Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs. Lyon

Rafael Benitez believes a fit-again Steven Gerrard can lead Liverpool out of the slump that has seen them lose three games in succession.

Meaningful involvement in both the Premier League and Europe is now under threat and boss Benitez is fully aware of the importance of a victory at Anfield tomorrow when Group E leaders Lyon must be overcome in the Champions League.

Anything else, and the balloon really will go up for Benitez, who is still shaking his head in despair at the freak goal that saw Liverpool lose at Sunderland.

That Darren Bent's winner went in off a red beach ball bought by a fan from Liverpool's own club megastore just about sums up Benitez's difficult season so far.

Now Liverpool face back-to-back Champions League clashes with the French league leaders, as well as a visit from champions Manchester United over the next fortnight.

The return of Gerrard from a groin injury, despite the fact Fernando Torres is still out with a similar injury, can be the boost Benitez believes his squad need.

He said: "With Steven around, it has an effect on the other players. He is an inspiration to them.

"Steven is a winner with the right mentality. But we have to see these players on the pitch, they cannot win games when they are injured.

"The team knows we are not playing at the right level, but they also know that we are good enough.

"They know we must start playing again at that level, their response in training has been positive and we must repeat that on the pitch. One good result will change everything.

"I am confident in my team, we are trying to improve and the response of the players this week has been very good and back to our best.

"We have gone from winning five on the trot to losing three in succession. We were scoring lots of goals and now we have not scored in three.

"But I do not believe there is much difference in all these games. We have played well, created chances and won praise for our attacking play.

"Hopefully we can start to win again, the atmosphere will be better and the mood will change as confidence improves.

"I hope that the Champions League will create a special atmosphere that will inspire the players, as it usually does in games like this at Anfield.''

Lyon boss Claude Puel fears his side's task tomorrow has been made a whole lot tougher because Liverpool are in such a poor vein of form.

Les Gones know a win at Anfield will all but secure their passage to the last 16.

Puel says: "I would rather be playing Liverpool when they are on a good run, not as they are at the moment. Liverpool know they must win.

"They have had some bad results and they are obliged to win and to play well. That puts us under a lot more pressure, but we have two wins already in this group and it is very important to continue in this form.''

Lyon have beaten Fiorentina and Debrecen so far in this group, but slumped to their first defeat of the season on Saturday when lowly Sochaux won 2-0 at the Stade de Gerland in the league.

Puel added: "Liverpool will have the edge because they are at home, there will be a great atmosphere and it will lift them.

"But we must start the game well. We did not do that on Saturday against Sochaux, we dare not do the same thing here.

"I accept that we are missing key players, we have defensive problems, but I believe we have enough quality in our squad to cope with these problems.

"There will be no need to motivate my team, we must impose our own style on the game and we know we will have to be at our best.''

Lyon will be without three central defenders tomorrow with Mathieu Bodmer (groin), Cleber Anderson (knee) and Jean-Alain Boumsong (groin) all missing.

Rafa Eyes Gerrard Impact

Rafa Benitez believes the return of Steven Gerrard from injury can inspire Liverpool to turn around their recent poor form.

The Reds captain missed the 1-0 defeat to Sunderland at the weekend, along with Fernando Torres, with a groin injury but trained on Monday ahead of the UEFA Champions League clash with Lyon.

Liverpool have seen their form dip alarmingly over the last few weeks, with the defeat at the Stadium of Light their third successive loss and their fourth in the Premier League overall.

However, Benitez is hoping the return of Gerrard will give the team a much needed lift at a crucial stage of the season, with rivals Manchester United visiting Anfield on Sunday.

"With Steven around, it has an effect on the other players. He is an inspiration to them," he said.

"Steven is a winner with the right mentality. But we have to see these players on the pitch, they cannot win games when they are injured.

"The team knows we are not playing at the right level, but they also know that we are good enough.

"They know we must start playing again at that level, their response in training has been positive and we must repeat that on the pitch. One good result will change everything.

"It is important to have Steven back, we have had some problems with injuries right from the start of the season so it is a big boost for us to have him back.

"Torres is not ready so we will have to wait a little bit longer but hopefully he will be okay for the weekend against Manchester United.

"The problems we have had this season have been too many to solve. We have had problems with our centre-backs, then there was Gerrard unfit and now we also have forwards out."

