Sunday, October 18, 2009

Match Report: Sunderland 1 - 0 LiverpooL

Darren Bent staked a further claim for a place in England's World Cup squad as Sunderland heaped further misery on Liverpool.

However, he did so in controversial circumstances as the visitors were left fuming over the fifth-minute strike which secured the Black Cats' first victory over a 'top four' team since their return to the Barclays Premier League.

Bent's eighth goal of the season came when his shot was deflected past goalkeeper Pepe Reina by a red beach ball which had been thrown onto the pitch, although referee Mike Jones had little option but to award the goal.

But if the visitors felt aggrieved at the manner in which their third successive defeat in all competitions was sealed, they could have few complaints about the result in front of a crowd of 47,327 at the Stadium of Light.

With the injured Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres missing, they were a shadow of the side which pushed Manchester United so close last season as they slipped to their fourth league defeat of the campaign despite a late, late rally.

After their side's heroics at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, when only a late Anton Ferdinand own goal gave the reigning champions a point, the Wearside faithful arrived believing a win over one of the Premier League's traditional powers was a distinct possibility.

And if they needed further confirmation that it could be their day, they had to wait only five minutes.

There was nothing fortunate about the way Lee Cattermole and Andy Reid combined to open up the Reds down the right, and when the Irishman picked out leading scorer Bent beyond the far post, fate intervened.

Reina thought he had the striker's shot covered and could only look on in horror when it hit the beach ball and flew past him into the net.

Sunderland sensed an opportunity and could have been out of sight by half-time.

Bent might have completed a hat-trick but headed a 22nd-minute Reid cross straight at Reina and then glanced Phil Bardsley's driven ball wide of the far post seven minutes before the break.

Liverpool repeatedly found themselves under pressure as Reid, Cattermole and Steed Malbranque got forward to support strikers Bent and Kenwyne Jones as a back three of Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were swamped by red and white shirts.

But they managed to survive further mishap and gradually eased their way back into the game, although without ever putting Craig Gordon's goal under extreme pressure.

The Scotland international had to block Ryan Babel's 13th-minute shot on the turn at close quarters and was happy to see Fabio Aurelio's 27th-minute free-kick fly wide, but he was otherwise largely untroubled.

Bruce made a change at the break when his only specialist left-back, George McCartney, failed to re-appear, prompting a reshuffle.

Ferdinand moved across from centre-half as Lorik Cana dropped into central defence to accommodate teenage midfielder Jordan Henderson.

The newcomer almost made his mark within two minutes when his shot was blocked by Carragher, in the eyes of the home side with his arm, but Mr. Jones waved play on.

Reina kept his side in it with 55 minutes gone when he blocked Bent's effort after the striker had run onto Jones' pass and rounded him.

The goalkeeper needed the help of the woodwork six minutes later after Bent capitalised on more poor defending, but saw his shot come back off the foot of the post.

Bruce and Benitez became embroiled in an angry touchline spat as the injured Jones was treated at length on the pitch before, like Cattermole minutes earlier, leaving on a stretcher.

Malbranque was denied by Carragher's last-ditch block but Yossi Benayoun squandered a glorious opportunity to level two minutes later when he fired high and wide from 16 yards.

Benitez threw on strikers Andriy Voronin and David Ngog in a desperate effort to rescue a point, and deep into seven minutes of stoppage time Gordon had to make a fine double save from Dirk Kuyt and Ngog to deny Liverpool an undeserved point.

Liverpool Might Benefit If Rafa Benitez Learned To Accentuate The Positive

Rafael Benitez, the man who finds fault in the best of displays, is reportedly having trouble lifting the sombre mood at Liverpool.

As a manager, it is all very well concentrating on the negatives, on the one bad thing a player does in a game, say, rather than offering congratulations on a spectacular hat-trick.

That hard-line approach holds up if the team keep winning. Footballers will stomach their boss constantly nit-picking. They will overlook his aversion to pats on the back because spirit is good inside the camp. When the points are rolling in and confidence is high this relentless pursuit of perfection can be handled OK.

But that isn’t quite so easy when the tide turns, when performances dip and players lose form. All of a sudden, the gaffer’s continual carping doesn’t seem so quaint. The dressing room atmosphere gets a bit heavy, with more people than usual having a moan.

