Monday, May 25, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 3 - 1 Tottenham Hotspur

Liverpool claimed runners-up spot in the Barclays Premier League and denied Tottenham European football after a season that produced an unbeaten home league record for the first time in 21 years.

Their unbeaten home stretch was extended to 30 games as Sami Hyypia bid a tearful farewell to Anfield after 10 years at the club.

The ovations were for the veteran Finn and a Liverpool side who had pushed Manchester United close in the title race.

Their goals came from Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and an own goal from Alan Hutton, with Robbie Keane scoring for Spurs on his return to Anfield.

Spurs, even though Fulham lost at home, could not take advantage and will not be in the Europa League next season.

Boss Rafael Benitez left out two defenders who had played in the win at West Brom last week but veteran Hyypia was not in the starting line-up.

A packed Anfield, who sung the Finn's name at every opportunity, would no doubt have liked to see the 35 year-old on from the start before he leaves to join Bayer Leverkusen but it was not to be that romantic a day.

Out went Alvaro Arbeloa, Lucas Leiva and Emiliano Insua, with Fabio Aurelio, Xabi Alonso and Martin Skrtel back in the starting XI.

Spurs were without defender Jonathan Woodgate (groin) and Tom Huddlestone (knee), while Roman Pavlyuchenko was back on the bench. Alan Hutton, Gareth Bale and Didier Zokora returned.

Hyypia's name echoed around the stadium beforehand and there was a new, giant flag in his honour on the Kop.

But, ever the perfectionist, Benitez used both Daniel Agger and Skrtel in central defence with Jamie Carragher at right-back, as Liverpool tried to pin down the one point needed to be certain of runners-up spot.

They started at great pace, with Steven Gerrard firing over with a hooked shot from 25 yards, while Benayoun fired over from close in after Dirk Kuyt's header down.

Spurs were organised and controlled. Ledley King at the back even out-paced Torres on one run, while Jermain Defoe searched for the gaps at the other end.

Torres sparked into life when he surged through from midfield, got himself clear in the box but saw his attempt to steer a shot wide of Heurelho Gomes thwarted by a defiant challenge by Jermaine Jenas.

But he did not have to wait long for the breakthrough. Kuyt's cross from the left sailed towards the far post where Hutton was patently the wrong side of Torres.

The Spaniard rose to head in off the underside of the bar - his 50th goal for the club - with Gomes not even getting off the ground.

Spurs then lost Jenas - David Bentley coming on as a 39th-minute substitute - with the midfielder still suffering from the injury he had sustained in stopping Torres earlier.

Defoe then beat the offside trap to race clear but Jose Reina managed to block the chipped shot with his body, just outside the area.

King was felled by a fierce Skrtel drive in the box and Alonso tried to beat Gomes from the half-way line - a trick shot he has succeeded within the past but not this time.

Spurs responded with a curling Bale free-kick that was pulled down by Reina. Then another Skrtel drive following a corner deflected inches wide.

But Liverpool finally got their second when Benayoun's cute pass set up Kuyt for a shot from just inside the box. It looked to be going just wide but Hutton's outstretched foot turned the effort past Gomes.

The calls for Hyypia's involvement increased from the Kop but it was Albert Riera who was the first Liverpool substitute, in place of Kuyt after 66 minutes.

Gerrard then hit the far post from an acute angle. Hyypia at last came off the bench for a warm-up.

There is still plenty of speculation about Alonso's future but he had been outstanding throughout and forced Gomes into a flying save to his left.

Pavlyuchenko then replaced Defoe after 70 minutes for Spurs but Liverpool were in full flow now and Gerrard was next to go close with a curler from the edge of the box.

The Kop were now baying for Hyypia but, after 77 minutes, Robbie Keane - on his return to Anfield - was put clear by Luka Modric to calmly slot in only his fifth goal for Spurs since returning to White Hart Lane from Anfield in January.

Spurs then brought on another striker, Darren Bent, for Bale while Liverpool replaced Torres with David Ngog.

But Liverpool's worries were ended when Gerrard slipped the ball to Benayoun, who eased his way into the box to clip the third past Gomes.

The "we want Sami" barrage was booming again. Surely Benitez could risk it now. Vedran Corluka was booked for a foul on Gerrard and at last Hyypia was allowed to take off his training top for one last cameo appearance.

There was seven minutes to go, Gerrard was the man taken off and he made sure he put his captain's armband onto the giant defender as he came off.