The fact that Liverpool saw Darren Bent's effort on Saturday crucially divert off a beach ball, which was ironically bought at the club's megastore, sums up the Reds' season so far but Benitez is confident his side will soon turn the corner.

"We have virtually the same group of players as we had last season and that ended up with us finishing second," he added.

"We need confidence and some wins, there is no need to start worrying. I believe we are strong enough to compete just as we did last season.

"These players have the quality, they need to play one or two good games and everything will improve.

"It is not the end of the world, it is a bad position but we will come back and start fighting again."

Fernando Torres Out Of Liverpool FC's Champions League Clash With Lyon

Liverpool FC striker Fernando Torres has been ruled out of Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Lyon at Anfield.

But skipper Steven Gerrard is back to lead the side in a match Liverpool FC dare not lose if they are to retain a realistic chance of reaching the last 16.

Torres missed Saturday’s defeat at Sunderland with a groin injury, and did not train on Monday at Liverpool FC’s Melwood complex.

Gerrard, who also missed the 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light, did train and will take his place against the French side.

Boss Rafa Benitez said: "Gerrard is now fine, he has trained normally today and will play against Lyon.

"But Fernando is not close enough to fitness to be considered. He will miss this one but I hope he will be OK to play against Manchester United next weekend."

Liverpool FC also have other injury problems for the match, which Benitez declined to reveal.

But he does expect midfielder Javier Mascherano to start the match, having played only as a late substitute at Sunderland.

Mascherano had arrived back late from Argentina’s midweek international, and was not considered ready to play the full match.

His international team-mate Emiliano Insua, who won his first cap in the match against Uruguay, was an unused substitute in the north east, but should return to the starting line-up against the French league leaders.

Lisandro Poses Threat To Reds

"Lisandro is better than Rooney," says the iconic Portuguese defender Jorge Costa in a matter-of-fact voice.

The former Porto captain is on a speakerphone and has been on the road for at least four hours, so there is a temptation to put his claim down to weariness.

However, the man known as "the tank" during his playing days goes on to reassert his belief with the conviction of one of his uncompromising tackles, as if to make sure nothing has been lost in translation.

"I know Lisandro very well. He's a top player. He plays like Wayne Rooney but his technique is better. He is capable of being one of the best strikers in Europe," Costa tells BBC Sport.

"He has the quality to play in England, Spain or Italy."

When the draw was made for the Champions League group stages at the end of August, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for doing a little hop and a skip in glee.

Olympique Lyonnais, arguably the strongest of their three opponents, had recently finished a disappointing third in Ligue 1 and, over the summer, had sold the outrageously talented Karim Benzema and playmaker Juninho.

One French journalist even warned that the club was in danger of "slipping inexorably towards mediocrity".

But Benzema's departure to Real Madrid for about £35m heralded the arrival of a diminutive Argentinian striker for a little more than half that price and Lisandro Lopez, known as "the warrior" or, more commonly, as "licha bianca" (the one who wears you down) has quickly won the hearts of Lyon fans with his dynamism, passion and instinctive goalscoring ability.

The club's record signing received a standing ovation after a 90th-minute equaliser on his league debut against Le Mans and a hat-trick against Anderlecht in the second-leg of the Champions League play-offs had the fans on their feet and chanting his name.

The three goals in Brussels were all very different: a delightful chip over the goalkeeper, a thrusting run to beat two defenders and finish at the near post, and a powerful shot from outside the box.

Indeed, only three months into his French "sojourn" and a poll of football supporters in France has deemed Lisandro to be a better player than his predecessor Benzema.

His opponents, too, have been quick to make their admiration known. "I love his rage," extolled Paris Saint-Germain striker Mevlut Erding in L'Equipe.

Shy off the pitch and keen to avoid the glitz that often follows footballers, the 26-year-old has played down his lofty status, insisting he has "much work ahead".

Yet should he play at Anfield on Tuesday, and in whatever position - he has so far been deployed as a lone striker, wide on the left and behind a striker - Costa predicts a taxing night for Jamie Carragher and co.

Asked how Liverpool's defence, which has recently been uncharacteristically porous, could stifle the Argentina international, Costa pauses before laughing: "I wouldn't want to be playing against him. Liverpool's defence will find him tricky.

"He's not a typical number nine. He plays in the centre or on the wing and has a special gift for scoring goals. He is not very tall but he is a good header of the ball."

Lisandro's arrival in France's culinary capital was no knee-jerk reaction to the departure of the home-grown Benzema - it was a transfer two years in the making.

On 6 November 2007, Remi Garde, then a Lyon scout and now a member of the club's coaching staff, travelled to Portugal to look at a Buenos Aires-born attacker, who was starting to find his feet at Porto after an indifferent start to his career in Europe.

With 12 minutes remaining, he outmuscled and outjumped the Marseille defence to direct Ricardo Quaresma's cross into the top corner for the winning goal. The stadium erupted and Garde headed home to inform his employers he had spotted a star.

"He played fantastically," recalls Garde, a former Arsenal midfielder. "He was running everywhere, much like he did against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season. He was very impressive.

"I watched him a lot last season, too. He works hard for the team. He perseveres, much like Rooney. If he loses the ball he'll start again. If he misses a shot he'll try again. He won't let it get him down.

"We knew that attracting a player like Lopez would take a long time. He's just at the start of the story of his Lyon career, but he's doing very well. He works for the team, has speed and is strong mentally."

Lyon spent about £70m in the summer on rejuvenating a squad which had to come to terms with the end of their Ligue 1 dominance (since 2002 no club other than 'Les Gones' had won the title). As well as Lisandro, Aly Cissokho was purchased from Porto, Brazilian Michel Bastos came in from Lille, and France forward Bafetimbi Gomis arrived from St Etienne.

The quality of the signings was not questioned - only Lionel Messi, Steven Gerrard and Miroslav Klose were more prolific than Lisandro in last season's Champions League - but Lyon coach Claude Puel has admitted to being surprised at how quickly the new faces have "hit it off".

Lyon, who are leading Ligue 1 and Group E of the Champions League, will head across the Channel full of confidence, even though they have won only once on English soil.

Garde believes the new signings have brought cohesion and defensive stability to the team. "There is probably a better balance between all the players, which has not been the case in previous seasons," he says.

"Of course, the departure of two key players was a big loss for us. It's a surprise that Lisandro has fitted in so quickly, but we knew he had a strong temperament. I think he is in life as he is on the pitch: he fights for everything and has done everything to try to settle in.

"Karim was the child of the house. He was able to make the difference himself, create a chance by himself. He was able to play with others and do a lot more assists. He was a big talent, but the team relied too heavily on Karim's talents. We're a different team now. When we don't have the ball we work hard to gain the ball - defensively we are much better."

Liverpool have been less than inspiring in Europe this season. A laborious 1-0 victory over Debrecen was followed by a 2-0 defeat in Fiorentina, but Garde refuses to see the Merseysiders' recent failings as a plus for Lyon.

"All the Liverpool players will be up for this match and will be motivated," he says. "They may not be in the best form, but with a club as big as Liverpool you are always worried that they are going to wake up and bite you.

"Anfield is a wonderful place to play football. It has a magnificent atmosphere, the kind you dream of when you are a young player. You can feel that all the fans are behind the team in red, but we will look forward to it.

"We have to be careful when we play such a big club. We'll have chances to score, but in this kind of game errors will determine the result. Both teams will have one or two chances. We will give everything to win."

Premier League Confirm Liverpool's Game With Sunderland Will Not Be Replayed

The Premier League have confirmed that Liverpool's game at Sunderland on Saturday will not be replayed despite the controversial nature of the game's only goal.

Darren Bent struck the winner for the Black Cats when his shot deflected off a beach ball. The involvement of an unrelated object should have meant that the goal was chalked off.

The goal stood, but the game will not be replayed despite there being a number of precedents.

"The beach ball was an inanimate object so the referee should have stopped the game as soon as he was aware it was on the field of play," a Premier League spokesman told The Mail on Sunday.

"However, the difficulty would be if he didn't see it until it was struck by the match ball."

Another spokesman added: "We won't be asking for them to play it again."

Reds manager Rafa Benitez treated the incident philosophically, stating: "These things happen. It's a very technical question but it has to be a goal.

"These things can happen in a lot of games. It's a bad situation for us that the ball was in the middle and was influential but again I will say we didn't play well. That's the main thing for me."

Liverpool Switch Would Not Guarantee First-Team Football - Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross

Stoke City centre-back Ryan Shawcross has been attracting interest from an elite of Premier League clubs but has publicly reiterated his interest in continuing to kit out for Tony Pulis' Potters, as he could not be guaranteed regular first-team football at a top-four club.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is reportedly an admirer of Shawcross' defensive nous, while Arsenal, Manchester United, Fulham, Everton, and West Ham United have also been linked with a move for the player.

The Sun quoted Shawcross as saying: "I am very happy here. If I moved to a big club like Liverpool, I might not play.

"So my aim is to stay at Stoke and we're talking about a new contract right now.

"I have two years left after this one and we are hoping to sort it out for longer."

The Manchester United-educated defender signed for Stoke in 2008, but interest in the 22-year-old escalated last season when he proved an influential player in the Trent-based club's impressive ability not only to maintain their Premier League status, but also to achieve a mid-table finish.

Referee Demoted After Liverpool FC Beach Ball Controversy

Mike Jones, the referee who incorrectly awarded Darren Bent’s goal for Sunderland against Liverpool FC on Saturday, will not officiate in the Premier League this weekend.

Bent’s shot struck a beach ball thrown from the visiting section at the Stadium of Light and deflected past Liverpool FC goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

FIFA’s laws of the game state "the referee should stop, suspend or abandon the match because of outside interference of any kind", meaning the goal should have been ruled out and the match re-started with a drop ball.

Jones will take charge of the Championship game between Peterborough and Scunthorpe at London Road.

Jones' mistake has been widely criticised by a number of his former colleagues with Jeff Winter, Dermot Gallagher and Graham Poll all stating their surprise that such a basic error was made in a Premier League game.

Gallagher said: "It was a glaring error and it’s difficult to fathom.

"Even referees in local parks should know that if there is an outside agent on the pitch then you stop the game and restart it with a drop ball.

"When you set out as a referee you learn the laws of the game and everyone should know it.

"For it to happen at this level and in such a high-profile game is unbelievable. Any one of the four officials should have stepped in."

The possibility of the game being replayed has been rejected by the Premier League.

Rival Fans Rush To Buy Liverpool Beach Balls

Liverpool beach balls have sold out on the club's official website after rivals fans flocked to snap up copies of the now infamous red ball.

Reds supporters watched in disbelief as Liverpool lost 1-0 to Sunderland at the weekend when a shot by Darren Bent hit a beach ball and swerved past goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

The toy had been thrown on to the pitch by a young Liverpool fan - who now has a number of Facebook appreciation sites dedicated to him by rival fans.

To make matters worse, the beach ball that cost Rafa Benitez's men the game at the Stadium of Light was emblazoned with the club's crest.

Rival fans immediately began snapping up Liverpool FC £10 holiday sets, containing the ball, amid fears Everton supporters planned to lob them on to the pitch in next month's Merseyside derby.

When Sky News Online visited the Anfield website, a message appeared saying "product not available".

It is thought the beach sets have sold out rather than been withdrawn. A spokesman for Liverpool FC was not available for comment.

Meanwhile, messages have appeared from Liverpool fans on internet forums venting hatred at the boy.

One said: "Yeah that f****** kid. He'll be getting seriously owned today at school. Bring it on!"

Merseyside Police said they had not yet identified the lad, and that the matter was being dealt with by Northumbria Police.

A spokeswoman for Northumbria Police said the boy did not have to be escorted out of the stadium for his own protection. She said investigations into the ball-throwing incident were continuing.

Dave Usher, editor of the Liverpool Way fanzine, said the boy should not be blamed for Liverpool's defeat and slammed the witch-hunt against him.

"I think there's been a hysterical over-reaction to be honest," he told Sky.

"I mean obviously he shouldn't have thrown it on the pitch ... but it seems it was thrown on and Pepe's put it in the back of the goal.

"And it's been there for a few minutes and the wind's caught it and blown it out so I think the witch-hunt against the boy is just stupid."

The Premier League has ruled out the possibility of a replay between Liverpool and Sunderland after referee Mike Jones was widely criticised for letting Bent's fifth-minute goal stand.

Agger Confident Of Reds Recovery

Fit-again Liverpool defender Daniel Agger has vowed the Reds will get things right and drag themselves out of their current crisis.

Five defeats this season already in all competitions has turned a harsh spotlight on Liverpool ahead of Tuesday's Champions League Group E home clash with Lyon.

For Agger, 24, it will be his first game at Anfield this season after a painful back injury that needed a summer operation.

He has been able to play in two games for Denmark this month, guiding them to the World Cup finals, and now he must repeat his classy defending of last season to help solve Liverpool's woes.

