Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Martin Samuel: It's Tough At The Top For Benitez After Losing His Alonso X-Factor

The last English team to lose three of their first eight League games and go on to win the title were Manchester United in season 1966-67. We all know what happened next.

For those who believe in lucky omens, it stands to reason that from here Liverpool will collect their first title of the modern era in May and lift the European Cup at Wembley the following season. Leaving Stamford Bridge, however, Rafael Benitez did not look much like a man who was sensing a golden destiny in the stars.

He may have been contemplating another run dating back to March 22 last season when Liverpool defeated Aston Villa 5-0 at Anfield.

With the title race still very much alive at the time, Villa were, arguably, the last good team Liverpool beat in a match that mattered. On that day, anything seemed possible, certainly the imminent lifting of the Premier League trophy. Liverpool were coming off a 4-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, having already beaten Chelsea home and away. Steven Gerrard was in blistering form and his relationship with Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres was being hailed as the tactical masterstroke of the season.

Things change. Gerrard and Torres are still in situ, but Alonso is long gone and, suddenly, Liverpool are struggling against the best. This season they have lost to every good team they have played: Tottenham, Villa, Fiorentina and now Chelsea.

It is happening too often to be dismissed as a blip. On Sunday, Liverpool were inferior against a Chelsea team who had every reason to be fearful, coming off the back of defeat at Wigan and an unconvincing victory over APOEL Nicosia.

It was this fixture last season that put Luiz Felipe Scolari on the slippery slope to Uzbekistan and judgment was being reserved on his successor Carlo Ancelotti until it was over. Simply, he won: the match and the tactical battle.

This was a vindication of Ancelotti's diamond midfield and the subtle changes he has made to Chelsea's style of play. Liverpool, by contrast, looked predictable and threatened rarely.

The caution that has often been a flaw in Benitez's thinking returned. Yossi Benayoun, one of their most effective players this season, remained stranded on the bench until the 66th minute. Only when Chelsea were two clear did Liverpool spring to life and force a save from stand-in goalkeeper Henrique Hilario.

This was an opportunity lost and for 43 years of history to be overcome, Benitez must first solve the problem caused by Alonso's absence.

His task is made more complex by the fact it will not be an issue every week. Against weaker teams, the deep midfield partnership of Lucas and Javier Mascherano is perfectly adequate. Cutting the supply line to Gerrard is vital in beating Liverpool, but inferior teams cannot sustain it and the games against Hull, Stoke, West Ham, Burnley and Bolton have yielded five wins and 20 goals as a result.

The better sides, though, will usually deploy an expert defensive screen. Wilson Palacios was outstanding for Tottenham on the opening day of the season. At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's tight midfield four squeezed the life out of Liverpool's middle men.

The move for the first goal began with Frank Lampard nailing Mascherano and while it was the earliness of Didier Drogba's cross for Nicolas Anelka that was the defining element, the build-up, which also involved Michael Essien and Deco, demonstrated the significance of Chelsea's superiority in midfield.

Lucas is young and does not deserve to be made the scapegoat - he was probably superior to Mascherano - but the fact is that Alonso was key to Liverpool's resurgence last season and without him they miss the urgency of his passes to Gerrard.

'Xabi Alonso was priceless for me,' Steven Gerrard explained when we met last month. 'The speed of his delivery was essential because it gave us the advantage over the defenders. I really miss him because I scored a lot of goals that were down to his speed of thought.

'The service, the way he controlled games, to lose that was big for us. He is one of the best in the world in that position.

He reminded me of Claude Makelele, one of those players who are only really appreciated by their team-mates. The Chelsea players would pay tribute to Makelele, Zinedine Zidane talked about him at Real Madrid, too. The speed those guys play the ball is scary.'

There was little scary about Liverpool. They were ponderous compared to Chelsea and even Torres suffered in comparison to Drogba. He set up both Chelsea goals and, despite the usual irksome antics, admiration won the day. With Deco at the forward point of Ancelotti's diamond and Lampard restored to his deeper role, Chelsea's mechanism is working again.

The fault in Liverpool's apparatus is simply identified, too; they have a missing part and it is not one that can be easily placed on order.

Sampdoria Starlet Andrea Poli Inspired By Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard

One of Sampdoria's protagonists in the early part of 2009-10 has been midfielder Andrea Poli, who has revealed he draws inspiration from Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.

"I know I'm young and still need to improve," he explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"I'm also sure that Samp is the best club to help me achieve this goal. Here I have found people who are available to me and a trainer who is keen to teach talented players."

Asked who his role models are, he replied, "In Italy, I am inspired by [Daniele] De Rossi, [Andrea] Pirlo and [Angelo] Palombo. Looking abroad I like [Cesc] Fabregas, [Frank] Lampard and [Steven] Gerrard, who for me is the best midfielder in the world.

"One day I'd like to meet him and ask for his autograph."

The 20-year-old had a successful spell on-loan at Sassuolo last year and has been touted as a star of the future.

Don't Write Off Liverpool, Says Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti has refused to write off Liverpool despite helping land a further blow to their title challenge.

Ancelotti led Chelsea to a 2-0 victory over their championship rivals at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

Goals from former Anfield striker Nicolas Anelka and substitute Florent Malouda sent Liverpool tumbling to their third defeat in just eight Premier League games this season.

But Ancelotti said: “I think it’s a long way to the end of the season and Liverpool has the quality to do a very good season.