Hyypia almost scored with a typical flying header from Aurelio's corner and at the end he was carried off by his team-mates at the end of a career that makes him a Liverpool favourite.

Rafael Benitez Wants Near Perfection For Next Season

Rafael Benitez admitted there were mixed feelings as Liverpool ended their season on a winning note.

The Anfield outfit secured a 3-1 home win over Tottenham Hotspur yesterday to finish the campaign on 86 points, their highest tally in the Premier League era.

However, despite losing only two league games, remaining unbeaten at home and being the top-flight’s leading scorers, Liverpool’s efforts weren’t enough to overhaul champions Manchester United.

And Benitez said: “There is both pride and disappointment. We have to be proud because when you talk about 86 points, it’s massive.

“But still it’s not enough to win the title. Clearly we have to improve and be almost perfect if we want to win the title.

“It’s not just United. You see Chelsea, you see Arsenal, and I’m sure Aston Villa, City and Tottenham will be better in the future.

“We have only lost two games in the Premier League and five in all competitions.

“It’s not easy ending the season without a trophy with these numbers but the Premier League and England is very difficult. We still have to improve, but clearly we have improved a lot.

“We have to now keep the same level as this season, the consistency. You can talk about the draws but also we’ve won a lot of games at the end. We need to be more ruthless from the beginning.

“It’s a challenge for us now to sign the right players, start the season like we did this one and not make mistakes.”

Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp saw his club’s chance of European football ended, despite seventh-placed Fulham’s home defeat by Everton.

A win would have seen Tottenham leapfrog their London rivals to claim a UEFA Europa League spot.

Redknapp said: “We were short of several players, and lost Jonathan Woodgate the day before the match.

“We tried our hardest, European football would have been a real achievement considering the position Spurs were in when I arrived at the club.

“We almost did it in the end. But to have climbed from bottom to eighth is something to be proud of.

“We were just not able to hurt Liverpool. Some of our defending was poor, the goals we gave away could have been averted.”

The game saw Sami Hyypia’s final appearance for Liverpool and Redknapp added: “It was nice to see Sami Hyypia come on. He got an unbelievable ovation from a fantastic club.”

Liverpool Should Chase David Silva

If Liverpool are to improve on their runners-up spot in the Premier League, they will need to sign at least one player of proven quality this summer.

Valencia's David Silva could be a player that makes a big difference for The Reds, if they were to splash out on the 23-year-old.

The Spain international is able to play anywhere in attack, which means that Rafa Benitez could slot him into either the wide right, wide left, or the second striker position.

He does favour cutting in from the left and this is why he would be a great signing for Liverpool as that is a position that they have yet to really fill. Albert Riera started the season well there, Ryan Babel played decent in some substitution appearances, while Yossi Benayoun finished the campaign in great form - often playing there. But none have made the position their own.

The arrival of Silva would give Riera competition for the place, while Benayoun can then challenge Dirk Kuyt for the wide right spot as he prefers to drift in from that side or from the centre.

Riera will surely be a lot stronger next season, but it wouldn't do him any harm to have to fight for his place. Babel could then be used more as a striker, unless Silva was tasked with playing elsewhere on the pitch.

Benitez will more than likely receive the same warning that the other top flight managers will this summer, in that they have to sell players before they bring anyone new in. This shouldn't be too much of a problem though as there are a few ready to be ushered towards the exit door.

It will be very surprising if the likes of Jermaine Pennant, Charles Itandje, and Andriy Voronin turn up to Melwood for pre-season training. Then there are other players, like Nabil El Zhar or Sebastian Leto, who might move on due to limited opportunities in the first-team.

The bulk of the transfer speculation will surround Aston Villa's Gareth Barry (until his future is decided), but bringing in someone like Silva, who can add so much to their attack, would allow them to not rely so heavily on Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso as their creative forces in midfield.

Silva has the ability to take on defenders and set chances up for his team-mates, to produce a defence-splitting pass or piece of skill that opens things up, to score crucial goals, and to have an impact on games when nothing is going Liverpool's way.

With a player like Silva in their squad, The Reds would surely be able to go that next step and end their hunt for a league title.

Gerrard Tells Benitez: Please Keep Lucas

Steven Gerrard has urged Rafael Benitez to keep faith with midfielder Lucas and give the Brazilian the chance to become a Liverpool legend.

