threatened to be the elusive last piece in the Anfield jigsaw. When one of Benítez’s signings does not cut the mustard, such as Keane, he gets rid, often with indecent haste. Ferguson, faced with the same situation, as he may be with Berbatov as well as the disappointing Nani, indulges his player for as long as possible, partly because it is in his nature and partly because he can afford to.

Benítez will revive his bid to sign Gareth Barry from Aston Villa in the coming weeks — surely he will not make the mistake of selling Xabi Alonso, who has been arguably his most impressive performer this season — and he will also look to sign a central defender, but far more intriguing is his bid to capture Tévez from United or, to be more precise, from the companies that own the Argentina forward’s economic rights.

Tévez would give Liverpool a little of what they have been missing — a quality centre forward who would ease the goalscoring burden on Torres — but he would also bring a much-needed sense of devilment. It has come to that for Liverpool. Over the 19 years since their last league title, the tables have turned. It is not Benítez’s fault, but, as the battle for the nineteenth title begins, it is most certainly his problem.

Steven Gerrard Close To Signing New Liverpool Contract

Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard is set to sign his new contract with the club in the next few weeks, according to the player himself.

The Reds captain agreed to a new contract last month, stating that it would be signed once the season is over.

This now seems set to go through as the England international revealed he would sign a new four-year-contract in the next few weeks.

The 28-year-old also stated he has to sort a couple of minor details with the club before he signs, and is desperate for silverware with the club he has been with since he was nine.

Speaking to The People, Gerrard said, "I am on the verge of signing it now, there are just a couple of minor details, so I am hoping I can sign it before I go off on my holidays.
"This is a big contract for me and it's likely to be my final one. It takes me to 33, but I feel I'm in the prime of my footballing career at the moment. I feel confident and strong and I feel really good when I'm out on the pitch.

"The aim for me now is to stay fit for the next four years and try to play as many games as I can and win as many trophies as I can.

"I'm getting greedy when it comes to winning trophies because I know I have to win as many as I can before it's too late.''

The Reds skipper has played a total of 331 Premier League games for the club, scoring 70 goals.