Saturday, September 12, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Burnley

It's been a strange old start to the season for Liverpool. They headed in with sky-high expectations after taking home the silver medal in last season's Premier League race, but the mob from Merseyside have lost two and won two in their first four games of 2009-10.

And it could have been worse - for when the half-time whistle blew in their last outing against Bolton Wanderers, it looked like the Reds would go into the international break with three defeats under their belts. However, Steven Gerrard struck late to secure what was a morale-boosting victory.

Spirits have been alarmingly low at Anfield over the early stages of the season, with questions continuing to mount as to whether Rafael Benitez's Xabi Alonso-less squad can match, let alone exceed, the standards set in the last campaign.

The manager has acknowledged the problem but believes the gritty win at the Reebok could prove a turning point for Liverpool.

"When you are not doing well you always need character - and the players showed character against Bolton," Benitez told the press on Thursday. "We controlled the game and although we conceded two goals, we scored three and came from behind to win. That is very positive and hopefully it will be a different situation for us now."

It is Burnley who visit Anfield this weekend, and recent events indicate that the promoted club could cause their out-of-sorts hosts any number of problems.

The 3-0 drubbing by in-form Chelsea last time out was something of an anomaly for the Clarets, who have sent out warning shots to their doubters with shock wins against Manchester United and Everton.

Thus, although situated three places back in 10th, Owen Coyle's men stand level on points with their upcoming opponents, whom they famously ousted from the FA Cup in 2005.

And while both Burnley's wins so far this season have come at Turf Moor, they head to Liverpool confident of competing. Veteran defender Graham Alexander said recently: "It's an amazing spirit we've got, the gaffer instils it and breeds it that we can beat anyone on our day."

Early trends suggest that away form could be the Lancashire outfit's undoing, as they have yet to pick up a point - or score a goal - on the road this term.



Aug 29 Bolton Wanderers 2-3 Liverpool (Premier League)
Aug 24 Liverpool 1-3 Aston Villa (Premier League)
Aug 19 Liverpool 4-0 Stoke City (Premier League)
Aug 16 Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Aug 8 Liverpool 2-1 Atletico Madrid (Friendly)


Aug 29 Chelsea 3-0 Burnley (Premier League)
Aug 25 Hartlepool United 1-2 Burnley (League Cup)
Aug 23 Burnley 1-0 Everton (Premier League)
Aug 19 Burnley 1-0 Manchester United (Premier League)
Aug 15 Stoke City 0-2 Burnley (Premier League)



Five of Benitez's first-team players featured over the international break, including England heroes Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson, but all appear to have reported back to Melwood unscathed.

In some good news, Fabio Aurelio is available for selection after recovering from a freak knee injury sustained duting the summer. Young Emiliano Insua has impressed at left-back in the Brazilian's absence.

Alberto Aquilani (ankle) and Daniel Agger (back) remain sidelined with long-term problems.

Possible Starting XI: Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun; Torres.


Manchester United product Richard Eckersley is back in the frame after completing a suspension, giving Coyle an extra option in defence.

At the other end of the pitch, David Nugent could make his league debut for the Clarets. The one-time England striker - who began his career in Liverpool's youth team - recently moved from Portsmouth on loan.

Nugent has impressed his new manager in training and is an outside chance to start ahead of Martin Paterson, who played in Northern Ireland's midweek defeat by Slovakia.

Possible Starting XI: Jensen; Mears, Bikey, Carlisle, Jordan; Elliot, Alexander, McCann, Blake; Fletcher, Paterson.


Glen Johnson (Liverpool)

The dashing wing-back has made a superb start to life at Anfield since his summer move from Portsmouth, yet his defensively suspect performances for England continue to draw criticism. Thus, he will be hoping to bounce back with another dynamic display in red.

Robbie Blake (Burnley)

In a career that has been spent largely in the lower divisions, this man has often been touted as the best player outside the Premier League. The wily 33-year-old has already shown his class this term with a magnificent strike against Man United - could he undo the other giants of the North West?