Reds skipper Gerrard is a big fan of Lucas, who has come under-fire this season following a number of poor performances.

Benitez is already planning an overhaul of his squad with Lucas one of the players that looks set to be offloaded.

But Gerrard reckons Benitez should persist with the 22-year-old and says his team-mate can become a huge hit on Merseyside.

"Lucas has had criticism and for me it's been unfair," said Gerrard.

"He's a young lad learning his trade and he's certainly got a bright future.

"He does a lot of work that goes unnoticed in this team. He's come into some big games when the manager has said 'sink or swim'.

"He swam, very well, and he's done really well for us."

Rafa Benitez's Five-Year Plan For Liverpool FC Is Dependent On Next Five Weeks

It has taken Rafael Benitez five years to close the gap at the top of the Premier League. At the end of his first full Anfield season the Reds were a cavernous 37 points behind runaway champions Chelsea.

Now they’re the equivalent of turning a couple of home draws into victories behind Manchester United.

Whether Benitez can close the most difficult gap of all, however, could depend on the next five weeks.

After the competitive action came to a predictably uncompetitive end at Anfield yesterday, attention instantly switched to the identity of the men the Liverpool manager seeks to bring in this summer.

And perhaps even more importantly, who he lets go.

“No names, today, please” he grinned, as soon as the first transfer related query was directed his way after the 3-1 defeat of Tottenham.

But evidence that Benitez was thinking of the future had already been presented in his extended look at the Martin Skrtel-Daniel Agger central defensive axis.

Touted as the club’s future central defensive partnership, the pair have not started a match together before.

But with Alvaro Arbeloa injured, Benitez ignored the sentimental claims of Sami Hyypia – and the increasingly insistent demands of The Kop – to scrutinise the young duo for almost the entire afternoon.

It was the 83rd minute before Big Sami was called for his emotional swansong.

Even then, it was Steven Gerrard who was asked to make way, with Agger and Skrtel remaining in situ until the final whistle.

But it was difficult to form too much of an opinion of their future prospects against a demotivated Tottenham.

“Liverpool were a bit end-of-seasonish,” said Harry Redknapp. “If we’d have upped the tempo there’s a chance we could have gotten something here today.

“I told them at half-time, listen we’ve got to raise our game here. Fulham are getting beat. But we were a little bit short.”

That certainly applied to their forward line.

Spurs turned to all four international strikers during the course of an afternoon that started slowly and picked up pace as the match wore on.

But Pepe Reina only had a couple of long range shots to field before, ironically, it was Robbie Keane who found a way past him for the first time this month.

Keane had taken 17 minutes before he even touched the ball, and his most meaningful moment of the first 45 minutes was an embarassingly miscued volley.

But he finished clinically enough when he found himself clean through in the 76th minute – and after being ignored by the home fans all afternoon – a fate perhaps even more cutting than being booed – his respectfully muted celebrations brought appreciative applause from The Kop.

The most insistent calls from the home fans, however, came in the demands for Sami Hyypia to be introduced.

Rafa’s reluctance stressed that his thinking was focused very much on the future rather than the past.

“I was waiting for the last minute,” he explained somewhat puzzingly afterwards. “I thought that was best for the fans. I thought the last minute would be perfect, but the fans were pushing, pushing . . . so we brought him on for Gerrard so he could have the armband.”

Sami Hyypia most certainly will not be at Anfield next season.

Whether Xabi Alonso follows him out of the Anfield exit door remains to be seen.

The Spaniard had a quiet game yesterday, and his influence on the Liverpool squad is worthy of an article all of its own.

But, for now at any rate, Benitez was adamant that the 27-year-old is not for sale.

There has been plenty to admire in this second half of the season.

An unbeaten home league record for the first time in 21 years was secured; a more adventurous, ambitious attacking policy which saw the season end with 77 goals and the best goal difference in the country – in all four divisions – was completed.

And there were no unecessary injuries to worry about – with fingers crossed now that the pointless Confederations Cup brings no unwanted surprises this summer.

Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are clearly pivotal to Liverpool’s future prospects.

Yesterday was only the 14th time this season the pair have started together.

And Torres’ headed finish from a Dirk Kuyt cross was pivotal.

But, so, too could be the next few weeks.

Manchester United have won the last three Premier League titles, but the margin of victory has been progressively smaller.

It was 21 points in 2007, down to 11 last season – now just four points remain between the North-West rivals.

This could be a very interesting summer.

