Saturday, September 19, 2009

Match Preview: West Ham United vs. Liverpool

Liverpool travel to West Ham on Saturday evening aiming to keep pace with the leading pack.

The Reds have won their last two Premier League games to steady the ship after losing two of their first three encounters.

West Ham have not won since the opening day of the season and they will be keen to secure their first home success of the campaign.

Hammers boss Gianfranco Zola is still missing left-back Herita Ilunga with a cheekbone injury meaning James Tomkins will continue in defence.

Midfielder Luis Boa Morte remains sidelined with a knee problem, but Valon Behrami is pushing for a recall after making his return from a long-term injury as a substitute in last weekend's defeat to Wigan.

Alessandro Diamanti is pushing for a place in the starting line-up after impressing off the bench against Wigan and he could partner Carlton Cole in attack.

New signing Guillermo Franco is unlikely to feature having only signed for the club on Thursday.

Javier Mascherano is set to return to the Liverpool starting XI against his former club after recovering from a back problem.

The Argentine made a late cameo against Debrecen in midweek and he is set to return in midfield alongside Lucas Leiva allowing Steven Gerrard to resume his partnership with Fernando Torres in attack.

Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani is still missing as he recovers from an ankle problem, while the game has come too soon for Daniel Agger who is expected to return to action next week.

Fabio Aurelio is set to content himself with a place on the bench as he continues to find his fitness after a knee problem.

Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun are both likely to start against their former employers.

It Will Be Tough To Beat Liverpool Rivalry, Insists Ferguson

Manchester City may have spent £120million on new players - but Sir Alex Ferguson will always regard Liverpool as Manchester United's true local rivals.

Not since 1968, when United won the European Cup and City finished top of the old Division One have Manchester's two giants met on anything like an equal footing.

But the pair go head to head at Old Trafford on Sunday with far more than bragging rights at stake.

United are looking for victory to enhance their chances of landing a record fourth consecutive title, while City bid to extend a four-match winning streak that will raise optimism about a sustained championship challenge.

However, while Ferguson is aware of the threat, after 23 years of dominance over City, his natural instinct remains to view the threat from Merseyside as more acute and dangerous.

"I don't know. I don't think so," replied Ferguson when asked whether the derby could one day be bigger than those titanic tussles with Liverpool.

"To me Liverpool will always be the derby game.

"It is just because of the history. When I came down here they were the king-pins of England. They had won four European Cups and quite a few league titles.

"My aim was to do well against them and to try and turn that round. It is hard for me to go against that history."

The United boss sent a few barbs in City's direction as he assessed Sunday's game, mainly in the assessment of what constitutes success for a club who have achieved so little for so long but now find themselves muscling their way onto the top table.

There is, though, one pretty significant irritation, in the shape of the provocative Carlos Tevez poster proclaiming: "Welcome to Manchester."

Ferguson was unhappy at the time when it went up at one end of Manchester's busy Deansgate shopping area, emphasising as it did City's claim to be the city's only club bearing in mind Old Trafford is outside the boundaries. It still irks him now.

"That stupid poster upset us," he said.

"It showed an arrogance. It was naughty. It showed a cockiness that wasn't required at the time because they hadn't done anything.

"The season hadn't even started."

Even Ferguson was smiling when he described the contest as "small", knowing just how much attention will be focused on it, not just in Manchester and the north west of England, but worldwide.

Yet the words he has kept hearing about City relate to their ability to reach the top four, breaking, as it would, the cartel that has existed in England for too long.

Ferguson himself has no interest in the top four - only in being number one.

"The things City are doing don't particularly worry me," he said.

"What we concern ourselves with is winning the league.

"People talk about trying to get into the top four. That is not the question. The question is who is number one.

"Manchester City have been given the chance to be better than Manchester United.

"But when you spend that kind of money there is an expectation. The challenge has to be for them to try and win something, whether it is the league or the FA Cup.

"They will be expected to challenge for these trophies without doubt."

Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez Backs Fernando Torres To Return To Free-Scoring Ways

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has backed Fernando Torres to swiftly discover his deadly touch in front of goal.

The Spanish striker has three goals so far this season, but freely admits that he has not yet reached the incredible standards he has set in two breathtaking seasons in the Premier League.

Benitez, though, is untroubled by the relative lack of form and goals from the Anfield forward, and instead draws a massive positive from the fact that his team are still leading scorers in the top flight, without relying entirely on Torres.

"You know Fernando, he will score goals, there is no doubt about that, so we are not worried at all about him. I think if he gets a goal then he will go on a run and get many more," Benitez said.

"I think he looked much better in the Champions League in midweek. He had to work all summer with his national team and missed a lot of pre-season, but he looked stronger and brighter, and that is encouraging.

"He is working very hard and we have complete confidence he will score goals. He has shown he is prepared to work hard and we know the goals will come."

Benitez is pleased that Liverpool have shown they can cope even without their top scorer dominating so far, with the likes of Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun impressing in front of goal.

His side travel to West Ham this weekend, and the manager believes when Torres really starts to fire, the Reds will be a difficult proposition for any opponents.

"We are happy that we are scoring goals even when Fernando isn't," Benitez added. "To be able to find goals from other players and not just your top scorer is a very good thing, and I think we are in a good position."

Javier Mascherano could return to the Liverpool side to face his former club at Upton Park, but Benitez is unlikely to make many more changes from the team that beat Debrecen in midweek.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard Predicts African Impact On Premier League Title Race

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard is anticipating that January's African Cup of Nations could have a decisive influence in this season's Premier League title race, with the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea losing vital players to the three-week tournament, at a time of year when key points can be collected for the top sides.

"Everyone will have blips and some of the teams lose important players with the African Nations. It's a long season - there are a lot of games and a lot football to be played yet," the England international told the Reds' official website

"Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City have got off to good starts but there is a long way to go before you start predicting who will be up there at the end."

Liverpool travel to London to face West Ham United at Upton Park this Saturday evening, and Gerrard is confident that fans will see an improvement in the team's performance after a somewhat disappointing 1-0 win over Debrecen in the Champions League on Wednesday night.

The Reds' finishing in particular was poor, but the talismanic midfielder is convinced that the best is yet to come from last year's Premier League runners-up.

"The confidence is slowly starting to filter back into the side," he added. "Obviously we were disappointed to lose those two games close together but we are building slowly.

"We know we are a good team, we know we have good players. It does take a while to get back to your best after losing two games you don't expect to lose but we're happy with the progression. Now we've got to go get a good win on Saturday.

"We know it's very early and we know when the prizes are given out - at the end of the season. But it was important to recover and get back to where we want to be - and now we're close to that.

"We've also got some players coming back from injury. Fabio Aurelio has a lot of quality and is a very experienced player, so it'll be nice to get him back. And Alberto Aquilani looks a very exciting player. It will be nice to have the option of playing him, though he's not ready just yet.

"There's a couple of big fixtures, so if we concentrate on our own performance and get a win, hopefully the table will look more in our favour come Monday.

"Upton Park has always been a tough place to go. We got a good win there last year when we were well organised and dangerous on the counterattack. I'm sure that will be the plan again at the weekend."

Rafa Won't Risk Agger

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has revealed he will not take any risks with Daniel Agger's fitness.

Agger is close to returning to action after undergoing a minor back operation last month.

The Dane has yet to feature this season due to the problem, but Benitez believes the classy central defender could be back in action next week.

Liverpool's injury problems are easing with Fabio Aurelio making his first appearance of the campaign as a late substitute against Debrecen in midweek and other long-term absentee Alberto Aquilani set to start training in the next few weeks.

"Aurelio is now ready for a comeback, Mascherano is also over his problem while Danny Agger is very close to a return and (Alberto) Aquilani is also getting close to being involved in full training," said Benitez.

"When the majority of our squad are fit, we can manage games with more confidence.

"Agger is a risk, he could play now, but he has been out for a long time and we have to be careful with him. But I believe that next week he could be available."

Dirk Kuyt Eager To Score Goals That Supplement Fernando Torres And Steven Gerrard’s Efforts

Ask any observer to pinpoint a weakness in Liverpool’s squad, and it won’t take long before conversation gravitates around a familiar failing.

In Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Rafael Benitez boasts perhaps the most devastating attack partnership in Europe.

But beyond the fearsome duo, the Spaniard does not appear to have the wealth of striking options available to many Premier League rivals.

However, in the past week Dirk Kuyt has posted a timely reminder of his natural predatory instincts.

With Gerrard operating in a deeper midfield role, Kuyt has filled the gap vacated by the skipper to good effect, following his goal in the 4-0 romp over Burnley last Saturday with the solitary strike that saw off Debrecen in Liverpool’s opening Champions League group game on Wednesday.

And when asked about possibly acting as cover for Torres or Gerrard, Kuyt says: “It could be important this season. When you speak of Torres and Gerrard, you’re talking the best players in our team.

“The likes of me, Yossi Benayoun, Albert Riera and those in front want to be as helpful as possible scoring goals as well. We’re doing that at the moment so it is very positive.