Rafa Must Avoid Burnley Banana Skin

Rafael Benitez v Owen Coyle

There's no doubt Owen Coyle has enjoyed a better start to the season than his opposite number. Burnley's opening day defeat at Stoke was quickly forgotten after a famous victory over Manchester United in their first top flight fixture at Turf Moor in 33 years. Add to that another three points when Everton visited four days later and Clarets' fans already have more memories to cherish than many promoted sides acquire in a full season. At Chelsea, Burnley were given a harsh lesson about life in the top flight, and the top four especially, but if Coyle's men can hold out until half-time at Anfield they may put a brittle Liverpool side under even more pressure.

Nothing less than three points and a clean sheet will allow Rafael Benitez to emerge from Saturday's game without any sort of stick. A limp defeat at Spurs on the opening weekend and a home reverse against Aston Villa showed what life is like when neither of his two heavyweights - Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres - can launch a sustained assault between them. A victory is a must but just as important is emerging with the fitness of his two major players intact. Benitez has left himself very little room for manoeuvre already and the season is only just into September.

Fernando Torres v Brian Jensen

Brian Jensen probably had an inkling before the big kick-off he was in line for his busiest ever season and the opening four games will have done little to convince him otherwise. Jensen will have to complement his heroics against Manchester United and Chelsea with another all-action display at Anfield. As ever with a team involving Gerrard, he will be worked from long distance while the obvious threat of Torres will be felt much closer to his net. Any side to take points from Liverpool needs their keeper to play a blinder; Burnley will hope Jensen makes it a hat-trick for the season.

Like the rest of his team-mates, Torres has endured a slovenly start to the season. Isolated from his midfield, and Gerrard in particular, at Spurs he was starved of supply against Aston Villa, despite notching his second goal of the campaign. With Gerrard restored to form, the axis Liverpool relies on so heavily should be renewed. Despite Burnley's obvious game plan to close the Spaniard down as much as possible, Torres will still be vital to the home side's threat. Chances usually fall his way and even if they don't his movement is enough to attract defenders and create space for his colleagues.

Steven Gerrard v Graham Alexander

Benitez underlined Gerrard's continued importance to the cause by singling him out for criticism after Liverpool's defeat to Aston Villa - no-one else was lucky enough to get a name check. Despite his unnecessary admonishment, an improved showing at Bolton (after Sean Davis was dismissed, of course) and two midweek goals for England show the Reds' skipper is back to his team-carrying best. Like Torres, he'll be followed as closely as an MI5 target, but will still be crucial for his set piece delivery and potency from range. Floating in between midfield and attack, Gerrard will look to exploit every inch of the field he can find.

Graham Alexander will more than likely be handed the task of shackling Gerrard, just as Davis did so successfully for two thirds of the game in Bolton. At Anfield, Alexander will occupy the hole and track Gerrard's attempts to link with Torres. Coyle will drum into his players the need for snap in their early tackles to show they aren't overawed by the occasion. A tireless afternoon awaits the 37-year-old.

Glen Johnson v Stephen Jordan

With the visitors defending in numbers to try and stifle Liverpool's creative juices, both full-backs will be instructed to push forward to offer width in the assault to unlock Burnley's back door. As such, Johnson and Emiliano Insua will doubtless spend more time in the opposition half than their own. Question marks still remain over the Johnson the defender, as Croatia's solitary goal at Wembley proved, but going forward there are few better in the Premier League. In four games for his new club Johnson has scored twice and had a hand in two more. Overlapping runners from deep will stretch Burnley's back line and Johnson will be afforded plenty of opportunity to indulge his attacking instincts.

Stephen Jordan will not only have Johnson to contend with, but Dirk Kuyt as well. The Dutchman will effectively be employed as a third striker on Saturday and the protection Jordan is offered by Chris McCann will be critical. Gerrard will drift left and right to try and open up gaps in the visiting back line and Jordan will have to operate as one with his fellow defenders to allow no chink of light through. Stopping delivery into the box from wide areas will be top of his to do list.

Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez Set To Swoop For Free Chelsea Defender Alex

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is ready make a shock move for Chelsea defender Alex as he bids to boost his defensive options at Anfield.

The Brazil international is out of contract at Stamford Bridge next summer and, as a free agent, is attracting a number of high-profile clubs.

Sportsmail understands that the 27-year-old wants a longer deal than the two-year extension offered by Chelsea.

Leaving on a free could be lucrative, with suitors ready to increase his £30,000-a-week deal.

