Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 1 - 2 Lyon

Liverpool have plenty of work to do to qualify for the Champions League knockout phase after they lost 2-1 at home to Group E leaders Lyon.

Yossi Benayoun put the hosts ahead in the 41st minute only for substitute Maxime Gonalans to head home a corner 18 minutes from the end and Cesar Delgado snatch the winner in added time.

More worryingly for manager Rafael Benitez ahead of the weekend visit of Manchester United was the sight of captain Steven Gerrard limping off midway through the first half with a recurrence of his groin injury.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard returned for the Champions League encounter against Lyon at Anfield but the surprise selection was teenage defender Martin Kelly.

The 19-year-old replaced England right-back Glen Johnson, who had a groin injury, for his maiden start and first appearance of the season.

Kelly's previous first-team experience amounted to eight minutes as a substitute at PSV Eindhoven last December.

His inclusion and Gerrard's return from a groin problem were among five changes from the side which lost at Sunderland on Saturday, with midfielder Javier Mascherano, striker David Ngog and Emiliano Insua also drafted in.

The French side, top of Ligue 1 and having won both their matches in the Champions League so far, fielded an experienced side which included the likes of Kim Kallstrom, Jeremy Toulalan, Lisandro Lopez and Sidney Govou.

Kelly, born in nearby Whiston and a product of the Liverpool academy, was given an early touch of the ball from kick-off to settle his nerves.

Inevitably Gerrard had the first shot of the game, from the inside-left position, but it was deflected into the side-netting.

Lyon were enjoying more possession than most visiting teams to Anfield and would have gone ahead in the 10th minute had it not been for Jose Reina.

Left-back Aly Cissokho crossed to the far post where Lisandro's powerful downward header was brilliantly parried away by the Spain goalkeeper.

Liverpool had the ball in the net in the 15th minute only for Dirk Kuyt's header from Gerrard's pin-point cross to be flagged offside.

Midway through the first half the hosts suffered a major blow when Gerrard was forced off through injury and had to be replaced by Fabio Aurelio.

The substitution - a precautionary measure with Manchester United visiting at the weekend - meant a reshuffle of the attacking midfielders with Kuyt moving into the centre and Yossi Benayoun switching to the right to accommodate Aurelio.

Kuyt flashed a volley wide after 30 minutes before a trip on the Dutchman by Cris resulted in the Lyon defender receiving lengthy treatment for a bang on the head and a yellow card for his pains.

Six minutes later Kuyt had a shot charged down by Cissokho and Ngog's close-range follow-up was saved by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

At the other end a stretching Govou volleyed over Kallstrom's deep cross.

Four minutes before the interval Liverpool took the lead with a move which started at the back with Jamie Carragher winning a crunching tackle.

The ball was quickly transferred to the left wing where Aurelio crossed and, although Ngog missed it and Lucas and Kelly got in each other's way, Benayoun was on hand to fire home.

Problems worsened for Lyon with Cris immediately departing on a stretcher.

Aurelio should have doubled the lead from Kelly's far-post cross but Lloris brilliantly parried over.

Lyon were first to show in the second half, right-back Anthony Reveillere firing over after Govou's cross was half-cleared.

Govou's late challenge on Insua earned the Lyon captain a booking and Liverpool a free-kick close to the corner flag.

Aurelio's delivery was not dealt with convincingly and when Kuyt crossed the ball back in Benayoun headed wide.

Ngog should have done better in the 58th minute when he chested down Kelly's right-wing cross but stabbed wide from 12 yards.

Kuyt, however, was unlucky when he out-jumped Reveillere to head inside the post only for Lloris to palm the ball around the upright.

France striker Bafetimbi Gomis replaced Ederson just after the hour in an attempt to give Lyon a greater presence up front.

Lyon's pressure was increasing and it eventually told in the 72nd minute from a set-piece, a perceived weakness of Liverpool's.

Reina tipped on a right-wing corner and then made a reaction double save from Toulalan and a point-blank Govou header but Maxime Gonalans - the first-half replacement for Cris - was on hand to nod home.

Kelly then limped off injured which resulted in a reorganisation in defence with Carragher moving out to right-back and Martin Skrtel coming on to partner Daniel Agger in the centre.

Andriy Voronin was sent on for Benayoun with six minutes to go, much to the displeasure of an increasingly frustrated Anfield crowd.

Anxiety on the pitch increased as Liverpool passes went astray with alarming regularity.

And in the first minute of added time a quick counter-attack down the right saw Govou fire a cross through the six-yard area, where another substitute Cesar Delgado converted at the far post.

The result gives Benitez many issues to address ahead of United's arrival on Sunday.