Napoli Awaiting Formal Liverpool Offer For Ezequiel Lavezzi

Ezequiel Lavezzi’s representative, Alejandro Mazzoni was in Catania yesterday and met with Napoli director of sport Pierpaolo Marino ahead of the Serie A match between the Etnei and the Azzurri.

According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Mazzoni has insisted that Premier League giants Liverpool have approached him with a €22 million offer to take the 24-year-old to Anfield, and that if the Partenopei are prepared to turn it down, it means they have the finances to grant his client a pay rise.

Lavezzi currently earns wages of €1.1m per year at the San Paolo and the agent is allegedly seeking a pay rise to €3m, which is the same amount of cash the Merseyside club have apparently put on the table for him.

However, Marino is said to be suspicious of Mazzoni’s claims and has demanded an official document proving Liverpool’s offer, before deciding whether to open talks with the Reds.

‘El Pocho’ has also been strongly linked with a move to Juventus in recent weeks, but the Old Lady have denied making a bid for the Argentine, who has netted seven goals in all competitions this term.

Sami Hyypia: Istanbul Is My Liverpool Career Highlight

Sami Hyypia has described the 2005 Champions League victory against Milan as the greatest moment of his ten year career with Premier League giants Liverpool.

The 35-year-old played his final game for the Reds against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday since signing from Willem II for £2.6 million in 1999.

Ten years, 454 appearances and 33 goals later, the 97-time capped Finland international defender has named the 2005 Champions League final when Liverpool came from 3-0 down to beat Milan on penalties as his finest moment.

"I think every player dreams of winning the Champions League at some time in their career or even just to be in the final and I have managed to play in the final and win it," Hyypia told The Liverpool Echo.

"So Istanbul is definitely a highlight of my life and I think from a fan point of view the way the game went made it even more special.

"Even the neutral fans of football will remember this game for ever because to come back from 3-0 down against AC Milan and then go on to win it is an incredible result.

"Even in a normal game this would be special so for it to happen in the Champions League final makes it even more so and it will stay in the memories of the players and the fans for the rest of our lives."

The 6ft 4in centre-back has won two FA Cups, two League cups, one UEFA Cup, one Champions League and two UEFA Super Cups with the Merseyside based club, much to his delight especially as he never expected to become a first team regular.

"I didn’t think I would be here for ten years. When I first came I thought that I would be on the bench sometimes and would play sometimes but would maybe have to get used to not playing all the time," Hyypia added.

"But then before the season started I realised that I really had a chance to be in the first eleven all the time and this encouraged me to work even harder.

"I’m not saying that I didn’t work hard from day one because it’s my nature always to work hard and then see what happens.

"But I didn’t have a lot of expectation for the first season. I just thought that I would do my best and show everybody that I could play football.

"It was also a good situation for me to start here because nobody knew me and nobody really had any big expectations of me."

While Hyypia admits that Sunday will be an emotional occasion, he is not getting too carried away because, as he puts it, he is not retiring just yet, just moving on.

"I remember a few games when I wasn’t happy with how I had played," Hyypia remarked.

"But there are so many good things to remember that it means the bad things stay in the background.

"I think Sunday will be a sad day but it’s not like I am retiring or anything. I just have a new challenge."

Everton FC And Liverpool FC Warned To Sort Out Stadium Plans

Liverpool council leader Warren Bradley has warned Everton and Liverpool they have until December to resolve their stadium issues or risk missing out on hosting the World Cup.

And for the second time in a week, Councilor Bradley reiterated his desire for further talks over a shared stadium between the two Merseyside clubs.

Representatives from Everton, Liverpool and the council were present at Wembley yesterday as the Football Association officially launched their bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.

Liverpool have already registered their interest in becoming a host city for the tournament, with the city having until the end of the year to formally submit a bid.

Councilor Bradley revealed that it was feasible Everton’s proposed new 55,000-seat stadium in Kirkby and Liverpool’s planned new stadium on Stanley Park could both be included in the city’s application. But he said the city would first require assurances over the viability of the schemes while revealing Gerry Sutcliffe, the Minister for Sport, had called for a fresh debate over a controversial shared stadium.

“In theory, it’s possible that the city could have two stadiums by 2018 that could host World Cup games,” said Councilor Bradley.

“But that has to be identified by December this year, so it is crucial by then that the situation is resolved over the new stadium for the two clubs or any possible joint stadium.