“We played against a strong team and it was a difficult game until the very end. We got a very good three points against a very good team.”

Kjaer Refuses To Rule Out Utd

Palermo defender Simon Kjaer says he would not turn down a move to Manchester United just because he is a Liverpool fan.

The Red Devils are reportedly keeping tabs on the Denmark international, who has been linked with a number of top clubs in the past, including Real Madrid and Liverpool.

While the centre-back and is a huge Reds fan, he has admitted that if his chances to play regularly at Old Trafford were greater he would opt for the Red Devils.

The 20-year-old told Tipsbladet: "If United just had two defenders whilst Liverpool had three, I would choose United without hesitation.

"It does not help to choose with the heart in that kind of situation. I am a professional."

Carragher Eyes Reds Revival

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher is confident the Reds will be ready for a vital week that could turn their season around.

Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Chelsea was the Reds' third defeat of the season and the result leaves them six points adrift of Carlo Ancelotti's pacesetters. But Carragher refuses to be downcast and insists Liverpool will bounce back against Sunderland and Manchester United in the league and Lyon in Europe.

"It's never nice to lose before an international break, particularly a game as big as that, but we have got to put it behind us," he said.

"It would have been good to send the international lads away with a bit of a buzz but it wasn't to be and now it's a case of putting it behind us.

"When we get back to it, we have got a massive week coming up with those games against Sunderland, United and Lyon.

"But every week you have as a Liverpool player is massive and we know we'll have to be at our best to get going again at Sunderland, as they are in good form."

Liverpool matched Chelsea in a thrilling opening half at Stamford Bridge but mistakes from Javier Mascherano and some sloppy defending from Carragher allowed Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda to score in the second period.

The errors are something Carragher admits must be improved on quickly if the Reds are to remain in the title hunt.

"I thought we played quite well and did all right for most of the game yet we have still come away with a 2-0 defeat," he added.

"It's the small details that are so important at this level and we know that there are certain areas we have got to improve. There's a gap at the top and we've got to close it."

Chelsea Defeat Leaves Liverpool Fighting English Soccer History

Less than a quarter of the way through the season, Liverpool has lost more Premier League games than it did in the whole of the last campaign.

The Reds, who last won the league in 1990, went down 2-0 at Chelsea, leaving the 18-time champion six points behind the table-topping Stamford Bridge team through eight of 38 games.

Five-time European champion Liverpool has also been beaten this season by Tottenham and Aston Villa after losing just twice in finishing second to Manchester United in May. No team since United in the 1966-67 campaign has lost three of the opening eight games and gone on to claim the league.

“You will see the top sides losing more points against any team,” Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez told reporters after yesterday’s game. “We have to keep going. We can’t just think about losing three games.”

Goals from Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda moved Chelsea atop the standings, two points ahead of Manchester United, which is also seeking a record 19th title after securing the championship for a third straight year last season.

Didier Drogba set up both goals for Chelsea, which rebounded after losing its unbeaten league record at Wigan on Sept. 26.

The Ivorian powered down the left wing before squaring for strike partner Anelka to open the scoring in the 59th minute. Then, in the last minute of regulation time, Drogba set up substitute Malouda from the opposite flank to guarantee the victory.

“Didier provided very good support for Nicolas and Malouda,” Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “But I think all the players worked very hard. If you want to win against Liverpool and other big teams all the players have to work hard.”

Liverpool’s approach made it difficult for Chelsea to adopt the open style Ancelotti has tried to impose since joining on July 1, the coach said.

“They had a very good defensive organization,” the former AC Milan coach said. “They don’t leave space in their midfield.”

Xabi Alonso, who was sold to Real Madrid preseason, scored the only goal in Liverpool’s win at Stamford Bridge last season. The Oct. 26 result ended Chelsea’s 86-game unbeaten home run in the league.

Lucas, Alonso’s replacement in midfield, failed to supply striker Fernando Torres with the service he needed to trouble the home team.

Torres, the league’s top scorer with eight goals, fluffed a header with 15 minutes remaining and missed from close range when the score was 1-0.

“I can’t blame any one of the players because they were working so hard,” Benitez said. “Torres was trying to do his job.”

It’s too early to predict whether the title will return to west London for the first time since 2006, Ancelotti said.

“Now we stay top of the list and we prepare for the next games with concentration and determination,” he said. “Our season depends on us.”

Skrtel Rues Denied Penalty

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel believes his side should have been awarded a first-half penalty in the defeat to Chelsea.

Skrtel, whose side slumped to their third defeat of the season after Sunday's 2-0 reverse, claimed the Reds were denied a spot-kick before the break after the defender was pulled down in the box by striker Didier Drogba.

"A cross was flying to the near post where I was and I was jumping to make a header," Skrtel told SITA.

"At that moment Drogba clearly pulled me down with his hands. I think it should have been a penalty kick for us."

Liverpool's title hopes have whittled further following the loss at Stamford Bridge and Skrtel admits he is keen to erase Sunday's result from his memory ahead of a round of international fixtures.

The centre-back's attention now turns to World Cup qualification with Slovakia, who face a crunch clash against Slovenia on Saturday, and the 23-year-old is now focussed on the weekend game.

Skrtel added: "Naturally, we all feel very sorry about the result. Chelsea scored two goals while we scored none despite creating some good opportunities. That's why they won.

"At the moment I'm feeling the disappointment from the Chelsea game but I'm looking forward to the international meet-up."