Has The Time Come For Kenny Dalglish To Replace Rafa Benitez At Liverpool?

I don't know whether Rafa Benitez has had the time to study Shakespeare but if so he may be pondering on the words of Brutus in Julius Caesar.

There is, indeed, a tide in the affairs of man - and for Benitez that tide appears to have turned against him.

After starting what Jamie Carragher declared would be a "massive week" with the already-infamous "beach ball" defeat at Sunderland, the pressure really is on the Spaniard tonight, especially with Fernando Torres definitely missing against Lyons.

Even a victory over the French side would be little more than a temporary balm if Anfield plays host to a Manchester United party on Sunday, while a fourth straight loss, meaning Liverpool head into the weekend showdown under real strain, could prove the beginning of the end for Rafa the Gaffer.

It does not take a genius to see that something is wrong at Liverpool, seemingly intent on turning into the Graeme Hick of the Premier League - flat track bullies who can dismiss the likes of Burnley, Stoke and Hull as if swatting away flies, but crumble against sides that have more about them.

Four defeats in nine games is not quite fatal yet - even if a fifth would make that seem even more the case - but what it does is send out signals to any opponents that there is a mental vulnerability that can be exposed.

Benitez himself, in a wide-ranging but deeply worrying pre-match analysis yesterday, touched upon all the problems that are besetting his side.

There is no denying that his complaints about the contribution of "senior players" - taken, by the players themselves, to mean Carragher and Steven Gerrard - after the home defeat by Aston Villa was a huge and needless own goal.

And where Benitez was arguably right to suggest his squad need to rediscover the esprit de corps that allowed them to find so many late winners last term, his gripes about the "nutritional" excesses of those players he deems as slaves to carbonated drinks were again self-defeating.

It is under pressure, under scrutiny, that the great managers do prove their greatness.

Benitez himself, albeit thanks to the superhuman and talismanic efforts of Gerrard, got out of a similar scrape in December 2004, the season which ieded with his finest Liverpool moment amid the bedlam of Istanbul.

But nearly five years on from that remarkable night against Olympiacos Liverpool look arguably as far away from regaining the title that was theirs by right for the best part of two decades until 1990.

Benitez cannot afford to fight any more unnecessary battles, not when the conflict seems more about himself and proving his own power than in getting his players to perform for him.

So far Anfield, rightly, seems to be behind the Spaniard, offering him a bulwark against any knee-jerk reactions from the increasingly despised - and, it appears, increasingly distanced - ownership duo of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

But what happens if the worst does come to pass this evening and on Sunday? Does Benitez want to ride it out, to show he does have what it takes, that his way is the right way?

There are no guarantees of that. Tonight does not, quite, represent make or break. But it could, indeed, presage what may follow.

And for those who would counter by pointing out that Benitez would have to be replaced, at least on a temporary basis, by somebody who understands the club and the fans and who possesses the personality to hold it all together, then perhaps the presence of a certain Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish MBE might become important.

Manchester United Fans To Be Searched For Beach Balls At Liverpool

Manchester United fans travelling to Anfield to watch their team play Liverpool at the weekend will be searched as normal as stewards look for beach balls.

Red Liverpool beach balls have sold out from the Anfield club shop, with staff suspecting United fans are snapping them up as they plan a 'tribute' to the goal Darren Bent scored for Sunderland against the Reds at the weekend.

Bent's effort deflected off a red beach ball and past Pepe Reina into the net for the game's only goal at the Stadium of Light.

The beach ball had been thrown onto the pitch by a Liverpool fan. Although the goal should not have stood, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has been philosophical about what happened claiming that his club do not want to change things.

"It will be the normal search policy," a Liverpool spokesperson told The Sporting Life.

Any beach balls found on supporters will be confiscated.

Palermo Defender Simon Kjaer Drops Liverpool Hint

Palermo centre-back Simon Kjaer has dropped yet another strong hint that he could leave Sicily next year.

The 20-year-old has impressed in Serie A after joining the Rosanero in the summer of 2008 and has been frequently linked with Turin giants Juventus, but he has confessed that English giants Liverpool might be his first choice.

“I am only thinking of the World Cup at the moment and then we’ll see,” the defender told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“However, it is true that my family and I support Liverpool, but the transfer market has nothing to do with it.”

Denmark qualified for next summer’s showpiece event in South Africa at the expense of Scandinavian rivals Sweden, as Kjaer kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic at bay in a crucial 1-0 victory.

“It was a great satisfaction,” he mused.

“Zlatan is really strong in the air and is so tall that you can’t keep up with him and you need to anticipate him.

“As for the World Cup, I hope to play alongside [Daniel] Agger as he is my idol. But I first need to play 35 more games at the highest level this term.”

Rafael Benitez Offers His Support For Demoted Official Mike Jones Over Beach Ball Goal

Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager, has again passed up the opportunity to criticise Mike Jones, the referee who failed to rule out Sunderland’s winning goal against the Merseyside club on Saturday. Darren Bent’s shot found the net via a deflection off a beach ball that had been thrown onto the pitch.

Jones was yesterday demoted from Barclays Premier League duties for the forthcoming weekend after his failure to implement the Fifa law which stipulates that games should be stopped in the event of any outside interference. The official will take charge of the Coca-Cola Championship fixture at London Road between Peterborough United and Scunthorpe United.

Jones has been heavily criticised by Graham Poll, Dermot Gallagher and Jeff Winter, his former colleagues, but Benítez, although still surprised at the error, has taken a different tack, choosing to offer the referee his support. The Spaniard also ruled out any possibility of Liverpool asking for the match to be replayed.

“The situation is that we cannot change this,” Benítez said. “I think that the rule is very clear. Everybody knows and all the experts agree that the goal had to be disallowed but we cannot do anything now so we have to move forward.

“I don’t know if he didn’t know about the rule, maybe he couldn’t see. Anyway I think that it is better to move on. I think the referees and Keith Hackett [the general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd] know that a mistake has been made, but I do not want to criticise. He is a young referee and there are not too many referees around the world, so if you have someone who has a passion and wants to be a good referee, then the best thing to do is to just move on.

“I said after the game that we did not play well because I did not want to use the incident as an excuse. It was an important situation because, with the problems that we had, to start the game by going a goal behind was not the best situation for us.

“But still it is something that you have to forget and to think only about what you can influence now, like this Champions League game [against Lyons at Anfield this evening]. A lot of people are saying that the game should be replayed but we will not be asking for this.”

Pepe Reina Admits His Eyes Were On Beach Ball During Sunderland Loss

Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina has admitted he was focused on the inflatable beach ball during Saturday's loss to Sunderland having lost sight of the real match ball.

Darren Bent's winning goal, which deflected off a ball thrown onto the pitch by a fan, was allowed to stand by referee Mike Jones which meant Liverpool slumped to their third consecutive loss and fourth of the season.

Despite understanding the Premier League's decision not to replay the match, Reina said Jones had made a "serious mistake" as it is ultimately the match official's job to know the rules of the game inside out.

"It was such bad luck. I lost sight of the official ball and stayed on the red one," Reina told a Spanish radio station. "When he shot, it startled me and I went for the red ball instinctively as it was the closest to me and the other went past me. It all happened very quickly.

"This had never happened before in my life. I didn't know what to do. A lot of things were going through my head but I honestly thought that the goal would stand and no one was going to disallow it.

"We didn't know the rule because otherwise we would have protested. But that's what makes the mistake of the ref even more grave. We didn't know it because it's not our job.

"I agree the game should not be replayed, but it must be recognised that the error is serious."

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez concurred with his goalkeeper's view and said the club would not be petitioning the FA for a replay.

"The rules are very clear and a lot of people are saying the game should be replayed, but we will not be asking for this," he said.

Reds Consider Aquilani Action

Alberto Aquilani could make his first playing appearance in a Liverpool shirt on Wednesday night in a reserve team outing.

The £20million summer signing from Roma is still to feature for the Reds this term as he continues to work his way back to full fitness following a summer knee operation.

Italy international Aquilani, who manager Rafa Benitez believes can provide the creativity the Reds have been missing since the departure of Xabi Alonso, has been in full training for over a week.

Benitez is considering giving the 25-year-old attacking midfielder a short outing during the second string encounter with Sunderland at Tranmere's Prenton Park.

But even if Aquilani does make a cameo appearance on Wednesday, he is highly unlikely to be considered for a first-team debut against Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.

Rafa Benitez To Battle With Jose Mourinho Over Young Gabon Defender Bruno Ecuele Manga

Liverpool and Inter Milan are in the hunt for highly-rated Gabon central defender Bruno Ecuele Manga.

Manga, 21, plays his club football for Angers in France's Ligue 2. He has scored twice in nine international appearances.

The Reds have suffered three defeats in a row, leading critics to ask questions about the form of long-time defensive lynchpin Jamie Carragher. And the signs are that Benitez is looking for reinforcements.

Manga revealed: 'I am flattered to be linked with prestigious clubs like those two big teams in Europe.

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

When asked which club he would prefer to join, Manga 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.'

Financial Fears Grow For Struggling Liverpool

City insiders close to attempted takeover bids for Liverpool have told ESPN Soccernet that failure to qualify for the Champions League could result in meltdown at Anfield.

The disturbing analysis emphasises the enormous importance of Liverpool's forthcoming double-header at Anfield, starting on Tuesday night against Champions League Group E leaders Lyon, followed by the visit on Sunday of Premier League champions Manchester United.

Liverpool have slipped down to eighth in the Premier League and are keen to win against Lyon to restore their credibility within their group and increase their chances of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League.

A City source said: "The Champions League has become so important to all the top clubs, notably those with big debts, and that includes Manchester United and Arsenal as well as Liverpool, but at the moment, the focus is very much on Liverpool as it looks as though Manchester United and Arsenal will continue in the Champions League next season. The same cannot be guaranteed with Liverpool. The stakes really couldn't be higher for them.

"The Champions League generates £30 million for clubs like Liverpool, and that can account for virtually the amount of interest that they need to pay back to the banks each year. The bottom line for a club like Liverpool is that they need to be in the Champions League each season. It's as simple as that, and no-one at the club is going to sleep easy with the team slipping down to eighth place in the table."

Liverpool's American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks refinanced their debts with the Royal Bank of Scotland in July for another year, but would never have envisaged their team sliding down the league so early in the season.

The repercussions for Liverpool failing to qualify for next season's Champions League are thought-provoking, to say the least. At worst the consequences are catastrophic.

Would it mean selling prize assets like Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard to pay for the shortfall in Champions League revenue??

Would it mean the end of Rafa Benitez?

Would it mean the Royal Bank of Scotland taking control of the club?

Would it leave the club wide open to a quick takeover bid?

At the moment, a possible takeover of Liverpool has been laboriously slow, with three near misses from a variety of Middle Eastern Sheikhs, Princes and investors. But there seems little doubt that the most testing and turbulent times are rapidly approaching.

The search has been relentless to bring new investment into Anfield. Liverpool's co-owner George Gillett has denied, though, that Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah is close to purchasing a stake in the Anfield club.

The American pair of Gillett and Tom Hicks recently issued a joint statement, which read: "The owners have jointly retained Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Rothschild to evaluate the possibility of new investors injecting equity into LFC. However, the process is at an early stage, there is no agreement with any party and reports to the contrary are wholly inaccurate."

The next six days will fashion much of what happens both on and off the field at Anfield. Two games at Anfield, against Lyon in the Champions League and Manchester United in the Premier League could point to a troubled rest of the season, and even a die-hard Liverpool man such as Alan Hansen has conceded as much. The stakes couldn't be higher for the players, manager Benitez, and their dedicated supporters.

Anfield Legend: The Squad Just Doesn't Have Enough Strength In Depth

Liverpool legend Phil Thompson believes the club’s opening day Premier League defeat against Tottenham underlined the club’s lack of depth and quality, and that has evidently manifested itself over the last few weeks against Aston Villa, Chelsea and Sunderland.

Thompson told “I'll start by saying I don't think Liverpool's season is hanging on the Lyon game but there's no doubt it is massive - and one they must win.”

“Not necessarily because of what happened at Sunderland, moreover what happened last time in the Champions League in Florence.”

“Three points from two games is not good enough for Liverpool at this stage.”

“And if they don't double that on Tuesday night, with a trip to Lyon to come next, they will be in real trouble.”

“Lyon were always going to be the biggest challenge in Group E and the last thing Liverpool needed was to lose Fernando Torres. They do at least have Steven Gerrard fit, but not having Torres leading the attack is a big blow.”

“It will be interesting to see what Rafa Benitez does. I would think he will play Dirk Kuyt down the middle with Albert Riera on the left and Yossi Benayoun on the right, with Steven just off Kuyt and Lucas and Javier Mascherano in the middle.”

“If he decides to go really offensive - and Liverpool do need to impose themselves early here - we might see Gerrard in alongside Mascherano with Benayoun just off that front man and Ryan Babel on the right.”

“Either way, what we all thought on the opening day of the season at Spurs when we looked at the Liverpool bench, is coming back to haunt them; the squad just doesn't have enough strength in depth.”

“I don't think Rafa has been backed properly in the transfer market and I do worry that will cost them.”

“I am not going to say the Premier League is beyond Liverpool because we have already seen Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal lose games we didn't expect them to, but it will be hard having lost four out of nine already.”

“But we are seeing some worrying signs - and if I am concerned, then Rafa should be even more concerned.”

“That's why he went with three at the back on Saturday, but that didn't work. OK, it does free up the full-backs to become more like wing-backs - and Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua or Fabio Aurelio are certainly that - but I think that tells you the manager is concerned with the way they have been defending.”