Agger claims "having Steven Gerrard back from injury will be a real inspiration," but he also knows a team effort is needed now.

Agger said: "The results have not been right, but we know what we are capable of and we know that only hard work will get us the results we need.

"Confidence is still there, we know we are a good team and we just need to show it on the pitch.

"I do not believe that four Premier League defeats means the title race is over. There is a long way to go, a good result in Europe this week will then set us up to play Manchester United on Sunday."

On his own battle for fitness, Agger added: "It is always difficult when you are injured and on the sidelines for a long while, I found it hard. But I set myself a target date to return and I have worked hard to reach it.

"I never had any doubts that the back problem would not be solved, everyone knew what was wrong.

"Now it takes time for me to get back to the levels of fitness and performance that I had beforehand. But I am working hard to achieve that, and the only way is to play games.

"I am doing extra training in the gym doing work to strengthen my back, that will help me return to my best quicker, to get the touch back.

"I am working hard in the gym now to strengthen and to avoid further injuries."

He added: "I am not 100% yet, there is still a way to go. I have had two games with Denmark and one with Liverpool now since my operation, and all three were hard.

"Mentally I am strong, but physically my body has a way to go yet before I am back to my best.

"I had been out for a long time, I missed all the pre-season, and that makes life very tough. I am not at my best but improving all the time.

"You are always catching up with fitness when you are out a long time, and it has been the most frustrating thing to have to watch when you know you cannot play.

"It is difficult to say what has changed, but as defenders we definitely need to work a lot harder, get the team spirit up and prove what we can do.

"We must stick together, then the luck and confidence will come back. Then games will start to go our way."

Charles Itandje Still Bitter Over Liverpool Exit As Keeper Claims Club Used Hillsborough Anniversary Incident To Force Him Out

Charles Itandje still believes he didn't do too much wrong during the ceremony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough.

The disgraced French goalkeeper was shown laughing during the service at Anfield and was fined and suspended before being sent on loan to Greek outfit Kavala.

But the 26-year-old, who apologised at the time, insists the incident in April was used to push him out of Liverpool.

He said: 'The last season at Liverpool was very difficult. Watching the other players every Saturday on the pitch when I was in front of the television at home was not easy.

'The story of the stupid laugh was a pretext to bring my situation to a head. It was over-exaggerated.

'The problem was that I did not appreciate the importance of the ceremony. And looking at the pictures, I don't feel I did a huge thing. I never wanted to offend anyone.

'It was clumsy and inappropriate, but I was disappointed that the club did not support me. Two days later, it was chaos. The supporters wanted to kill me. The club told me: "Don't go out in the street, you will be attacked".

'I really needed to leave England. I even got eczema on my hands because I was so stressed.

Reds Linked With Krhin Swoop

Jose Mourinho has heaped praise on Rene Krhin amid speculation connecting the Inter Milan midfielder with a move to Liverpool.

The Slovenian teenager is regarded as an exciting prospect for the future and Liverpool are understood to be monitoring his situation at Inter.

However, the Reds are likely to find it difficult to prise him away from Inter as he still figures in the plans of Mourinho.

"In Rene Krhin I see what I expect from a 19-year old," Mourinho told reporters.

"He is really professional with big ambitions, and I'm also very happy with his discipline and talent.

"He has played in Serie A, was on the bench in the Champions League and I will surely use him again this season.

"I wish him all the best in his career and I will say this once again - Rene has everything that a young player should have."

Krhin maintains that he is happy at Inter, having come through the youth ranks, and has heard nothing from Liverpool

"It is nice to hear that somebody is interested in you, but I really don't know anything about Liverpool," he told Ekipa.

"And beside that - I really don't care about this kind of rumour. I leave all this to my manager Marcel Kacinari, whom I completely trust."

Meanwhile, Liverpool and Inter are both reported to be interested in highly-rated 21-year-old defender Ecuele Manga.

He currently plies his trade with Ligue 2 club Angers in France but admits it would be 'a dream' to play for either Liverpool or Inter.

"I am flattered to be linked with prestigious clubs like those two big teams in Europe," the player told skysports.com.

"The two managers are legends of the game, they have won leagues and European cups, so let me dream to work under their guidance."

Asked about his preference, the youngster said: "Who am I to choose? It is good to hear interest from two big teams but I need to work hard and the future will decide."