Some reckon that is happening at Liverpool following a couple of defeats on the spin. Rafael Benitez, the man who finds fault in the best of displays, is reportedly having trouble lifting the mood.

True or not, the Spaniard now faces an exacting week. After Saturday’s tricky trip to in-form Sunderland, Lyon visit Anfield on Tuesday for a Champions League tie that takes on added significance after that lame defeat to Fiorentina. And just to keep the tension going, Manchester United pitch up for a cracker next Sunday.

Not only that, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres might miss the lot, having picked up injuries on international duty. All the best Rafa. Pick your way through that.

This might be a good time, then, to loosen up a bit, to start reminding his other charges of their strengths rather than weaknesses. Because over the next few days Benitez desperately needs everyone pulling in the same direction to stop Liverpool’s season from losing vital momentum.

Rafael Benitez Confirms Alberto Aquilani Is Close To First-Team Liverpool Return

Alberto Aquilani has undergone two training sessions with his Liverpool team-mates and all that is left to finalise his return is to improve his match fitness, according to Rafael Benitez, who confirmed the news to the club's official website on Saturday.

The Italian was bought in the summer, as a replacement for Real Madrid-bound Xabi Alonso, but has been sidelined since his transfer due to an ankle injury.

Benitez said: "Aquilani has been training - he's had two sessions with the team.

"Physically he can improve but at least now he can play football with the team. It's very positive."

Regarding a time-frame for a complete return, Benitez was hesitant about making any confirmation, but added: "It depends how he progresses physically.

"In terms of the problem he had with his ankle, he has to keep training. We'll be away this weekend so he has time to improve.

"Hopefully in the next week he'll continue with the team and then it's a question of his match fitness, nothing else."

Jose Hits Out At Wenger And Benitez

Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho has stoked up old rivalries with former Premier League adversaries Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez, claiming he has to win trophies to keep his job.

The former Chelsea manager, speaking about the pressures of managing in Serie A, drew less than complimentary comparisons to the recent records of the Arsenal and Liverpool managers, saying:

"[Arsene] Wenger has been Arsenal's coach for 15 years but he hasn't won even a Carling Cup for six years. [Rafa] Benitez hasn't won a league title in six years but he continues to be Liverpool's coach.

"This is not the Italian mentality. To stay here I must continue winning and do well."

Mourinho guided Inter to the Serie A title last season, and has also lifted the Supercoppa Italiana since taking over the reigns of the Nerazzurri.

And in an interview with Inter Channel, Mourinho, whose inflammatory comments will no doubt be greeted tersely in London and Liverpool, admitted he is called a ‘bausica’ - a Milanese idiom for an arrogant, foul-mouthed person.

"Am I a 'bauscia'? Yes, I know what it means," he said.

"Certainly all the fans know I give everything for the club and also to them. I couldn't work any other way, that's how I am."

Mourinho has certainly lived up to that moniker since replacing former Inter coach Roberto Mancini, receiving three red cards and two touchline bans during his short tenure in Milan.

But after picking holes in Benitez and Wenger’s CVs, the two-time UEFA manager of the year did manage to find some kind words, for one of his own players.

Speaking ahead of the eagerly anticipated clash against Genoa, which sees two of Italian football’s most attack-minded sides go head to head, Mourinho heaped praise on midfielder Esteban Cambiasso.

“I would need two Cambiassos, one playing 10 meters further forward and the other 10 meters behind,” he said.

Saudi Firm Says Liverpool Stake Talks On Hold

Private Saudi sports investment firm F6 said on Saturday that talks with George Gillett, the American co-owner of English football club Liverpool, to buy a stake in the club are on hold.

Gillett arrived earlier this week to Riyadh sparking speculation that the visit will push towards the conclusion a deal with F6 owners, who include Saudi Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah and Saudi businessman Majed al-Hugail.

"The purchase of a stake in Liverpool has not been discussed throughout Gillett's visit, not for even five minutes," F6 Deputy Managing Director Gassim Hamidaddin told Reuters.

"The discussions are now on hold. The idea of buying a stake in Liverpool was put on the table in September but since then nothing happened," he added.

Investors from Gulf Arab countries have shown growing interest in acquiring soccer clubs in the English Premier League.

