Wednesday, October 28, 2009

League Cup Preview: Arsenal vs Liverpool

Last weekend provided an object lesson in how football fortunes can fluctuate. Liverpool went into their home clash with Manchester United on a knife-edge. Four successive defeats - their worst run since 1987 - had the air thick with talk of a crisis. Manager Rafa Benitez's transfer strategy, team selection, tactics and substitutions were all being questioned by pundits and fans alike, some even suggesting that his job could, or should, be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile Arsenal, with only an injury-time equaliser by AZ Alkmaar in the Champions League having denied them a seventh straight victory in all competitions, were widely expected to heap further misery on struggling West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground. Arsene Wenger, who turned 60 during the week, was being feted again for the style of his free-scoring young team.

Then, in the space of four engrossing hours on Sunday afternoon, the fickle footballing fates took a hand. First, a totally committed and passionately backed Liverpool side roared back into contention by out-thinking, out-muscling and out-playing their fierce rivals United, winning 2-0 and earning Benitez plaudits for pulling another rabbit out of the hat.

Then Arsenal, having established a comfortable two-goal margin against the Hammers, allowed their good work to be undone in the final 15 minutes and were forced to settle for one point in a 2-2 draw, when three had been theirs for the taking. Talk of the Gunners' soft underbelly, glass jaw and lack of a killer instinct resurfaced with a vengeance.

Wenger and Benitez have presumably long heeded the wisdom of Kipling's words, and learned to treat those two imposters - triumph and disaster - just the same; their task is to keep their heads while all around them are losing theirs and blaming it on them.

But while Sunday's results appear to have shifted the balance at the top end of English football yet again, however temporarily, it would be dangerous to draw further conclusions from the outcome of Wednesday's League Cup contest at the Emirates. Liverpool's trip to Fulham and Arsenal's staging of the north London derby on Saturday are likely to be more reliable indicators.

The reason, of course, is that Wenger's well-established policy is to use the League Cup as a stage on which his promising youngsters and fringe players can test themselves, while Benitez too is inclined to rest his first-choice players in this competition, though usually in a more pragmatic fashion than his French counterpart.

It is therefore likely that the teams on show at the Emirates will bear little resemblance to those who'll start at the weekend. However, an unknown variable at this stage is whether Rafa will be so determined to build on that victory over United that he declines the opportunity to make wholesale changes and picks an experienced team that he thinks will have the beating of Arsenal's young guns. Another variable is that Wenger may be tempted to give senior players returning from injury a run-out at the expense of some of the kids.

Either way, a fascinating tie could be in the cards. These are two of the Premier League's major powers, whose Champions League commitments mean the League Cup is fourth on their list of priorities. That said, Liverpool are the competition's most successful club, having lifted the trophy no fewer than seven times (1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1995, 2001, 2003) and been beaten finalists on three other occasions (1978, 1987, 2005). Arsenal have won the Cup twice - in 1987 and 1993 - and lost in the final four times (1968, 1969, 1988 and 2007).

There is a lengthy history of League Cup meetings between the two clubs, too. This is the tenth time the pair have been drawn together, and including replays they have played one another 13 times previously - including the 1987 final at Wembley when Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1 thanks to a brace from Charlie Nicholas. That was the first time ever that an Ian Rush goal did not lead to a Liverpool victory. Overall, though, the Reds are ahead of the Gunners by five wins to four, with four games having been drawn.

Their last meeting in this competition was arguably the most memorable. Having beaten Liverpool 3-1 on Merseyside in the FA Cup on 6 January 2007, Arsenal returned to Anfield three days later with a more experimental side and triumphed 6-3. Brazilian Julio Baptista became the first visiting player in 40 years to score four times in a game at Anfield, and also had a penalty saved by Jerzy Dudek.

Only three of the players who appeared on the pitch that night for Liverpool are still at the club - Steven Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio and substitute Jamie Carragher. Of the Arsenal line-up, eight are still at the Emirates: Manuel Almunia, Johan Djourou, Armand Traore, Theo Walcott, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Denilson and sub Abou Diaby.

That 6-3 League Cup tie was, though, the last occasion on which Arsenal have beaten Liverpool. In seven subsequent meetings in all competitions, five have been drawn and Liverpool have won twice. On the other hand, Liverpool have not won in their last 11 visits to Arsenal. Their most recent success on Gunners' turf was a 1-0 win at Highbury in February 2000 when Titi Camara scored the decisive goal.

In this season's competition, Liverpool booked their place in the fourth round with a hard-fought 1-0 win over League One leaders Leeds United at Elland Road, David Ngog scoring the only goal midway through the second half.

A young Arsenal side beat Championship promotion challengers West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at the Emirates in round three, with goals from Sanchez Watt and Carlos Vela. Only three of Wenger's squad that night were older than 19, and four of the starting XI had played against (and beaten) Liverpool in last season's FA Youth Cup Final - midfielders Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin, and strikers Sanchez Watt and Gilles Sunu.

One peculiar statistic that Liverpool will hope is not an omen is the fact that, in every season since Rafa Benitez became their manager, Liverpool's League Cup campaign has been ended by a team from London. They lost to Chelsea in the Final in 2004-05 and since then have gone out to Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Chelsea (again) and Tottenham (last season).



25 Oct (Premier League) v West Ham United (A) DREW 2-2
20 Oct (Champions League) v AZ Alkmaar (A) DREW 1-1
17 Oct (Premier League) v Birmingham City (H) WON 3-1
04 Oct (Premier League) v Blackburn Rovers (H) WON 6-2
29 Sept (Champions League) v Olympiakos (H) WON 2-0


25 Oct (Premier League) v Man Utd (H) WON 2-0
20 Oct (Champions League) v Lyon (H) LOST 1-2
17 Oct (Premier League) v Sunderland (A) LOST 0-1
04 Oct (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 0-2
29 Sept (Champions League) v Fiorentina (A) LOST 0-2



Arsene Wenger welcomes back French midfielder Samir Nasri from a broken leg, and Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski from knee surgery, for their first appearances of the season. However, highly-rated young England Under-21 midfielder Jack Wilshere, 17, is ruled out with an ankle injury.

Full-back Armand Traore is also out with a groin problem, and Wenger will be fielding a relatively experienced side by giving strikers Eduardo (thigh) and Nicklas Bendtner (groin) starts after both missed recent games. Tomas Rosicky, Denilson, Theo Walcott and Johan Djourou are still unavailable.

The likes of Sanchez Watt, Gilles Sunu, Mark Randall, Francis Coquelin, Nacer Barzite and Kieran Gibbs could well be involved, as could more experienced players such as Aaaron Ramsey, Carlos Vela, Mikael Silvestre and Philippe Senderos.

Last starting XI (v West Ham): Mannone, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy, Song, Fabregas, Diaby (Eduardo 88), Eboue (Bendtner 82), Arshavin, Van Persie.
Subs not used: Almunia, Silvestre, Gibbs, Nasri, Ramsey.

Last starting XI in Carling Cup (v West Bromwich Albion): Szczesny, Senderos, Silvestre, Gibbs, Traore (Barazite 69), Gilbert, Ramsey, Wilshere, Coquelin (Randall 58), Sunu (Vela 58), Watt.
Subs not used: Shea, Bartley, Eastmond, Frimpong.


Javier Mascherano will miss out after being sent off in the 2-0 win over Manchester United at the weekend. His one-match suspension was the result of a late challenge on Edwin van der Sar for which he picked up a second yellow card.

Sunday's goalscoring hero Fernando Torres is unlikely to start, having played against United while only 80 per cent fit, and having felt pain when striking the ball. Fellow scorer David Ngog is a likely starter, but winger Albert Riera is still sidelined with a hamstring injury.

However, the good news for Liverpool fans is that Alberto Aquilani could make his debut after being named in the squad. The 25-year-old could be utilised as a second-half substitute.

Benitez told Liverpool's official website: "He will be with us. He is improving his fitness, so he's in the squad. He cannot start at this moment but he will be there and maybe we can give him some minutes. If it's possible we will try to use him."

Last starting XI (v Man Utd): Reina, Johnson, Agger, Aurelio, Insua, Carragher, Benayoun (Skrtel 90+2), Mascherano, Lucas, Torres (Ngog 80), Kuyt.
Subs not used: Cavalieri, Degen, Spearing, Voronin, Babel.

Last starting XI in Carling Cup (v Leeds Utd): Cavalieri, Aurelio, Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Degen (Johnson 71), Dossena, Riera, Mascherano, Spearing, Babel (Skrtel 90), Ngog (Gerrard 78).
Subs not used: Reina, Plessis, Torres, Voronin.



Samir Nasri sustained a fractured fibula during a training session at Arsenal's pre-season training camp in Austria in July, and Gunners fans will be delighted to see him back in first-team action after being impressed by the Frenchman's bright first season at the Emirates. Nasri scored on his Arsenal debut and hit two memorable goals in a 2-1 home win over champions Manchester United. He finished the season with seven goals to his name from 41 appearances in all competitions, plus three as a substitute, and won a host of new admirers.


Signed from Roma in July as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, who moved to Real Madrid, Alberto Aquilani's first appearance in the Liverpool first-team has been eagerly awaited. Benitez believes the Italy international, who has been sidelined by a persistent ankle injury, will add a new dimension to the Reds' midfield. "We can see in every training session that he has quality, game intelligence and good movements,” the Spaniard told the club's official website. "He is a different kind of player for us." A fit Aquilani pulling the strings will help banish the criticism that Alonso's departure has seriously weakened Liverpool this season.

Benitez Eyeing Gerrard Return

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez believes talismanic captain Steven Gerrard could return in Saturday's clash at Fulham.

The England midfielder has not featured in the Premier League since suffering a groin injury while on international duty earlier this month.

He did start in the 2-1 UEFA Champions League loss against Lyon on 20th October, but had to be substituted after only 25 minutes following tightness in his groin.

He is definitely out of the Carling Cup clash against Arsenal on Wednesday but Benitez is hopeful he can return for the Premier League game at Craven Cottage.

Benitez told the club's official website: "Gerrard will not be available for this game but he is improving, so hopefully he can be ready for Saturday."

Martin Kelly and Albert Riera will also miss the Arsenal clash with injuries, but Andrea Dossena and Sotirios Kyrgiakos are available after recovering from knocks.

Benitez added: "Dossena has been training and will be in the squad. It was one or two small things with him.

"Kyrgiakos has been training. We had bad news when everyone was talking about him being out for six months after the internationals.

"It wasn't that bad because now he's training and he's available too."

Benitez has also been boosted by the news that Fernando Torres and Glen Johnson came through Sunday's crucial win over Manchester United without troubling previous injuries.

He said: "It was difficult for both especially because it was a tough game, but they were training and we were taking care of them.

"Now they are training and I think they'll be available for the next games."

Liverpool Battle Arsenal For Zhano Ananidze But Spartak Moscow Insist Teenage 'Georgi Kinkladze' Is Not For Sale

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has joined the chase for Georgian wonderkid Zhano Ananidze.

Arsenal are already tracking the 17-year-old Spartak Moscow midfielder.

The Gunners, along with Sevilla, Juventus and AC Milan are said to be tracking the Georgia international - dubbed the new Georgi Kinkladze.

But Spartak sporting director Dmitri Popov insists the club will not listen to offers till Ananidze is at least in his 20s.

'I read the stories,' said Popov.

'The list of clubs did not surprise me, especially the first two: they are built on continually searching for new talent.

'But Spartak haven't received formal offers and we don't intend to consider them for the next three or four years.'

When he turned 12, Ananidze was attached to Georgian side Dinamo Tblisi, where he caught the attention of Ukraine giants Dynamo Kiev.

The boy spent six months a year at Kiev from 2005, but Spartak signed him up two years ago amid interest from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and unnamed English clubs.

His agent revealed that several clubs in western Europe made enquiries, but that Spartak were the ones to formally offer him a contract.

Just eight days after his 17th birthday earlier this month, Ananidze became the youngest player to score in the Russian Premier League when netting against Lokomotiv Moscow.

He has played half a dozen senior matches and scored in a Cup match against FC Krasnodar.

Despite his inexperience, the 5ft 6in playmaker has already been capped, playing 90 minutes in the World Cup qualifying defeat by Italy last month to become Georgia's youngest international.

He is under contract till December 2014.

Alberto Aquilani To Make Liverpool Debut Against Arsenal

Rafael Benitez has confirmed that Alberto Aquilani has been included in the Liverpool squad for tomorrow night's Carling Cup match at Arsenal.

The midfielder has been recovering from an ankle operation since his summer move from Roma and made his first appearance in a Liverpool shirt in the reserves' 2-0 win against Sunderland last week.

Aquilani, who was bought to replace Xabi Alonso, is now expected to make his senior Liverpool bow in the fourth-round tie at the Emirates Stadium.

"He is improving his fitness, so he's in the squad," Benitez, the Liverpool manager, said. "He cannot start at this moment but he will be there and maybe we can give him some minutes. If it's possible, we will try to use him."

Benitez believes the Italy international will add a new dimension to his team. "We can see in every training session that he has quality, game intelligence and good movements," he said. "He is a different kind of player for us. We talk about using Steven Gerrard deeper sometimes, but maybe in Aquilani we have a player who can play there and pass the ball really well in the final third."

Aquilani is relishing the prospect of playing a part in Liverpool's season, having witnessed the atmosphere at Anfield for Sunday's 2-0 Barclays Premier League win over Manchester United.

"It was good to play for the reserves because I haven't played for a long time, but to play for the first team is something different again and I am looking forward to that," Aquilani said. "I really want to play, but I need to be patient, I know the time will come for me.

"I will be very happy when I make my debut. This is my job, it's what I am here to do, and I am looking forward to it."

Neither Gerrard or Fernando Torres are likely to be involved against Arsenal. Gerrard is still recovering from a groin problem, while Torres was only 80 per cent fit when he played - and scored - in the win over United. Both players are expected to return for Saturday's trip to Fulham.

Torres Tipped To Push Barca Duo For Coveted Award

Legendary French striker Jean-Pierre Papin has tipped Liverpool striker Fernando Torres to push Barcelona duo Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi as the race for the Ballon d’Or heats up.

The Spaniard has been in tremendous form at both domestic and international level since leaving Atletico Madrid, sealing himself a reputation as one of the world’s most deadly strikers.

Speaking to homeland channel L’Equipe TV, Papin threw Torres’ name into the hat of possible candidates:

"Do not forget Torres, he is able to score extraordinary goals and is often decisive.

"Liverpool do not have the same performance when he's not there."

Brazil Call Up Liverpool's Fábio Aurélio And Lucas For Middle East Friendlies

Liverpool's defender Fábio Aurélio was handed the chance of winning a place in Brazil's World Cup squad yesterday when he was named for next month's friendlies against England in Doha and Oman in Muscat.

The coach, Carlos Dunga, has named a 24-man squad made up of Europe-based players in order not to disrupt Brazilian clubs in the run-in to their championship. He also included Liverpool's much maligned midfielder Lucas.

Aurélio, 30, has no senior caps but played for Brazil at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 before a move to Valencia. "He's a player who knows how to mark; he's accustomed to European football. We spoke to him some time back about a call-up but he was injured and we couldn't pick him. Now we're going to give him that chance," Dunga said.

The strikers Carlos Eduardo, who plays for the German side Hoffenheim, and Porto's Hulk, as well as the full-back Michel Bastos of Lyon have been called up for the first time. "It's an option of ours to bring in players with other characteristics to see how they're going to fit in to the national team," Dunga said.

Manchester City's Robinho, who has not played since suffering an ankle injury during Brazil's 3‑1 win over Argentina on 5 September, was included despite having only just returned to fitness. "He has recovered, we've spoken to him. We're going to take him to [the friendlies] to give him the chance to accelerate his return to the pitch," said Dunga.

Brazil and England, who have both qualified for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, meet on 14 November before Dunga's men take on Oman in Muscat three days later.

For England the Brazil match will be a good test of their World Cup credentials, after they completed qualification for the finals by winning nine of their 10 group games. The Brazilians have had a successful year, winning the Confederations Cup in South Africa, where they defeated the United States 3‑2 in the Johannesburg final after being two goals down, and South America's World Cup qualifying group.

Dossena Wants Reds Chance

Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena is hoping to fight his way back into Rafa Benitez's side according to his agent.

Federico Pastorello claims the left-back wants to further his international career with Italy and hopes more involvement at Anfield could enhance his chances.

Dossena has been forced to watch recent Liverpool matches from the stands after suffering a groin injury in the Carling Cup win over Leeds last month but the Italian is now itching to make his return.

The 28-year-old was linked with a move back to Serie A this summer but his agent insists he is still keen to make a name for himself in the Premier League.

"Things have not changed too much since the end of the summer transfer window," Pastorello told Radio Goal.

"Andrea is not playing a lot. First he was blocked because of a technical choice and then by an injury.

"It is now important for him to be playing and he hopes to achieve big things and be involved with the national team."

The full-back only moved to Anfield from Udinese in 2008, but has so far struggled to make an impact in England.

David Ngog Has 'Undoubted Potential' - Liverpool Legend Ian Rush

Liverpool legend Ian Rush, who maintained a healthy 1:2 strike rate for the Reds during a trophy-laden career, has talked-up the talent of the 20-year-old goalscorer who finished off Manchester United on Sunday, David Ngog.

Ngog arrived at Anfield from Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain. While his domestic ability was unspectacular, he was highly prolific on a number of levels on the international scene.

Rush believes it will not be long before he replicates that form under Rafael Benitez, as the player has "undoubted potential".

Rush told the club's official website: "The most obvious quality is that he can score goals. The goal against Stoke earlier this season was merely the last-minute flourish to a game which was already won.

"But the winner at Leeds in the Carling Cup was both important and very well taken, while Sunday's finish was arguably his coolest and most significant yet."

He continued: "David is still rough around the edges, but the Anfield coaching staff are clearly working hard on him and he has undoubted potential.

"The experience of scoring a winning goal against United will only help his development."

Rush returned 346 goals whilst donning a Liverpool shirt.

Anfield Atmosphere During Manchester United Clash Inspired Alberto Aquilani

The "incredible" home support witnessed during Liverpool's 2-0 victory over Manchester United has increased Italian international Alberto Aquilani's desire to make his long-awaited debut for his new club.

Aquilani was purchased by Rafael Benitez in August for an estimated £17 million, as a direct replacement for Real Madrid-bound Xabi Alonso, but the former Roma star has been unable to represent the Reds in competitive action as his season has been beset with ankle trouble.

However, the 25-year-old is edging closer to cementing his Liverpool bow - he enjoyed a cameo role in the reserves on October 21 during a routine 2-0 win over Sunderland - and is now itching to play in front of the Kop.

He told "It was incredible to be at the stadium on Sunday.

"It was one of the best games I have seen so far. I don't normally like to watch a match inside a stadium when I am not playing, but I really enjoyed Sunday.

"When I was in Rome, although the stadium was bigger, it did not have the same atmosphere as here. Because the fans are closer to the pitch at Anfield, you can feel the atmosphere better."

He added: "It was very important to win against United and hopefully it can give us more confidence."

Regarding his run-out at Prenton Park against the Black Cats' second string, he said: "It was good to play for the reserves because I haven't played for a long time, but to play for the first-team is something different again and I am looking forward to that.

"I really want to play, but I need to be patient - I know the time will come for me.

"I will be very happy when I make my debut. This is my job, it's what I am here to do, and I am looking forward to it."

Liverpool Still The Number One Choice For Billionaire Kraft

Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots NFL franchise, has once again spoken out about the possibility of buying into a Premier League soccer club, with Liverpool his favoured destination.

Kraft, who watched Liverpool's 2-0 win over Premier League Manchester United on television before seeing the Patriots beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owned by the Glazer family, again expressed his interest in a Premier League move, but confirmed he would not enter a league where success is so dependent on finance.

Kraft has often expressed his belief that the Premier League should have a salary cap and other measures in place, similar to the NFL, to encourage fairer competition.

"We don't want to be a business where the wallet determines what kind of player you have," he told the press at the weekend, before adding to the New York Times: "At some point in the future there's a good possibility we could be involved.

"I'm a very big fan of the Premier League. I would probably want to see some kind of salary-cap potential to get into it, but we have all kinds of opportunities come to us in this area."

On Sunday, some 5,000 Liverpool fans took part in a protest march against the team's current owners, American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett.