Thursday, August 27, 2009

Liverpool’s Next 10 Games to Get Title Bid Back On Track

Two defeats in their opening three Premier league games has already raised doubts over Liverpool’s title credentials and left them trailing Chelsea, Arsenal and even Tottenham.

However, still in August there is plenty of time for Rafa Benitez to put things right and prevent a disappointing start from turning in to a full-blown crisis at Anfield.

Bolton, 29 August, away

A byword for a ‘tough place to go’ in the past, the Reebok Stadium is actually anything but and Liverpool will be able to take their frustrations out on Gary Megson’s winless, pointless and goalless side this season.

Burnley, 12 September, home

When the fixtures were announced this would have been down as a home banker but Burnley have surprised plenty of people this season already and wins over Manchester United and Everton mean they should be treated with more respect than Rafa Benitez famously gave them in his first FA Cup campaign at Anfield.

West Ham, 19 September, away

Gianfranco Zola has been doing wonders with what little he’s had to work with at Upton Park and this is a potential pit fall for Liverpool, especially as the Italian should have added some extra firepower to his squad by then.

Hull City, 26 September, home

Hull held Liverpool to a damaging draw at Anfield last season and showed enough against Chelsea on the opening day of the season to suggest they can still be problematic to big teams – though the capitulation against Spurs virtually disabused that notion.

Chelsea, 4 October, away

Carlo Ancelotti’s side look compact, business like and very hard to beat – much like Liverpool last season - and a tight affair is unlikely to produce many goals, or a Liverpool win.

Sunderland, 17 October, away

Sunderland already look to have improved under Steve Bruce with Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones enjoying each other’s company. Should Sunderland’s own good start to the season run through in to October then a trip to the north east this season may turn out to be less productive than last year.

Manchester United, 25 October, home

Liverpool looked the most like possible champions last season when they faced Manchester United, doing the double over Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in fine style. With the division more open that ever this year beating the other top sides becomes even more important and a repeat of last year’s drama could kick start the campaign for Liverpool.

Fulham, 31 October, away

Roy Hodgson’s side finished seventh last season and beat Manchester United at home and so a trip to Craven Cottage should not be taken lightly. However, Liverpool should still be too strong for a side for which Europe may prove something of a distraction.

Birmingham, 9 November, home

Alex McLeish’s hard working but limited Birmingham side should be easy pickings at Anfield – if not then the title bid really will be over by November.

Manchester City, 21 November, home

More will be known about both teams’ aspirations by this point. Will they be jostling for the title? A Champions League spot? Or a Europa League place? City have started the season in better health than Liverpool and this match could prove a defining one in both their seasons.

Reds Close On Czech Starlet

Liverpool are set to bring in Jakub Sokolik from Banik Ostrava, according to the defender's agent.

The teenager, who turns 16 on Friday, is understood to be on his way to Merseyside to hold talks over a possible contract with the Premier League giants.

Sokolik's representative Pavel Zika expects the move to go through in the very near future.

"It is a regular transfer on the basis of an agreement between two clubs," Zika tolf CTK.

"During the next few days we should finalise the deal."

Sokolik has played for Czech Republic at Under 16 level and is regarded as an exciting prospect for the future.

Liverpool have been tracking his progress for some time and Banik general manager Werner Licka is not surprised Rafa Benitez's men have stepped up their interest.

Licka said: "On the club level we are basically agreed with Liverpool, but it is not concluded yet because Jakub is travelling to Liverpool to discuss the terms of the contract.

"It is no coincidence that they have chosen him. He has a great potential to gain ground there.

"He knows what he wants and he is all right in the head. Personally, I am no big fan of transfers of such young players to foreign leagues but, on the other hand, the interest of Liverpool is a huge reward for our work."

Banik chairman Tomas Trucha added: "If he reaches the first team just once, then it would make the transfer one of the biggest in Banik's club history."

Reina - Keep The Faith

Pepe Reina has urged fans to maintain their trust in Liverpool's ability to challenge for the Premier League title.

Monday's 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa was their second league loss in three games, equalling the number of defeats they suffered last term.

The Reds have already slipped six points behind the early pace-setters, but the Spanish shot-stopper is refusing to press the panic button, saying the team remains strong and capable of challenging.

"The fans can trust us until the end because as a team we have always been strong," he told the club's official website.

"Obviously we are disappointed because it is not normal for us to play three games and lose two of them, but we have to look forward, try to improve and carry on with our title challenge.

"We are the same team as last season - the same team that won 86 points in the league.

"Nothing has changed except that some players have left and some have come in, but we are still a strong team.

"We have plenty of good players in the dressing room and we have to look forward because as soon as we win two or three games in a row things will change a lot."

Manchester United secured 90 points to win last season's Premier League title, but Reina does not believes this year's winners will need anywhere near that mark.

The former Barcelona keeper thinks 82 points could be enough to secure top spot this time around, but that it is too early in the campaign to start thinking about the finishing line.

"Teams like Villa, Tottenham and Man City will be involved in the title race and I think the eventual champions will probably win no more than 82 points this season," he continued.

"Tottenham are playing at a good level. They were probably better than us in the first game of the season, especially in the first half.

"But it is too early to speak about teams. We have to wait a little bit longer."

Hertha Give Up Chase For Liverpool’s Andriy Voronin

The general manager of Hertha Berlin, Michael Preetz, has indicated that the Bundesliga club have no option but to forget about chasing striker Andriy Voronin because Liverpool have no intention of letting the player leave.

"We have been talking to Liverpool and Rafael Benitez, but we have to stay realistic," Preetz told Spox.

"At this moment they do not only refuse to give Andriy another loan spell away from the club, they do not even want to sell him.

"The fact is that he is getting match practice at Liverpool and it looks as if we have to forget this possibility."

Voronin had a very successful spell with the German club last season, making 23 league appearances and scoring 11 goals.

Testing Time For Liverpool

Liverpool are facing up to a title crisis just a few days into a season when they were being hailed as Premier League favourites.

Two disturbing defeats inside the first nine days of the campaign - by teams with genuine hopes of breaking into the top four - has seen boss Rafael Benitez turn on his senior stars and demand more responsibility.

But the defeats at Tottenham and then against Aston Villa at Anfield have brought to a head a summer of change at Anfield that has been largely kept very much under wraps.

Not any more. Major changes in staffing at Anfield, the club's academy and the Melwood training complex has created a sense of upheaval.

Now the financial problems of American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which has deprived Benitez of the funds to buy a much-needed top striker, is taking its toll.

Benitez, unhappy it is believed at the easy access to dressing room secrets by TV pundits who are friendly with his top players, has now called for "greater responsibility" from his star names.

Liverpool players, predictably, have jumped to the defence of a side already six points behind the leaders.

Midfielder Yossi Benayoun said: "Of course we are disappointed. We did not expect to lose to Villa but it was just one of those nights when everything went against us.

"Now we know we have to improve on Saturday at Bolton. Against Villa we did not play like we can play, we didn't move the ball quickly enough as we did to beat Stoke last week.

"Last season we only lost two league games, so of course we are not pleased. But we have to show we are still a strong team with character to recover from this.

"It is all about hard work and effort, working from game to game and We know we can do better than this.

"Normally a club like Liverpool will lose only two or three games (a season). Of course everyone will ask if we are strong enough to win the league, but there is still a long way to go and everything can change.

"Not only the senior players must do better, everybody needs to work harder. I am sure we have enough quality, enough good players to do it (win the title).

"We have a game now against Bolton and maybe then it is a good time to go on an international break and try to come back stronger."

Benitez looked to his top men for the right leadership, and that cannot hide the fact that Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano are in the firing line.

Benitez also dismissed criticism of his style of play and the quality in his squad.

He said: "There is no doubt that senior players must take on more responsibility while I have no problem with the system we use. It won us 86 points last season and we only conceded 10 goals from set-pieces.

"But there are things that must be improved. Maybe our focus, we must now win our next game and then things can change.

"There were too many people involved with mistakes for the goals (against Villa), the own goal was unlucky and we maybe could have done better for their second defending the corner.

"And, as for the penalty, it is better if the player (Gerrard) can stay on his feet and then the outcome could be different.

"This is now a test of character. We have to show we have enough quality for a title challenge and we must win against Bolton and do the right things in matches.

"The squad is more or less the same one that took 86 points last season. So we know we can do it, but we must do things properly from the beginning of games."

New signing Glen Johnson was equally defensive, saying: "Obviously this is not the start to the season that we wanted but it was only the third game and there is a long way to go.

"It is still the early part of the season so we are not going to beat ourselves up at the moment. Of course, we would like to have a few more points but it's not to be so we will just keep going."

He added: "I definitely believe that teams like Aston Villa and Tottenham and Manchester City will take points off the so-called big four this season.

"Bolton is a hard place to go next but hopefully we will start there the way we started the second half tonight by going at them from the first minute and get the three points."

Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez Must Take His Share Of The Anfield Blame Game

US president Harry Truman took pride in a sign on his desk in the Oval Office which read ’the buck stops here’.

And Rafa Benitez, Liverpool’s own El Presidente, would do well to reflect on that as he plays the blame game following Liverpool’s poor start to the season.

Benitez pointed the finger at Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher in the wake of their shock home defeat to Aston Villa, claiming his senior players need to take more responsibility.

As glaring as Carragher and Gerrard’s mistakes were for Villa’s second and third goals, Benitez is responsible for the deeper, underlying problems at Anfield.

He was the one who fell out with Xabi Alonso so badly over the midfielder’s request to spend more time with his expectant wife 17 months ago, a row which sowed the seeds for his £30million move to Real Madrid.

To compound that error, Benitez, who has full control of transfers, chose to replace Alonso with the injured Alberto Acquilani and Liverpool’s title challenge could be over before the £20million Italian is fit enough to kick a ball.

Benitez’s decision to tinker with his successful 4-2-3-1 formation by playing Lucas in a more advanced role in anticipation of Acquilani’s availability is also back firing.

With only Javier Mascherano left to protect them, Liverpool’s back four is too exposed and they have shipped five goals in their first three games.

Fernando Torres also looked isolated against Villa as he was knocked from pillar to post by Curtis Davies and Carlos Cuellar and he has no-one to share the burden up front.

Yossi Benayoun disagreed with Benitez’s assessment that the senior players had to stand up and be counted, claiming everyone must take responsibility.

“I don’t think it’s the senior players who need to come to the fore, it’s all of the players,” he said. “We know what we need to do to improve. We need to try and improve and quickly, starting on Saturday at Bolton.

“We didn’t play like we can play. We didn’t move the ball like we did against Stoke. We missed our chances, particularly in the first half, and we conceded two goals from set-pieces.

“To lose two out of three is unusual for us. We lost only twice through the whole of the last Premier League season and we have to show that we are still a strong team.

“We need to recover from this and look to work game by game, and work hard to play better.”

For all of Benayoun’s rousing words, it is hard to ignore the growing feeling that Benitez’s Anfield career may have peaked and that last season’s second place was as good as it will get under him in the Premier League.

Kopites charted the same graph for Gerard Houllier at the start of the decade and after finishing second in 2002, Liverpool faded as a Premier League force.

There is even the danger that the Reds might struggle to claim a Champions League berth if Tottenham and Manchester City maintain their fine starts.

Worryingly for Benitez, he has little room to maneuver in the transfer market and he has next to nothing left from Alonso’s £30million after buying Acquilani.

Reds fans still back Benitez, but an increasing number are beginning to question the wisdom of letting Sami Hyypia go and snubbing Michael Owen when the former Anfield favourite was so desperate to return.

Benayoun insists Liverpool are still good enough to win the league, although he admits the looming international break does offer them a welcome chance to regroup.

“At a club like Liverpool, if you lose two or three games then people will ask if we are strong enough to win the league,” said the Israeli star. “But there is still a long way to go and everything can change.

“If we go on a long winning run, then people will start talking differently about us.

“I’m sure we have enough quality and we still think we can win the title. Maybe we can not lose any more games until the end of the season, but we believe we are strong enough to be there at the end of the season.

“It’s important to get a winning run together, but maybe it’s good that we have an international break coming up after the Bolton game.

“We have to try and come back stronger and we have games that we believe we can win. If we can win three or four games then the confidence can come back.”

Tommy Smith: Liverpool FC Need To Sort Themselves Out

It was obvious on Monday night that Liverpool have got problems. But what worried me most was that the players didn’t act like it.

If I’d have been out there I would have shouting and bawling, demanding more from the team, whether I was the captain or not.

You take things into your own hands when it’s not going well, not just stand there and accept defeat.

But the players looked as baffled by the whole affair as I was – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The most puzzling thing was Steven Gerrard being so out of sorts.

Every player is allowed a bad game and an off day and there were many besides him who weren’t up to the job.

But we couldn’t find a way through midfield at all and Gerrard didn’t seem up to the job of powering through and threatening in the penalty area.

In fact, the only area he caused trouble in was in his own when he gave away that penalty.

He is an attacking midfield player so what is he doing in the box making a tackle?

I remember playing in a game against Newcastle and of all people Kevin Keegan and came back to give a away a penalty. I said, “what the hell are you doing down here giving away a penalty, you’re supposed to be at other end putting them in?”

You can’t really shout and moan at Gerrard because of how good a player he is but when he’s doing things like that, you know it’s a bad night.

There weren’t many on the field that did deserve praise.

Jamie Carragher was okay apart from letting Curtis Davies in for his header but overall the defence was awful – we’ve got a left-back who is a good left-winger.

In midfield, we were crowded out and couldn’t do anything expect pass sideways or backwards. Lucas was standing there dong nothing most of the time – I’ve got two bad legs so I could do that!

So plenty of questions. We didn’t look to be playing as a unit and the squad is not as strong as it was last year – and unless Aquilani is as good as Alonso, how can it get better?

At the end of the day, how can we not beat a team that only last March we beat 5-0?

Martin O’Neill has clearly managed to sort a few tings out since then. Now the Reds need to sort a few things out of their own and fast.

Xabi Alonso: FXabi Alonso: Don't Blame Me For Poor Liverpool Form

Former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso has told disgruntled fans "don't blame me" as many begin attributing the club's poor form to the Spaniard's recent departure to Real Madrid.

Liverpool have lost two of their opening three Premier League matches this season and cannot afford to lose any more if they are to have a realistic chance of wrestling the title away from Manchester United.

A 2-1 defeat to Tottenham on Aug 16 was followed up by a convincing 4-0 victory against Stoke. However, Monday night's 3-1 humbling at home by Aston Villa, their first league defeat at Anfield for almost two years, has left a dark cloud hanging over manager Rafa Benitez, who had high hopes this would be Liverpool's year.

The two games they have already lost this season is the same number they tasted defeat in over the whole of the 2008-09 campaign, and fans believe the fact it coincides with Alonso's departure is not mere conincidence.

Alonso, who joined Real for £30m, has been keeping track of Liverpool's plight, but has urged fans not to point the finger of blame at him.

He said: "Liverpool's bad beginning in three matches is not normal but I believe my exit has not been that decisive.

"Players are not that indispensable and these are only the first moments of the season. I am convinced the team will recover."

Alonso's replacement at Anfield, Alberto Aquilani, has yet to feature and will not be fit for another six weeks.

In the mean time, Yossi Benayoun has been tasked with the job of filling Alonso's shoes as the team's playmaker, and the Israeli has admitted Liverpool cannot afford to lose any more games.

He said: "We still think that we can win the title but maybe we cannot lose any more games until the end of the season.

"We didn't expect to lose. We didn't play like we can. To lose two out of three is unusual for us. We have to show now we are still a strong team."