His place in the Chelsea team is also by no means assured, with Carlo Ancelotti getting success with a partnership of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at the heart of his defence, while Branislav Ivanovic has also been given opportunities.

Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus, Lyon and Real Madrid are among other clubs linked with the former PSV Eindhoven player, who is currently out with a groin injury.

Rafa Benitez Wants England Lions To Roar For Liverpool FC

International breaks are a source of great frustration at Melwood.

Just when you are building up a head of steam your top stars depart and jet off around the world.

Even if they come back fit, fatigue is a major concern and there is little time to prepare for your next assignment.

For the past 10 days Rafa Benitez has been left with less than a dozen senior players to work with.

Practice matches against the under-18s and the reserves have helped to kill time before he finally welcomed back most of his squad yesterday. Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva will complete the line-up today.

It’s hardly ideal but Benitez admits Liverpool could actually benefit from the events of midweek.

Reds skipper Steven Gerrard and full-back Glen Johnson were instrumental in England’s 5-1 thrashing of Croatia.

Gerrard’s two-goal burst in a left wing role provided further evidence he’s getting back to his best, while Johnson answered his critics with an excellent display down the right.

Both returned to Melwood buoyant having secured World Cup qualification and Benitez is hoping they will carry on against Burnley where they left off at Wembley.

“They will be on a high and doing well for England is really good for their confidence,” he said. “Now they don’t need to be worried about qualifying and when internationals do come along now they can just go and enjoy it.

“I have been talking about Steven's best position for years, but he is a very good player who can play in any position in midfield or further forward.

“He is doing well for England on the left and if he plays in the middle or as a second striker he will be good too. In playing him on the left, I think Steven knows he has freedom and can go inside.

“Glen has been really good for us since the first day he was here. We knew we had signed a player with a very good offensive mentality and a decent defender who is improving.

“I was surprised to see some criticism the other day. He can improve and he knows this. Glen is a young player who is still learning every day.

“I think he has done really well for England and I know Capello has been supporting him. When I’ve seen him play for England or for us he has been a real threat to teams. His understanding of the game is good.”

Benitez admits his side haven’t been at their best during the opening month of the campaign.

But he is confident they will build on their dramatic 3-2 win at Bolton a fortnight ago.

“The team has not played at the level we can, but hopefully the win against Bolton will be a lift for us,” he said. “It’s always difficult to beat them and that win was good for the confidence of the team.

“We showed the character you need in those kind of games and hopefully for the rest of the season we can do the same.

“Our pre-season wasn’t the best with a lot of players returning at different times.

“We tried to manage the situation and then we had another international break, so we didn’t have too much time.

“Sometimes you can see players need to improve physically or in terms of match fitness. It’s just a question of time.”

Benitez is banking on a flying start to help ensure the Reds defeat a newly-promoted Burnley side who have already beaten Manchester United and Everton.

He said: “In these games you have to do really well from the beginning. If you make mistakes everybody will be more worried about the situation and the players will play with more pressure.

“Normally when you are playing with more pressure you make more mistakes so it’s important we do things right from the start.”

Mascherano Blow Rocks Reds

Javier Mascherano is a major doubt for Liverpool's Premier League clash with Burnley at Anfield today.

The 25-year-old midfielder picked up a knock in Argentina's 1-0 defeat to Paraguay on Wednesday night.

Mascherano is having treatment but after playing two full 90 minutes for his country over the past week he is unlikely to be risked against the Clarets.

However, Lucas Leiva is expected to play after making the 6,000 mile trip home from South America.

Lucas was due back at Melwood today and having not featured in either of Brazil's World Cup qualifiers he is set to face Owen Coyle's side.

If Mascherano misses out, skipper Steven Gerrard is expected to drop into a central midfield role alongside Lucas.

Aquilani Continues Progress

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is optimistic that summer signing Alberto Aquilani could return to training in 'two or three weeks'.

It was revealed when the ex-Roma star joined the Reds at the start of August that he was possibly eight weeks away from fitness following an ankle operation.

But Benitez hinted at the beginning of September that Aquilani was ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation after resuming work in the gym and swimming pool.

The Liverpool boss is now hopeful that the Italy international, a £20million replacement for Xabi Alonso, will soon join his new team-mates in training.

Benitez said: "Aquilani has improved, he has progressed in the way that we expected and now maybe in two or three weeks we will see him training.

"Then we will see how he progresses, but the last scan he had was very good."

Benitez Set For Babel Talks

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is to hold talks with Ryan Babel, but maintains that he will not allow the winger to leave on loan.

Babel is disappointed at a lack of first-team opportunities this season and has claimed summer guarantees from his club boss have not been kept.

A loan return to Ajax was hinted as a possibility, and it remains an option for the future, as the Holland ace wants to reinforce his place for the 2010 World Cup.

But Benitez, who has previously challenged Babel to battle for a role, will not allow a player he signed for £11.5million in 2007 leave on a temporary basis.

He said: "I will talk to Ryan. But I do not want him going on loan, he needs to work and fight for his place here."

April & May Is When You Fight - Liverpool Boss Rafael Benitez

Liverpool have endured a sluggish start to the season, spurring widespread speculation that the Reds are already out of the title running.

A dramatic late 3-2 win against Bolton Wanderers, thanks to another timely Steven Gerrard thunderbolt, is just the momentum-changer that manager Rafael Benitez believes his club needed.

"The team as a team has not played at the level we can, but hopefully the win against Bolton will be a lift for us," the boss said in his weekly press conference at Melwood.

"When you are not doing well you always need character - and the players showed character against Bolton.

"We controlled the game and although we conceded two goals, we scored three and came from behind to win. That is very positive and hopefully it will be a different situation for us now."

Asked what he felt the reason was behind Liverpool's mixed start to the campaign, Benitez replied: "Two things. One was expectation - when we finished last season with 86 points, I think everybody was expecting this year to be ours.

"But the message is always the same - we have to think about one game at a time, try to get three points and then see what our position is each week.

"You cannot win titles in September, so you have to go to January and see where you are, and then April and May is when you will fight.

"The other thing was that pre-season was difficult with a lot of players returning at different times.

"We tried to manage the situation and then we had another international break, so we didn't have too much time. Then we started against Tottenham, who are doing well, so it was difficult."

Tipped by many to win the Premier League, the faltering Reds have fallen victim to what Benitez sees as a much more competitive league this season.

"The teams at the top fighting can beat anyone, so I think you will see some top teams lose games," he said.

Gillett: Liverpool In "Outstanding" Financial Shape

Liverpool co-owner George Gillett has claimed that the Premier League club has "never been stronger" from an economic perspective, while underlining that he has a long-term view of his association with the Reds.

Questions were raised regarding Liverpool's financial muscle during the summer transfer window but Gillett, who purchased the club along with Tom Hicks, is adamant that the economic situation at Liverpool is very much robust.

Having purchased the club for £435m in 2007, with money borrowed from both Wachovia and the Royal Bank of Scotland, he and co-owner Hicks were forced to refinance their debts in July. Doing so, says Gillett, has put the club on solid financial ground.

"The club is in outstanding shape," he told The Fan 590 - a Toronto radio station. "Economically, it's never been stronger. We just paid down our debt very substantially. We have less debt per dollar than any club in the league."

To make the payments, Gillett sold his interest in the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey club, valued at £200m ($334m) by Forbes magazine. Worth an estimated £660m ($1.1bn) in November 2007, a full year before the economic downturn, he was forced to sell one of his sports properties to fulfill what he termed "family commitments". The Canadiens, he admitted, were simply more sellable than Liverpool.

As for the tenure of his Liverpool ownership, Gillett stated that an assumption that he was in it for the long haul was "probably the correct conclusion". But, he added, "If someone gets beamed in who's got bags of money, things may change."

Gillett also confirmed that Liverpool will unveil a new shirt sponsor on September 18, stating: "I think people will be pleased and surprised. It will be one of the great, worldwide corporations. And I think it will be a sponsor people will be pleased and surprised to be [associated with] Liverpool."

Addressing the club's demand for tickets - which he estimated at 75,000 - he said both he and Hicks would revisit their plans for a new stadium "as the world economy gets better - if and when it gets better."

"We were going to build an iconic stadium previously," he said. "The world economy has certainly suggested that it would be a good suggestion. But in the normal world, building a stadium in the 65,000 to 75,000 seat range - we would look forward to that."