“Both clubs have aspirations of building a new stadium. If those don’t happen, then I think there has to be serious discussion over a joint stadium.

“(Minister for Sport) Gerry Sutcliffe buttonholed me and said it would be a good thing for the city. He said we have should have further talks on a joint stadium and get the two football clubs around the table again.

“Obviously, I said I’d love to. And with the Minister for Sport so keen, it would be a good thing to have him there also.

“Of course, it all depends on the outcome of the inquiry into Everton’s proposed new stadium and whether Liverpool can raise the finances for their new stadium.

“But both clubs want to work as closely as they can with us to make sure the bid is robust.”

The outcome of the inquiry into Everton’s projected Kirkby move is expected in the autumn while Liverpool’s new stadium has been put on hold following the global economic downturn.

Should the FA’s bid to host the World Cup finals prove successful – world governing body FIFA will make a final decision in 18 months on who hosts the 2018 and 2022 tournaments – financial support is expected to be awarded to help fund the building of any new stadium.

But Councilor Bradley believes only a shared stadium between Everton and Liverpool should benefit from any public money.

“Discussions about any possible funding would ideally be based around a joint stadium as that would be far easier to justify spending public money on,” he said.

“If the clubs decide to go individually, I would not support any call for public money to be spent on the stadium. And I would guess the government would tell the clubs they have to fund the building themselves.”

Councilor Bradley added: “Twenty stadiums need to be identified by the December deadline. It doesn’t have to be limited to just one stadium per city.

“Both Manchester stadium are sure to want to be involved while in London there is every probability that Arsenal and a proposed new stadium at Tottenham would join Wembley.

“It’s about meeting all the criteria. You can have two great stadium but without the infrastructure that can cope then the bid will fall short.”

The city successfully hosted World Cup games at Goodison in 1966, including the semi-final between West Germany and Russia, while Anfield was a venue for four games in the European Championships in 1996.

And Councilor Bradley said: “I think this is the next stage for the city.

“We have Shanghai around the corner and now we are trying to be further recognised on a world stage by being a World Cup bidding city. This is a big opportunity for the world to see Liverpool.

“There’s more to being a host city than merely hosting the matches themselves. There are other important aspects such as the infrastructure, the accommodation, grassroots participation and the team bases.

“You also need to supply Fan Parks as part of the bid.

“These Fan Parks aren’t close to the stadium, so it would be another big event with another 10,000-15,000 fans there.

“But Liverpool has shown with the Capital of Culture celebrations last year that we are capable of hosting events of such recognition, and we want to build on that.

“Bringing the World Cup to the city in 2018 would swell the coffers and further raise the profile of Liverpool.”

Benitez Insists Alonso Will Stay

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has insisted he will not sell Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso this summer.

Alonso, 27, has been linked with a move to Real Madrid, who could make a move for the playmaker if Florentino Perez wins their presidential election.

Benitez said: "Alonso has three years left on his deal - we're really pleased with him. We don't want to sell.

"But I have had a private conversation with his agent, and it was interesting to see who had that information."

Benitez was referring to his meeting with Alonso's agent Ignacio Ibanez on Friday.

"For me it was a private conversation, and it will stay that way, but it is clear he has three more years of his contract and we do not want to sell him," added Benitez, after Liverpool finished the season in second after beating Spurs 3-1 on Sunday.

"I repeat, we do not want to sell, he is not for sale. He has said he is happy here in Liverpool, in every single press conference, in every single interview.

"We have some ideas for the future, without losing any of our key players."

Alonso, who was expected to leave last summer, may be persuaded to move to the Bernabeu, with the prospect of Gareth Barry finally arriving at Liverpool still a possibility.

Liverpool Keeping Tabs On Feyenoord Youngster Castaignos

According to The Guardian, Premier League giants Liverpool are closely monitoring the situation of highly rated youngster Luc Castaignos. The 16-year-old currently plays for Dutch side Feyenoord.

The young striker was part of the Holland Under-17 squad making it to the final in the UEFA U-17 European Championships last week and impressed the English scouts with his outstanding performances.

Castaignos was crowned top scorer of the tournament with three goals in five matches and scored the opener in the final. However, he couldn't prevent Germany from eventually picking up the title as Holland were beaten 2-1 after extra time.

The forward recently signed a three-year deal at Feyenoord, meaning that he won't leave the Rotterdam side on the cheap. They've reportedly set a €4 million asking price for Castaignos.