“I try to fill that role (Gerrard’s), fill in that position, and I’m delighted to have come up with goals on Wednesday night and at the weekend. But this team has lots of quality throughout.

“For me it isn’t important where I play, as long as it works for the team. Stevie played the last two in midfield and I was in behind Fernando, and I am enjoying my time there as much as I did on the right.

“I’m just glad I could be important this season with a few goals and assists. Hopefully I can do a bit more too.”

Kuyt now has 12 European Cup goals for the Anfield outfit, moving him alongside Terry McDermott in third place in the club’s all-time scoring list for the competition and behind only Ian Rush (14) and Gerrard (28).

It was enough to edge Benitez’s side past Debrecen, the unheralded Hungarians unable to capitalise on a misfiring Liverpool performance.

“Of course we wanted to win with a few goals, but the second didn’t come and in the end the most important thing is the win, especially with it being our first game,” says Kuyt.

“The second could have killed it off, but they defended very deep. We know we have to play better than this, and we will.

“I’m happy with the goal, especially in Europe, because we all know how special this competition is to us.”

While Kuyt has netted in successive games, Torres has raised some concern for a clutch of ineffective performances for both club and country in the past fortnight.

But Kuyt says: “We as players don’t talk about Fernando Torres not scoring. He’s a top striker, a quality player and it’s not always just about scoring the goals. Stevie said we have more who can come up with them now.

“We won 4-0 against Stoke and again on Wednesday and he didn’t score, but I can tell you in the next couple of games he will be there again, because he is the best in the world. There are no concerns whatsoever for me or the team.”

Liverpool made hard work of their midweek victory, but the three points puts them joint top of the early Group E standings ahead of the next game in Fiorentina, for whom star striker Alberto Gilardino is suspended after his red card in the 1-0 defeat at Lyon.

And Albert Riera says: “It was very important to win the first game though, especially for our confidence. We would have preferred to win comfortably but at least we won.

“The other teams know how we are playing and this sometimes makes things difficult, but we were trying to find space in the middle and trying to play really good football when perhaps we should have played more long balls because they were not going to let us play the kind of football what we wanted to. But we like to play good football at home and we will play better than this.

“We have had a strange start to the season but we are going better now and our confidence is improving.”

Riera has started Liverpool’s last two games after admitting to a flare-up with Benitez over his lack of first-team opportunities during the opening weeks of the season.

But the Spanish winger adds: “I have already said that if the season starts and a player is not playing but he is still happy that this is not right. All the players want to play and I am the same.

“If the day comes when I am happy to sit on the bench then I would prefer to retire because I always want to play.

“You need to have respect for your team-mates though, because if I am playing it means someone else won’t be, but I feel that I can give something to this team and that is why I want to play.

“I played a lot of games last season and I hope it is the same this time.”

Rafael Benítez: Premier League Wide Open

Rafael Benítez believes the Premier League title race is so open that at least six other teams pose a legitimate threat to his Liverpool side’s ambitions.

The Spaniard has identified Manchester City and Aston Villa as realistic contenders to dethrone champions Manchester United or replace Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea in the Champions League spots, although he perhaps surprisingly omitted mentioning Tottenham among those sides he sees as rivals.

“There are a lot of good teams in the division now,” the Liverpool manager said. “It will be more difficult for all of the teams to win games and maybe everyone will lose more this season than before.

“That would be good for us because we have already lost twice this season. But maybe over the next five games all of the others will drop points and we will not, so it will be back to how it was at the start of the season.

“I cannot say how many points you will need to win the title at this stage, because it is so early. But it will be more difficult for everyone.”

Saturday’s evening trip to West Ham – the first game held at Upton Park since the crowd trouble which marred Gianfranco Zola’s side’s Carling Cup win over Millwall – represents a chance for Liverpool to remind their rivals of their own title credentials, especially with four of those sides facing each other.

Tottenham, currently joint second with the two Manchester clubs, travel to Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, just hours after City and United have clashed at Old Trafford.

“It will be the same throughout the season,” said Benitez, “with difficult games for all of the teams. But all we can think about is our own game and making sure we do our job. We cannot influence any of the other games or what happens in them. We are only concerned with making sure we do what we can.

“West Ham will be very tough, we know that, and probably not the same as the 3-0 win we got at Upton Park last year, when we scored very early. They are a good team, a difficult team, with a good manager who has a strong idea of how he wants to play football.”