In August, United Arab Emirates' investor Sulaiman al-Fahim completed a takeover of Portsmouth Football Club before reselling later a large stake in the club to a Saudi businessman.

Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment bought Manchester City last year.

F6 is focusing on implementing the terms of a contract it signed last month with the George Gillett Group that would lead to opening Liverpool academies in the Middle East and North Africa and develop race tracks to introduce NASCAR motor racing to the Middle East.

"That's what was discussed during Gillett's visit," Hamidaddin said.

Liverpool are keen to raise fresh cash to help challenge for top footballing honours and fund the construction of the new stadium, as well as finance debt estimated at 245 million pounds.

Liverpool is England's most historically successful club, with 18 league titles and five European Cup triumphs.

Last month, Al-Riyadh newspaper quoted F6 Chairman Prince Faisal as saying he was willing to pay between 200 million and 350 million pounds ($318 million to $556.5 million) for between 25 and 50 percent of the Anfield Stadium side.

Gillett and fellow American Tom Hicks -- Liverpool's co-owner -- have had a stormy relationship since purchasing the club for 218.9 million pounds in 2007 and neither wants to sell his stake to the other.

The two men were in talks in January to sell the club for 500 million pounds including debt to investors from the region, including Kuwait, but talks broke down over price, one of those involved said.

Life's A Doss For Liverpool's Andrea Dossena

Andrea Dossena is extremely confident that Italian international Alberto Aquilani will make the difficult transition from Serie A to the Premier League.

"He has the quality to adapt because he is very clever. He understands the football here and knows how to make the right decision on the ball quickly," said the Italian international and former Serie A star, who is happy to accept being third-choice full-back at Anfield despite costing £8 million.

Which begs the question: Has a player ever been so open and honest about his own lack of intelligence or quality?

Benitez: Give Me A Break

Rafael Benitez has renewed his attack on the international calendar after his preparations for a crucial week in Liverpool’s season were thrown into chaos.

Talismanic duo Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are both absent through injury when Benitez’s under-pressure side resume Premier League duties at Sunderland on Saturday.

“Both players were playing with us, and after they went to the international teams they came back injured,” said Benitez (pictured).

The Liverpool manager once more criticised the demands of an international schedule that he believes is weighted too heavily in favour of the national federations.

“I cannot change the situation,” he said. “The federations have the control more than the clubs.

There is a group of clubs – the G20 or the G200, I’m not sure how many – and still the federations have the control.

“I think that should change. I always say the same. But it’s not my job.

“I have spoken in the past about playing internationals on the Wednesday and Saturday, or maybe the Saturday and Tuesday. I try to explain why, but it doesn’t seem to matter.”

And Benitez has further concerns over the fitness of Argentine duo Javier Mascherano and Emiliano Insua following their World Cup exertions in South America during the past week.

While Brazil midfielder Lucas Leiva was back training at Melwood yesterday after appearing for his country, Mascherano and Insua only linked up with the squad in Wearside last night.

It must cast a question mark over their physical readiness for what is expected to be a bruising encounter at the Stadium of Light, where Liverpool can ill afford to lose any more ground having lost three of their first eight league games.

“All the things that can happen after an international break – injuries, playing the next game away and playing it on the Saturday – we knew might happen and now they’ve happened,” said Benitez.

“It’s not the ideal preparation. But you cannot change things. You have to adapt and then maybe try and do your best. Now we have to think about winning every single game. Sunderland will be the first one.”

Both Torres and Gerrard returned from international duty carrying groin problems, and although scans have shown no serious muscle damage, neither has recovered sufficiently to play today.

Benitez is hopeful the pair will be available for Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Lyon and the visit of Manchester United five days later.

“They have more or less the same problem with the adductor of the groin,” said the Spaniard. “It’s not a serious injury but it’s too early for them.”

It is the latest time Torres has returned from international duty with an injury, despite Liverpool liasing closely with the Spanish medical team during the past year, but Benitez chose to keep his counsel on the matter.

“I have my opinion, but I prefer to think about Sunderland because it’s the only thing I can do now,” he said. “We cannot change the situation now.”

There was some positive injury news, however, with scans revealing Sotriois Kyrgiakos is not facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines.