Sunday, October 25, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs.Manchester United

Liverpool will be looking to kick-start their season when they welcome arch-rivals Manchester United to Anfield on Sunday.

The Reds' 2-1 reverse at home to Lyon in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday was their fourth consecutive loss - their worst run of results for 22 years - and defeat against United would further increase the pressure on manager Rafa Benitez.

As if things couldn't get any worse for Liverpool they face the prospect of going into the must-win match without inspirational captain Steven Gerrard.

The England ace returned to action, having missed the 1-0 defeat at Sunderland last week, against Lyon but lasted just 25 minutes due to the troublesome groin injury he picked up while on international duty.

The hosts will take heart from the fact that they were victorious the last time the Premier League champions visited Anfield with Gerrard and star striker Fernando Torres both on the bench.

Although Red Devils defender Gary Neville insists revenge is not on the cards United must still be smarting over the manner of the defeat at the hands of Liverpool last time out when they were hammered 4-1 at Old Trafford.

United have been dealt an injury blow of their own with the news that Wayne Rooney remains a doubt for the game with a calf strain.

The 23-year-old had said previously that he would miss the game to be at the birth of his first child with the baby expected on the day of the game. However it appears the frontman could be about to miss the match anyway.

United have performed well without Rooney having beaten Bolton 2-1 last weekend and CSKA Moscow on the plastic pitch on Wednesday in the Champions League.

Although both set of players would never admit it victory for United could effectively end Liverpool's title hopes with a possible three points for champions taking them 10 points clear of their rivals and inflicting their fourth Premier League defeat of the season.

Despite Gerrard being a major doubt, Liverpool do expect to have Torres back after the Spaniard missed the defeats against Sunderland and Lyon with a groin strain.

Glen Johnson was another to miss the Lyon clash with a groin injury but the right-back is hopeful he will recover in time for the visit of United.

Summer signing Alberto Aquilani made his long-awaited first appearance in a Reds shirt when he played 15 minutes for the reserves in midweek but the game on Sunday has come too soon for the Italian international.

Another summer arrival in Sotiros Kyrgiakos is out after suffering a knee injury while playing for Greece earlier this month.

Despite question marks being raised over Rooney's fitness, United have both Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra back in contention after the pair missed the Champions League match in Moscow.

However midfielder Darren Fletcher remains a doubt with a knee injury while Park Ji-Sung (knee) looks certain to be ruled out.

Rooney's possible absence could hand Michael Owen the chance to start against his former club although manager Sir Alex Ferguson could opt to use Dimitar Berbatov as a lone striker should Rooney miss out.

Nemanja Vidic came through the clash with CSKA unscathed after missing the Bolton match with an ankle problem so he will start again.

Owen Hargreaves (knees) is nearing full fitness but is unlikely to be named on the bench.

Possible starting XIs:

Liverpool: Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua, Agger, Mascherano, Benayoun, Lucas, Kuyt, Babel, Torres.

Man Utd: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Giggs, Scholes, Anderson, Valencia, Rooney, Berbatov.

Defeat To Manchester United Could Cost Rafael Benitez His Job – Terry Venables

Former England manager Terry Venables has claimed Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez could lose his job if his side taste defeat to Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.

Having lost four games in a row, their worst record for 22 years, the Reds are under huge pressure to get a result in Sunday's clash against their arch-rivals in order to get their season back on track.

Defeats to Fiorentina and Lyon in the Champions League mean Liverpool face a tough battle to qualify for the next round of the competition; whilst domestic losses to Tottenham Hostpur, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Sunderland mean their Premier League title challenge is also fading fast.

Writing in his column in The Sun, Venables claims that another defeat tomorrow could spell the end of the Spaniard’s reign on Merseyside.

“It would be extremely difficult for him to stay as manager if his team fails to get a result against Manchester United,” writes the former Spurs boss.

“The Anfield clash is a game Liverpool and, in particular, Benitez simply cannot afford to lose.

“If Liverpool lose again on Sunday, then they will not only wave goodbye to their faint hope of winning their first top-flight title for 20 years, they may also wave goodbye to their manager.”

Whilst many reports have suggested Liverpool cannot afford to sack Benitez, Venables insists that results on the pitch may force the American owners’ hand.

“Ironically, the chaos upstairs may just be the thing that keeps Benitez in a job as the Americans may not want to pay the reported £20m it will take to get rid of Rafa,” he added.

“Another defeat on Sunday, though, and they might not be able to afford to keep him.”

Liverpool Loss At Weekend Won't Spell End Of Their Title Challenge - Arsene Wenger

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger insists that Liverpool's title challenge will not be ended should Manchester United inflict a further defeat upon them this weekend.

Rafael Benitez's Reds have already been defeated four times in the Premier League this season, twice as many as last year in the same competition.

However, Wenger alluded to how the race for the crown will be more fiercely contested than previous campaigns, and that it could be easier to play your way back into contention.

"Last year, the margins were more difficult," the Frenchman is quoted by the club's official website as saying.

"Because Liverpool lost only two games, and now we are nine games played and United have lost only once but they have drawn one too.

"Last season, the situation was more difficult. We had lost five after 14 games. But then we had the longest unbeaten run in the Premier League but it was not enough any more."

Liverpool's Glen Johnson Relishing Manchester United Clash

Liverpool's dynamic full back Glen Johnson is relishing Sunday's showdown with Manchester United, and insists the regional rivalry as well as the added pressure for Rafael Benitez's Reds, are just two of the reasons why he was determined to join the Anfield outfit.

"This type of game is everything I have worked for," Johnson explained to the club's official website. "I hesitate to say it's a nice place to be, because we'd rather not go into this game in this position, but I still smile every time I put the Liverpool shirt on.

"You enjoy the pressure and the atmosphere of these massive games, because that is what you aim for. This is the reason I left Chelsea, because I believed I was good enough to play in these games and I wasn't getting the chance."

Johnson is sure that Liverpool can reverse their current shoddy form, and beat United at home to close the margin between themselves and Sir Alex Ferguson's side to just four points. He also reiterated his delight at being able to pull on the iconic all-red kit of Liverpool.

"It is a pleasure to be here, a pleasure to have the expectation that comes with a massive club, and I'll take the pressure of fighting to win trophies 100 per cent every time," he said.

"Fighting relegation is a lot worse pressure. Get relegated and so many lives are affected, a lot of staff lose their jobs, players lose their jobs, it affects a lot of people and sometimes the club never bounces back.

"Here, our pressure is a good thing, and we still believe we can handle it, absolutely. Honestly, there is belief in everyone that we are still a very good team, and we will be there at the end of the season."

United Fans In Mask Taunt

Manchester United fans plan to rub the Kop's noses in it even more on Sunday - and it is nothing to do with beachballs.

After a thrilling 3-3 Anfield draw in January 1994, Liverpool supporters unfurled a taunting banner which read: "Au revoir, Cantona and Man United. Come back when you've won 18."

Now, following a 15-year wait, the bitter rivals are all square in terms of titles won - and United fans are relishing the prospect of letting the home crowd know just that.

They plan to arrive at Anfield sporting masks of United legend Eric Cantona.

T-shirts have also been printed with the slogan "18 titles and that's a fact," in reference to Rafa's rant of a year ago.

Another shows former Kop idol Michael Owen celebrating a goal with the tag, "Welcome to Manchester."

Yet that doesn't mean they are ignoring the chance of smuggling in inflatables after Sunderland's infamous deflected winner against the Reds last week.

Liverpool's own website sold out of the £10 towel and beachball set within a day of the Stadium of Light fiasco.

And although security chiefs will carry out their normal checks as fans enter the ground, they have admitted it is virtually impossible to detect them until they are blown up.

However, there is no truth in the joke being bandied around by United fans that the refusal to admit balloons on Sunday means Andrea Dossena has been banned from attending.

Liverpool FC Must Show Character In Man Utd Showdown - Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez has urged his hurting squad to show strength in adversity and turn their season around in the “perfect game”.

Liverpool are currently embroiled in their worst run of form for 22 years but Benitez has remained in a bullish mood ahead of tomorrow’s Anfield test against Manchester United.

There is no disputing that four consecutive defeats have left a mark on both him and his players but there is also a sense of anger in the dressing room at Melwood.

Many of the squad are disappointed with the form they have shown since the start of the season and Benitez senses the time has come for them to put it right.

A number of meetings have been held at the Reds’ training base in the last couple of days and the manager is hoping for a result that will put all talk of an Anfield crisis on hold.

“In 25 years (as a coach) you have good moments and bad moments; this is a bad moment but still I have confidence in the squad,” said Benitez.

“It is a question of starting to win again and then everything will change.

"We have had some discussions on how to improve things and the conclusion is very simple. We just keep going on to the pitch, giving the players positive advice and say ‘Come on, we can do this! We have done it before in the past!’

“We have some players who know the only way to improve is by doing it themselves. If we put them all together, the team will play better. They are desperate to improve.

“I have been really impressed with the attitude of some of the important players and they are really quite positive. We now need good players on the pitch and good characters.”

Should Liverpool lower United’s colours for the third game in succession, the gap between the sides would be cut to just four points.

However, the contrasting form of each team could not be more different, as United have not been beaten since August 19 and are top of the table.

Yet that serves only to give Liverpool more motivation to record their first victory since September 26 and Benitez expects Anfield to be bouncing ahead of kick-off.

“To play against a good team like United could be dangerous but I think it could be the perfect game for us,” said Benitez. “The motivation will be there. The players know how important it is. We are playing United; our fans will be pushing from the beginning. It will make a massive difference if we can beat United. The mood will change. We have got to send the right messages from the first whistle.”

Benitez will not make any decision on his starting line-up until the last moment, as he will give Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson every chance to prove their fitness. Benitez confirmed: “It will be a late decision with Fernando, Stevie and Glen. They will continue to work with the physios.”

My Liverpool Will Recover - Houllier

Gerard Houllier was back in familiar territory this week – entranced by a swaying Kop and quietly mouthing the words to You’ll Never Walk Alone.

But rather than being flanked by an assistant in the dug-out, he was sitting in the directors’ box next to the man who had saved his life.

It is eight years this month since Houllier retired to the Liverpool dressing room at half-time with his team losing 1-0 to Leeds. While his players re-emerged and fought back to earn a point, their manager was being rushed to Broadgreen Hospital, immersed in his own fight.

Houllier was diagnosed as having suffered a dissection of the aorta and it is down to the skill of heart surgeon Abbas Rashid that he was posing for pictures and signing autographs at Anfield on Tuesday night.

When the draw for the Champions League paired Lyon, the last club Houllier managed, with Liverpool, he instantly knew he would have to be there. And also just who he wanted next to him.

“I was really pleased that the people in charge of the tickets understood the importance of Abbas being with me,” said Houllier.

“It was something special for me to have him there. We have become good friends. I go back to the hospital in Liverpool each year for tests and he said I looked well. I feel good. We had a little celebration together.”

Elsewhere, the mood was rather more downbeat. The last-gasp defeat by Lyon was Liverpool’s fourth in succession and has only served to increase the pressure on Rafa Benitez.

There appear parallels between his tenure and Houllier’s reign. After finishing second in 2002 Liverpool were unable to push on, taking a backwards step the following season under Houllier’s command which sowed the seeds for Benitez to succeed him.

The bid to kick on from being runners-up last season is proving similarly fraught. Should Liverpool lose to Manchester United on Sunday, it would be their worst run since September 1953 – the season they last tumbled out of the top flight.

Houllier is philosophical about his time at the helm, while confident Benitez will arrest the current malaise.

“I should have taken one year off after my illness,” he said. “I came back after five months and it was probably too soon because it was difficult for me. I was tired.

“The sabbatical I had after leaving Liverpool helped me. I did only TV work in France for a year and then went to Lyon and won two championships.

“But I am proud of my time at Liverpool. The reaction of the fans was special for me the other night. I was extremely moved. I always tried to do my best for them and I think they realised this. I saw Rafa before and after the game. We don’t know each other that well, but we respect one another. He seemed okay. He wasn’t too down. He understands the situation.

“It will come good. Why? Because it is a big club, a big team and a good staff. I am sure of that.

“Liverpool are depleted by injuries at the moment. I see their games regularly on French television and it was not the same team against Lyon, but a draw would have been a fair result.

“In the big games you need your big players. Liverpool didn’t have Steven [Gerrard], Torres and Johnson.

“The team is going through a bad patch. It happens and you are only one game away from a crisis in football today.

“It happens to all the clubs. It will be another team soon because when the injured players are back they will start winning again.”

There would be no better time than tomorrow to stop the rot. Houllier will be back at Anfield, in mind if not body, for a fixture that holds heady personal memories.

Liverpool achieved the league double over their bitter rivals in two successive seasons and the League Cup final win over Ferguson’s side at the Millennium Stadium in 2003 was the last of Houllier’s six trophies.

“For the fans you have to beat United and Everton and to win these games you need a strong solidarity, cohesion, hard work and humility,” said Houllier, who is now back working with the French Football Federation.

“But luck plays a part in it as well. We did well against United. Danny Murphy used to score every season! But I remember the defeats really because they are more difficult to take. You go away analysing what went wrong, trying to understand what happened.

“I can remember losing 2-1 to United at Anfield. And also 4-0 at Old Trafford, when Sami Hyypia was sent off after something like four minutes.”

Central to the drama on Sunday will be two of Houllier’s former pupils. Michael Owen’s controversial return to the ground where he made his name is a tasty undercard to the main event, while Jamie Carragher will be desperate to ensure his former room-mate leaves empty handed.

“Jamie is the heart of the team. I am very proud of what he has done,” said Houllier. “I know he has been criticised this season, but he was good against Lyon. Shouting, organising.

“Steven is a captain in terms of leadership, but Jamie is a captain of competitiveness. He gives the emotion to a game. You saw that in Istanbul in 2005 when even with leg cramps he was still outstanding. He epitomises the spirit of Liverpool.”

And Owen? Did Houllier ever think he would see him in a United strip?

“I am pleased for Michael,” he added. “As long as Liverpool didn’t want him, it is good for him to be at a big club like United.

“He has an enthusiasm for football and, of course, a great goalscoring record.”

It is an indication of just how Liverpool remains ingrained in his soul, however, that the thought of Owen wheeling away in celebration would send a shiver down Houllier’s spine.‘I’m fine now – my doctor says I look well’

Real Plot Gerrard Swoop

Steven Gerrard has emerged as Real Madrid's top target for next summer.

SunSport can reveal Real president Florentino Perez will launch an audacious £30million bid for the Liverpool skipper.

A top Madrid source said: "It's no secret Gerrard is a player Perez and technical director Jorge Valdano admire.

"There is a shortlist for next season and Gerrard is the first name on it."

That will worry Kop fans ahead of Sunday’s titanic clash with arch-rivals Manchester United.

And it is certain to pile on the misery for under-fire boss Rafa Benitez, whose side have lost four games on the bounce.

Perez has already raided Benitez's team. Last summer, he grabbed midfielder Xabi Alonso in a £28.8m switch.

Perez put out feelers for Gerrard in January - even before he returned as Real president - to see if he would be prepared to sign for Madrid.

Back then, Gerrard dismissed any talk of leaving Anfield, with Liverpool involved in a tight title race with United. Yet the club's reversal of fortunes could now affect the captain's thinking.

Liverpool's demise this season means another year of frustration for Gerrard, 29, who is desperate to lead his beloved club to Premier League glory and end their 20-year hoodoo.

The England midfielder, struggling with a groin injury, almost quit Anfield in 2005 when he came within a whisker of joining Chelsea.

But he had a last-minute change of heart and snubbed Blues owner Roman Abramovich.

Dalglish Is My Agony Aunt

Rafa Benitez is using Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish as agony aunt for his Anfield crisis.

Dalglish - rated by many as the greatest-ever Reds player - is back at the club working as an ambassador and with the Academy.

This week he found himself fighting manager Benitez's corner after Liverpool slumped to four defeats on the bounce for the first time since 1987.

Benitez is adamant he is not feeling the heat - but also revealed the crucial role King Kenny has played alongside him in lifting deflated spirits.

He said: "I had a chat with him as he has the experience, he knows the club, the city, the fans.

"He won all those trophies and knows the history. It was a really good decision bringing him back here. The thing is in England you have 60 million managers who all have an opinion and are all right after the game.

"But you can't listen to everyone. It is important to know who can give you good advice."

Dalglish is equally defiant that those calling for a change in command have got it all wrong.

He insisted: "Everyone within the upper echelons of this club has no doubt whatsoever about Rafa - I know that for a fact. He's the right man to get the club through this.

"No one is panicking. Everyone is being as helpful and supportive as they possibly can be to the manager. It's important everyone sticks together to get through this."

On Tuesday, Benitez was roundly booed for replacing Yossi Benayoun with Andriy Voronin minutes before Lyon netted a late Anfield winner in the Champions League.

Another slump at home to Manchester United tomorrow would see Liverpool lose five successive games for the first time in 56 years.

They face trying to stop the rot without skipper Steven Gerrard, whose groin injury keeps him on the sidelines but hitman Fernando Torres is set to start after a similar problem.

For someone with the world on his shoulders, Spaniard Benitez cut a remarkably chipper figure yesterday - and mounted a strong defence of the players who have been labelled simply not good enough.

He insisted: "Our squad is much better than people think. If you have three, four or five players who are normally in the side but can't play, you cannot say it's not good enough.

"If you took four or five out of the United, Chelsea or Arsenal side it would be difficult for them.

"Maybe there are those who don't see the bigger picture, but you can't change the vision of some people.

"Our fans know what this means to everyone. For years this club was really successful, with a great history - but even going so long without winning the league they are still right behind us.

"Igor Biscan once said if you work hard, the fans stay behind you - that's the difference between our fans and others.

"Over the last two days the fans have been really supportive and very, very positive. I was in a shopping centre and four or five came up.

"No one was asking me about substitutions or anything like that, the main thing they were saying was 'just beat United'.

"I have a lot of confidence in this squad. We know we have to improve and we know we have to win. As a manager you know sometimes it'll be like this and when you win the first game everything can change.

"This week some players were down, others were really positive. I told them 'you were doing really well before, remember this game or that.' You have to remind them what they've done in the past."

Bookies were so convinced Benitez is walking a tightrope, they slashed his odds on him becoming the next Premier League boss for the boot. Yet the Spaniard himself has no such fears.

Benitez said: "I'm really relaxed in terms of my position as I know how we work on the training pitch.

"We need to do the right things. Now the right thing is to make sure we're ready because when it's 11 versus 11, we can beat anyone.

"We've won against United at home without Torres and Gerrard in the past - it isn't as bad as people think."

Former Liverpool hero Michael Owen returns to Anfield playing for bitter rivals United.

But Benitez steadfastly refused to reveal whether he regrets not signing Owen on a free this summer.

He replied: "I had a lot of good players before in my squad and I have now. I'm just working with the ones I have.

"I'm really happy with Torres, he's really good. Dirk Kuyt is a fantastic striker and David Ngog. Ryan Babel and Voronin will be there too. I'm really pleased with my players."

The same question will be asked should Owen score a dramatic winner.

Agger: I've Not A Clue Why Our Defence Is So Bad

Danish defender Daniel Agger admits he "does not have a clue'' what has gone wrong with Liverpool's defending this season.

Liverpool's leaky defence has been blamed for the club's worst run of form for 22 years, with six defeats already this term and 17 goals conceded in their first 13 matches. Last season Liverpool let in just nine in their first 13 games, and were second in the Premier League at this stage.

Now they are eighth and aware that if they lost at home to Manchester United on Sunday, it will be their fifth successive defeat and their worst run since 1953. Injuries to Agger and Martin Skrtel, the departure of Sami Hyypia and a poor start to the season by Jamie Carragher has all contributed to the current crisis.

Agger said: "We must defend as a unit, it is not just about four men at the back. Conceding goals like we are is just not good enough. We are normally so strong and we don't concede goals like that. What is wrong? To be honest I haven't got a clue.

"I feel okay, but I am not 100% fit after my back problem. I need match fitness, but that will return slowly. Defeats do affect the team, but everyone just has to carry on, work hard, and things will be okay. We need to learn to play consistently through a game, that's simple really.

"We were at home against Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday, we should have been able to finish the game off a long time before they scored. We were leading and missed good chances that could have wrapped things up. In the end it showed that we were not good enough. We have to address that. It is Manchester United next, so we have to raise ourselves for that.

"It is all about hard work. If you are not playing well that is the way to improve. Everyone must be focused now.''

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez will wait until the last moment before deciding on his team, giving Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Glen Johnson - all groin injury victims - every chance of proving their fitness.

On his own position, after four defeats on the trot, Benitez said: "I am relaxed. I know how we are working every day, the players know too. In the past we have been very good and the situation and players has not changed too much. It is about confidence and winning that first game. If we want to change things we must focus on football and not what is going on off the pitch here.

"We have done extra training sessions, the attitude of the players has been good and you could see how focused and positive they are. They know the situation. They know what they must do, and they will try to do everything we are asking of them. The team is not as bad as people think. We have beaten United without Gerrard and Torres and we know that we can beat anyone. We have total confidence in that.''

Lucas Gives Rafa Backing

Lucas Leiva has vowed to repay Rafa Benitez for his faith, with the Liverpool boss now the man under pressure at Anfield.

Brazilian Lucas has constantly been scrutinised by fans for his unconvincing displays in a Reds shirt since his arrival from Gremio in 2007.

Benitez has persistently defended the player's abilities, but now the tides have turned as the Spanish boss is under immense pressure as a result of Liverpool's dreadful form.

The Reds have lost four on the trot, with Benitez's future now the subject of much speculation, but Lucas will strive to reach his full potential during this tough period for the club.

"We are in a difficult moment, but we are the ones on the pitch and it is up to us to improve," he told The Times.

"Rafa is a really good manager and now we have to try to win for ourselves, but also for him because he has been really good for us and for me in particular.

"He gave me opportunities and he gave me confidence, so now I want to pay him back by playing well, working and performing as he expects me to."

Lucas is yet to win over Liverpool fans and after the departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid in the summer, the Brazil international has at times been made a scapegoat for failing to replace the Spaniard sufficiently.

The 22-year-old believes a stereotypical view of Brazilian footballers does not work in his favour, as his role is different to that of the typical Samba star.

He said: "Everybody knows I had difficult times here, especially with the people who criticised me.

"What I would say, though, is that the style of football in the Premier League is totally different to Brazil.

"I know people sometimes expect Brazilian footballers to play a certain way - to have unbelievable skill, to be able to do tricks and be like Ronaldinho or Kaka, but I am in a different position, where you cannot do those things and you have to work for the team.

"This is my mentality, to try to help my team-mates. I cannot think too much of the criticism. All I can do is try and do my job and hopefully this will be good enough.

"Me and Javier (Mascherano) have to be aware of the counter-attack because we have to make sure that we give the defenders our support. Every team needs these kind of players."

Cissokho Dreams Of England

Highly-rated Lyon full-back Aly Cissokho has conceded he would one day love to play for either Manchester United or Liverpool.

The talented 21-year-old only moved to France in the summer from Porto after a switch to AC Milan was scuppered by a problem with his medical.

Cissokho has quickly acclimatized to life in Ligue 1 having not let his hefty €15million (£13million) price tag weigh on his mind.

It has been reported some of Europe's biggest clubs are monitoring his progress at Lyon and, should interest ever be expressed from England, it would appear the feelings would be reciprocated.

"I have always loved the Premier League," he told Le 10 Sport.

"Manchester United and Liverpool are teams that make me dream. Why not?"