Saturday, September 26, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Hull City

Three weeks into the season, some quarters of the press were on the verge of writing off Liverpool's title chances altogether. Losses to Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa had highlighted what many deemed to be glaring weaknesses in Rafael Benitez's squad, with Xabi Alonso's absence singled out as the key missing ingredient.

Now, with five consecutive victories under their belts in all competitions, the Reds have hushed a few of their more vocal critics. Tuesday's League Cup win over Leeds United may not have been pretty – and the 1-0 scoreline hardly encouraging, on face value – but it sends the Mersey men into the weekend as confident as ever in their ability to deal with less-fancied opponents.

Even more than the result at Elland Road, the 4-0 home wins over Stoke City and Burnley underline a marked change from the Liverpool of previous seasons. Whereas frustrating draws were once the order of the day when facing the underdogs, now the Anfield giants have become that most dangerous of prospects: the flat-track bully. It is in just such a mode that Manchester United have claimed the last three Premier League crowns.

Hull City were among those teams that troubled 'Pool on their own patch last term, only a classic Steven Gerrard rescue job denying the Tigers all three points. The newly promoted side were flying at that point, threatening to snag the most unlikely of European places; but it is under different circumstances that they return to Merseyside.

Phil Brown is well and truly under the pump following the 4-0 league Cup defeat to Everton in midweek, forcing club chairman Paul Duffen to come out and throw his support behind a manager whose charges have won just two league games since the turn of the year. While a result this weekend is a tall order, fans are sure to scrutinise the overall performance closely.

Hull currently sit second from bottom with four points from six games, while Liverpool are third, six points behind leaders Chelsea.



Sep 22: Leeds United 0-1 Liverpool
Sep 19: West Ham United 2-3 Liverpool
Sep 16: Liverpool 1-0 Debrecen
Sep 12: Liverpool 1-0 Burnley
Aug 29: Bolton Wanderers 2-3 Liverpool

Hull City

Sep 23: Hull City 0-4 Everton
Sep 19: Hull City 0-1 Birmingham City
Sep 12: Sunderland 4-1 Hull City
Aug 29: Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-1 Hull City
Aug 22: Hull City 1-0 Bolton Wanderers



Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Martin Skrtel, Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun and Lucas Leiva are all expected to return to the first XI, having been rested for the Leeds clash.

Fit-again Fabio Aurelio could usurp Emiliano Insua at left-back, although the versatile Brazilian featured – and impressed – in midfield against the Whites on his first start of the season.

Daniel Agger (back) and Alberto Aquilani (ankle) remain sidelined.

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

Hull City

George Boateng only lasted 45 minutes on his return from injury in midweek, and it remains to be seen whether the Dutch veteran will be included on Saturday.

The inexperienced trio of Liam Cooper, Tom Cairney and Nick Featherstone will hope to get another chance to shine, while Craig Fagan could return after a spell on the pine.

Ian Ashbee and Anthony Gardner are out with knee injuries, alongside Jimmy Bullard, who is reportedly around four weeks away from a return. Steven Mouyokolo has a hamstring problem.

Possible Starting XI: Myhill, Dawson, Sonko, Zayatte, McShane, Kilbane, Hunt, Olofinjana, Geovanni, Vennegoor of Hesselink, Ghilas.


Liverpool - Yossi Benayoun

The little Israeli tore Hull to shreds when he visited the KC Stadium towards the end of last season. Presently in career-best form, the jinking genius will no doubt be looking forward to the prospect of bamboozling a defence still at odds after the departure of Michael Turner to Sunderland.

Hull City - Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink

As imposing as his name is bizarre, new boy Vennegoor of Hesselink brings with him an impressive CV that boasts of success with PSV Eindhoven, Celtic and the Dutch national team. The tall targetman could pose problems for a defence that looked less than cohesive at West Ham last week.

Rafa's Reds Hitting The Target

Rafa Benitez says his side are playing the same system as last season but are scoring more goals.

Liverpool have seen plenty of goals go in at either end of the field as they have racked up 15 Premier League goals and conceded nine in just six games.

Benitez's side have battled to two 3-2 away wins against Bolton and West Ham respectively, sparking criticism of their defensive abilities.

Despite the defensive mishaps, Liverpool look sharp at the other end but Benitez insists nothing has changed except their shooting accuracy.

Benitez said: "It is similar to last season - we are creating more or less the same situations but now we are scoring more goals because the accuracy is better," said Benitez.

"It is true we score a lot of goals. It's funny because people were talking before about us needing to score more goals because we were good in defence.

"Now they are saying we are scoring goals but conceding goals - so we can never win.

"Maybe it is because we are more offensive - but it is not because we are changing the system."

New full-back Glen Johnson has added extra threat to the Red's attack but question marks remain about his defensive qualities, but Benitez insists his side is generally attack-minded.

"Glen Johnson likes to go forward all the time," he said. "Alvaro Arbeloa defended a bit better so he had more balance," Benitez said.

"Yossi Benayoun, Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are all going forward, maybe it is more than last year but they have confidence and are playing well.

"We have been trying to do the same things as last year - the difference is the players have more confidence going forward as we have more people comfortable with the ball.

"It is not because we are playing higher or changing the system."

Benitez also feels the players have grown in stature after running United close in the title race last season and will use the experience to spur them on to better feats.

"It was very important for us. We won a lot of games in a row at the end of the season because we had a lot of confidence and we wanted to be as close to them as possible," he explained.

"You can take it as a positive because we were so close.

"This season it has almost been a problem because from the first day people were expecting us to win and score five goals in every game.

"Now, despite not starting well, we are in a good position and everyone has more confidence to play better.

"We know the teams at the top of the table will not make too many mistakes so we have to keep winning games."

Emiliano Insua Is Eager To Keep Improving

It’s a sign of the progress Emiliano Insua has made that he was nowhere to be seen at Elland Road on Tuesday night.

Not long ago a Carling Cup tie represented the young defender’s best chance of a Liverpool first team appearance.

In fact when the Reds were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition at Tottenham last season Insua couldn’t even get in a largely second string starting line up.

With Fabio Aurelio then established as first choice, Rafa Benitez turned to Andrea Dossena and Insua spent much of the night kicking his heels on the bench.

However, times have changed dramatically for the 20-year-old Argentinean who has made the left-back slot his own so far this season.

Aurelio’s knee injury presented him with an opportunity and he has grabbed it with both hands.

Rock solid defensively and a threat going forward, he has consigned £7million Italian international Dossena to life among the substitutes.

Insua, along with Yossi Benayoun, Dirk Kuyt and Lucas Leiva, was told to put his feet up in midweek.

It shows how far he has come that he’s now being left out of certain games and saved for bigger occasions.

Insua is expected to return to the backline for tomorrow’s Premier League clash with Hull City at Anfield and he is desperate to maintain the high standards he has set this season.

“The chance to play regularly has been great for me,” he said.

“Fabio’s injury gave me an opportunity to play and I have done my best to make the most of it.

“There is a lot of competition for places here with Fabio coming back and Andrea as well.

“It is a big challenge for me and I am enjoying it. Every game I have to show the manager that I deserve to stay in the team.

“When there are players pushing for your place you have to play even better each time you are selected.

“The fact that Rafa has faith in me has given me a lot of confidence. Every day he is looking at my game and helping me develop.

“I have learned a lot from him but I know I still have a lot to prove.”

Insua was snapped up on an 18-month loan deal from Boca Juniors in January 2007.

His first team debut arrived against Portsmouth three months later and his switch to Merseyside was made permanent following Gabriel Paletta’s move in the opposite direction.

Insua spent most of the 2007/08 campaign helping the reserves win the league and was rewarded with a new three-year deal.

Last season he made his mark with 13 appearances. He broke into the first team just before Christmas but January’s Under-20 South American Championships in Venezuela meant he was missing for a month and he only got back in the side in the closing weeks of the campaign.

This time the 5ft 8ins full-back has been in from the start and believes he’s now better equipped to cope with the demands of the Premier League.

“The game is so much quicker here than in Argentina,” he said.

“It’s very different to what I had been used to and it took time for me to adjust.

“But I’ve got stronger in the past two years and I love the physical side of English football.”

In the modern game defending is only half a full-back’s job and Insua has shown an increasing talent for joining up with the Reds’ attacks.

It was his forward burst and pass which created the opening for Fernando Torres’ stunning strike at West Ham last Saturday.

“Of course the priority is to defend well but I know I also have to influence things in the attacking third too,” he said.

“As a full-back it’s your job to get forward and help provide width.

“Against West Ham I anticipated Fernando’s run and picked him out with the pass.

“The way he beat the defender was amazing and it was a special goal. Fernando proved what a very important player he is for us.

“Hopefully I can have a part to play in lots more goals like that.”

Tuesday’s Carling Cup victory at Leeds was the Reds’ fifth successive triumph in all competitions.

Spirits are high but Insua insists there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Torres’ heroics helped secure the 3-2 win at Upton Park but defensive errors meant the Reds were twice pegged back after taking the lead.

Insua is hoping to ensure Hull aren’t handed the same kind of gifts.

Last season Phil Brown’s side raced into a 2-0 lead at Anfield before the Reds rallied to claim a share of the spoils.

“It was a difficult game for us at West Ham,” Insua added.

“We started well and passed the ball with a good tempo in the first half.

“But we made some mistakes at the back which meant rather than going into the break in front it was 2-2.

“The manager told us to forget about the mistakes and start again at the start of the second half.

“He asked us to keep the ball a bit better and try to play a bit higher. We kept pushing and in the end we were thankful to get the third goal.

“To get a run of wins is good for our confidence but we know we can play better.

“We are still in the first two months of the season and we have got a long way to go.”

Liverpool Can Beat Anyone At Anfield, Says Dirk Kuyt

Liverpool FC striker Dirk Kuyt says the Reds can make Anfield a more profitable venue in terms of Premier League points having struggled to break down teams at home last season.

Seven draws against the likes of Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull ultimately cost Rafa Benitez’s side what would have been a first title in 20 years as they finished second, four points behind Manchester United.

Although Liverpool FC have already lost to Aston Villa at Anfield this campaign - their first home league defeat since December 2007 - they also swept aside both Stoke and Burnley 4-0.

And Kuyt feels that shows they have learned important lessons about playing against sides who arrive on Merseyside looking to frustrate.

"Apart from the Villa match, I think we have shown that we can beat any side at Anfield this season," said the Holland international.

"We had difficulties last season with all the draws but now we are able to score goals in the first half.

"It’s really important to score as early as possible because then it will be more difficult for them and easier for us.

"We know the Barclays Premier League is one of the hardest leagues in the world and every team is good with some fine players."

Hull return to Anfield on Saturday nine months after they shocked their hosts in taking a 2-0 lead inside 22 minutes before they were pegged back by two goals from Liverpool FC captain Steven Gerrard.

At the time the Tigers were enjoying a dream start to their maiden Premier League season but this time around their fortunes have changed dramatically, taking just four points from six matches.

Liverpool FC, by contrast have won three successive league matches and are on a five-game winning streak.

"I believe Hull are a good team as well but we have to look at our own strengths and we must believe we can beat them," added Kuyt.

"We must focus on ourselves and respect the opponent.

"We didn’t start that well and have already lost twice. But we have now started to win a couple of games in a row and we want to keep that going, beginning with Hull."

Benitez Backing Carragher

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has jumped to the defence of under-fire Reds defender Jamie Carragher.

Carragher's form so far has come in for scrutiny after some below-par performances from Liverpool's defensive linchpin.

Liverpool have conceded nine goals in six Premier League matches and Carragher came in for criticism following last weekend's showing against West Ham.

Benitez insists he is happy with Carragher's form and stressed it was the whole side's responsibility to improve their defending.

"We have conceded some goals and he has made some mistakes but Carra is okay," said Benitez.

"It is a question of the team defending better, not just one or two players."

Liverpool face Hull City at Anfield on Saturday and Benitez is refusing to under-estimate the visitors despite their poor start to the campaign.

Hull earned a 2-2 draw at Liverpool last season, taking a two-goal lead before The Reds pegged them back and Benitez is not taking anything for granted against Phil Brown's struggling Tigers.

"We have to respect Hull because they were really good last year," added Benitez.

"The comeback against them last year showed our character but we cannot make mistakes at the beginning of the game."

Aquilani Begins Running

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez hopes summer signing Alberto Aquilani's return from injury may 'go a bit faster' now the Italian has started running in his rehabilitation.

The former Roma player arrived at Anfield in August after Benitez paid £20million for a player viewed as an ideal replacement for Xabi Alonso, who joined Real Madrid.

However, Aquilani, who has a reputation for being susceptible to injury, has yet to play this season as he was signed when recovering from an ankle operation.

Benitez, though, has confirmed that the Italy international has stepped up his rehabilitation by beginning running at the Reds' Melwood training ground.

The Liverpool boss has now hinted Aquilani could return ahead of schedule, telling the club's official website: "He's going forward, progressing and he started running. If that goes okay then everything will go a bit faster.

But Benitez has not set a timescale for Aquilani's comeback, despite reports that the midfielder could be ready to face Sunderland in mid-October.

"We have not set a target or any time, but he's doing well," said the Spaniard.

Liverpool Owner To Meet Gulf Royals To Discuss Joint Program

Liverpool co-owner George Gillett plans to meet with members of a Gulf royal family to discuss developing soccer academies in the Middle East and North Africa.

Gillett, a part-owner of Nascar’s Richard Petty Motorsports, told Bloomberg News that the sides will also talk at Saturday’s Premier League match with Hull about building Nascar-style race tracks in the Middle East.

“We are constantly looking for ways to expand our presence throughout the world and this is one step we are considering,” Gillett said in a telephone interview.

Gillett and his partner Tom Hicks are looking to raise funds to restart work on a new stadium for the 18-time English league champion and reduce debt of 240 million pounds ($386 million) with Royal Bank of Scotland Plc and Wachovia Corp. It’s unclear if a future equity investment will be discussed with the Mideast group.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg News revealed details of a March 2009 document prepared by the club’s bankers Rothschild and Merrill Lynch that proposed raising 100 million pounds, through an equity sale and new loans, to pay down existing debts. In July, the owners used 50 million pounds of their own money to refinance the debt.

The document also revealed a number of revenue-boosting plans, which included converting 1,000 regular seats into corporate seating and a push to build branded academies overseas. Some of the best young players from the foreign training centers will be invited to practice at Liverpool’s main development facility.