Torres Dreams Of Facing Gerrard In Final

Fernando Torres has declared that he wants to face club-mate Steven Gerrard in next summer's World Cup final.

Torres and Gerrard have struck up a special playing partnership at Liverpool, and have become close friends. Now the Spain international dreams of facing the England midfielder in next summer's final in South Africa.

Torres said: "We have a fantastic relationship and it's amazing to play alongside someone like Stevie. He has quality and pace and is the greatest player I've ever played with. I hope to play with him for many years.

"From my first day he was asking if I needed anything and he's been a great support to me. Now I want to play against Stevie in the World Cup final. England against Spain in the final would be special.

"If I could play against a friend like him that would be great, because whatever happens one of us will be a winner."

Torres goes into Saturday's clash with West Ham United admitting that he has not been at his best this season. But the striker maintains he is not in need of a rest after his summer exertions in the Confederation Cup.

Torres scored 17 goals in an injury-hit season last term, that followed his heroics in Spain's Euro 2008 triumph. This season Torres has hit three goals in six appearances, meaning he now has 53 strikes in 90 games for the club.

But he knows that his form has been patchy, and he wants to put that right.

Torres explained: "It was a really long season for me last time with so many games for Liverpool and then playing for Spain in the Confederations Cup. I played a lot of minutes and I was a little bit tired. I haven't been at my best so far this season but I feel like I'm getting better. I'm focused on trying to get back to 100 per cent as soon as possible and I'm ready to play in every game.

"We have a lot of things to achieve for Liverpool this season and I want to stay fit. We have a lot of games coming up and then the World Cup at the end of the season."

Torres, now in his third season with the club, admits the lack of trophies so far is a growing concern for him.

He said: "I've already had some special moments in my career like winning the European Championships with Spain. After the Euros it was very special to go home because people treated us as heroes. I want to experience things like that here. I hope to stay at this club for a long time and my target is to be remembered here as one of the top players.

"I could feel from the first day I arrived here that the main thing was the Premier League, not the Champions League. I know how important the league is to the fans and to be honest I would prefer to win the Premier League myself."

He added: "Twenty years without winning it is a long time. I'm sure that day will come and when it does it will be fantastic for the players and the fans. I'll give everything to achieve that for the fans. I have to do more things for Liverpool and I know I can improve.

"I hope to come back in 20 years to watch games at Anfield as a supporter. When that happens I hope people will recognise me as a player who played in the team which ended the club's long wait to win the Premier League."

Liverpool Owner Tom Hicks Promises Rafa Benitez Transfer Funds

Tom Hicks, the owner of English soccer club Liverpool, has promised that some of the income from the club's world record shirt sponsorship deal will be given to coach Rafa Benitez to use in the transfer market.

Hicks and his co-owner, George Gillett, have received some criticism from the club's fans over the level of their investment, but Hicks insists the club will continue to spend as it seeks to capture the English title for the first time in nearly two decades.

"Knowing Rafa Benitez I suspect he's got his eye on part of it," said Hicks. "As we build our revenues it gives ability to be more competitive on the pitch and, this is a very important one, but we think we have other opportunities in the future as well.

"Everybody involved with Liverpool wants to win the Premier League, it's been too many years and it's our goal."

Hicks also spoke about the improved relationships between himself, Gillett and Benitez. "Everything is very stable. I think the management situation at the club has dramatically improved," said Hicks. "There is a real sense of optimism."

Rafa Benitez: Out. Jose Mourinho: In?

What are the odds on that earth-shattering scenario to shake up the whole of football, let alone Anfield? Maybe pretty long odds, I would suspect. For the moment.

For me, this is a distinct possibility. This bombshell might not be quite as farfetched as it sounds. Let me explain. Rather let me light the blue touch paper and retreat to safety!

Liverpool are desperate to break Manchester United's stranglehold on the League title, which was once the private domain of Anfield. And patience is wearing thin with Rafa Benitez to deliver. Sir Alex Ferguson's dominance in the domestic league is something that has become far more than a mere irritation; it has become the club's Holy Grail.

Last season, with Fernando Torres looking to be Benitez's best buy by a long way, the club came so tantalisingly close. This season they were heavily favoured by pundits and by their own fans, as finally being in a position to mount a realistic challenge and eventually take the championship crown. Two early defeats have badly deflated such high expectations. Patience with Benitez is even thinner.

Failure to win at West Ham United on Saturday, in yet another massive ESPN live Premier League game to follow the thoroughly entertaining Spurs-Manchester United event, would heap enormous pressure on the manager. Patience with Benitez will be at an all-time low ebb.

And, if the pressure doesn't reach fever pitch at Upton Park should Liverpool win, then it could easily occur if Liverpool lose touch with the leaders at any stage in the near future.

At the moment Chelsea and Manchester City are setting the pace as both have 100% records. City's credentials will be tested to the limit in the Manchester derby, so it's Liverpool's big chance in East London to close the gap. Benitez dare not fail in this task.

The Champions League has been Benitez's field of expertise, and, indeed, saving grace, but it is the domestic title that their fans now crave above all else. Strange, because, it is the opposite at a club like Chelsea, who would dearly love to be taken seriously as one of Europe's elite by winning the Champions League. Don't get me wrong, their fans want to win the league as well, but the clubs priority is to finish at the summit of Europe.

Jose Mourinho delivered back-to-back titles, but never quite conquered the Liverpool hurdle in Europe. Mourinho's mission at Inter is to deliver the Champions League having won the league title in his first season. Any failure in Europe might be hard for Mourinho and Inter to accept, which might make his tenure in Italy far less secure.

Now, if Mourinho was returning to the Premier League, there would be two likely destinations, Old Trafford, or... Anfield.

There has been plenty of speculation that United's American owners would covet Mourinho the day Sir Alex opted to retire. But that might not be for another couple of seasons, and while Sir Alex likes the Portuguese coach and would not object to him taking over his mantle, Mourinho might feel uncomfortable with that, and he would surely wish to retain Sir Alex in some sort of advisory role.

However, there would be no hesitation on Mourinho's part on ousting Benitez. They never really got on during their conflicts in England and abroad when Mourinho was boss at Stamford Bridge. And Mourinho loves the Liverpool heritage, and would put them on his potential wish list for a return to English football.

I believe it is inevitable Mourinho will return. And, it will only be at a club that matches his ego in terms of size and paying power. The only club likely to challenge Liverpool for Mourinho's services, would be big spending Manchester City.

But they will stick with Mark Hughes, while they continue to be successful and Hughes has got off to a flyer this season with all his new signings in place, and more to come in the January transfer window.

So, logically, it is Mourinho for Anfield if Benitez fouls up in the Premier League this season, and already he hasn't made a very auspicious start.

Ngog Strike Sinks United

David Ngog staked a first-team claim with the winning goal as 10-man Liverpool Reserves beat arch-rivals Manchester United 1-0 on Thursday.

The French striker fired in the opening minutes but the Reds had to work hard to maintain their lead at Prenton Park following the first-half dismissal of midfielder Damien Plessis.

John McMahon's second string have now collected six points from their opening three Barclays Premier Reserve League (North) games and look set to be fighting at the right end of the table after last season's disappointing campaign.

Liverpool made a flying start on four minutes when David Martin took a leaf out of Pepe Reina's book by launching the ball right down field towards Ngog. The Frenchman controlled under pressure before coolly nodding past the oncoming Ron-Robert Zieler.

United hopeful Federico Macheda, whose winner against Aston Villa last season played a huge part in denying Liverpool the title, almost equalised eight minutes later after dancing into a yard of space in the box. His low drive brought a fine reflex save from Martin.

United continued to press but McMahon's two lines of four, marshalled by the impressive Victor Palsson and Chris Mavinga, were defending well.

There was almost a second for the Reds on the break when David Amoo zoomed past Joe Dudgeon before squaring to Nathan Eccleston. The 19-year-old beat the 'keeper but his finish was cleared off the line by right-back David Gray.

The further the half progressed, the better Liverpool became, and they almost fluked another goal when Amoo's cross swerved over the 'keeper and onto the roof of the net.

The Reds' dominance looked set to continue but the task of claiming north-west bragging rights became a whole lot tougher on 34 minutes when Plessis received a straight red after going in studs showing on United No.10 Magnus Eikrem.

McMahon quickly shuffled his pack, introducing Jay Spearing for winger Alex Kacaniklic.

Eccleston nearly created some breathing space when he thundered past two men before blasting too close to Zieler from a tight angle.

Liverpool started brightly in the second half, Ngog heading Spearing through on goal. The Wirral-born midfielder was just about to shoot when he was stopped in his tracks by a superb last-ditch tackle from centre-back Ritchie De Laet.

Macheda almost levelled things on 56 minutes after a defence-splitting pass brought him one-on-one with Martin, who saved well with his feet.

United were starting to take advantage of their extra man as one close shave followed another. Defender James Chester could have had a brace.

The visitors' wastefulness in front of goal should have been punished with 20 minutes remaining but Ngog missed the target with a header from five yards.