Monday, November 09, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs. Birming City

It's a sad and sorry looking Liverpool side that play host to Birmingham City on Monday night as round 12 of the Premier League draws to a close.

The Reds' 3-1 reverse at Fulham last weekend took their tally to five losses in 11 league games this season - an alarming figure, considering that they suffered just two defeats in the entirety of the previous campaign.

And their woes aren't confined to the domestic scene, as Lisandro Lopez's late equaliser for Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday night has left the Merseyside club relying on Fiorentina's results as the two teams battle for a place in the Champions League knockout round.

Rafael Benitez and his crew have collected just one win - against Manchester United, no less - from their last eight games in all competitions, and they simply cannot afford another slip-up when Brum come to visit.

Alex McLeish's side boast an indifferent record on the road this season, although their spirited display at home to a Shay Given-inspired Manchester City last week showed that they are well capable of mixing it with the big boys.

Still, the Blues sit just one point above the relegation zone, and the one thing Liverpool have got right this season is dispatching the 'lesser' teams when they visit Anfield - as Stoke City (4-0), Burnley (4-0) and Hull City (6-1) all found out the hard way.



Nov 4 Olympique Lyonnais 1-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Oct 31 Fulham 3-1 Liverpool
Oct 28 Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool (League Cup)
Oct 25 Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United
Oct 20 Liverpool 1-2 Olympique Lyonnais (Champions League)

Birmingham City

Nov 1 Birmingham City 0-0 Manchester City
Oct 24 Birmingham City 2-1 Sunderland
Oct 17 Arsenal 3-1 Birmingham City
Oct 3 Burnley 2-1 Birmingham City
Sep 26 Birmingham City 1-2 Bolton Wanderers



Jamie Carragher and Philipp Degen are both suspended after picking up red cards in the defeat at Craven Cottage last weekend, leaving Benitez with something of a problem in defence. With Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly both battling injury, young Stephen Darby looks like the only option at right-back.

However, Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio are available once more after shaking off their respective problems, while Alberto Aquilani could make his long-awaited Premier League debut from the bench.

Fernando Torres is expected to start despite his well-documented hernia troubles, but neither Steven Gerrard nor Albert Riera will feature.

Last starting XI (vs. Olympique Lyonnais): Reina, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger, Insua, Kuyt, Lucas, Mascherano, Benayoun, Voronin, Torres.

Birmingham City

The visitors' chances will be hampered by the absence of Barry Ferguson, who foolishly bought a second booking late on against Man City for impeding a throw-in. Lee Carsley could replace the Scot in midfield.

Irish wide-man Keith Fahey picked up a knee knock in training and faces a race to pass fit in time, while Garry O'Connor is struggling with a groin problem.

Joe Hart wasn't eligible to face his parent club last time out, but the young goalkeeper is in danger of sitting out once again after Maik Taylor's heroics against the Citizens.

Last starting XI (vs. Manchester City): Taylor, Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell, Larsson, Bowyer, Ferguson, McFadden, Benitez, Jerome.


Liverpool - Fernando Torres

The Spaniard is nowhere near full fitness but has vowed to play through the pain for the time being. Hernia or no, 'El Nino' is a threat - it's that simple. It's just a matter of whether or not he gets the service.

Birmingham City - James McFadden

The twinkle-toed Scot ran riot in spells against Man City (brilliantly saved penalty aside), pulling out the sort of mercurial moves that leaves one wondering why he's never managed to take that next step in his career. If he gets it right, the Reds' rearguard will be in for a busy night.

Injury Crisis At Liverpool Is Lifting - Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes that the injury plague that has struck his squad is finally beginning to show signs of abatement.

Fabio Aurelio, Albert Riera and Martin Skrtel have returned to training, as has Steven Gerrard after being unable to train for a fortnight owing to his groin injury.

Benitez also explained the situation with Fernando Torres, who has been playing despite reports that he may require surgery to cure a hernia problem.

"The injury situation is improving," he is quoted by as saying.

"Several players have been in light training. But there is a big difference, though, between being fit and being available.

"Gerrard has trained after being unable to do so for 15 days. He cannot be considered to be fit.

"Torres is a little better. He will train and work with the physios, but whether he will be okay to play against Birmingham [City, on Monday], we do not know yet.

"He could play and we must be careful with him.

"We will look at the situation after every training session. The experience I have had for many years with this sort of problem is to carry on and see how players react. Some can play all season with the problem, some need to stop and rest. They are all different."

The former Valencia coach explained that Torres had put aside his own discomfort to continue leading the line for the Reds, whose lack of attacking alternatives has been cruelly exposed this term.

"Torres is the one who can play," he said.

"He has been in pain, but he wants to play for the team - he has a great mentality. I believe we can carry on with him.

"Let us see how we do in the next game, then they will have 15 days of the international break to get fit, then let's see how they are after that."

Aquilani Set For Anfield

Rafa Benitez says Alberto Aquilani will finally get his Anfield debut against Birmingham on Monday.

The Italy international was signed for £20 million man in August but has since been recovering from a knee operation and latterly a recent virus problem.

But the 25-year-old - who played for a few minutes in the Carling Cup defeat at Arsenal - now looks set to be thrown on from the bench against the Blues.

Benitez said: "It could be the time to let the Anfield fans see Aquilani at last.

"He has been getting fitter and had a short spell in a reserve game and then a few minutes at Arsenal in the Carling Cup.

"We had him with us in Lyon last week and I did want to bring him on. But Lucas and Javier Mascherano were controlling the game.

"So we waited a bit, we did not want to change the way the side were playing, even though he could have come on. Then we scored and there was no need to use him, it was just a shame we conceded so late.

"He was almost over the virus and he will certainly be much better on Monday.

"He has trained well. He does not have match fitness, but the only way to improve that is to play him in games.

"We have more players available now, so maybe he can be on the bench and then come on to change the game if necessary. He will certainly be involved."

Fernando Torres also looks set to play against the Midlanders despite struggles with a groin problem.

Benitez added: "We hope to be able to keep going with Fernando. Maybe he can be available for Birmingham, we will see how it goes.

"It was a risk to play him against Manchester United, but he scored a fantastic goal and everyone was saying what a massive difference he makes.

"He played, and scored, at Fulham and I was criticised by a lot of 'experts' because he was taken off in the second half.

"They can see that he has a problem, but the same thing happened in Lyon when I took him off.

"You cannot win. It does not matter what you do, someone will always criticise you. It is too easy.

"Fernando will play if he continues to have less pain than before. Does he need an operation? Nobody really knows, we'll wait and see.

"I have had many players with this problem under my management over the years. They carried on, and sometimes you can play for the whole season with such a problem.

"But I have been surprised at what some critics have said about Torres' involvement. People who have played football for years seem not to understand that the manager has more information.

"So when they are on TV, they just talk and they do not really know the situation."

Rafa Benitez In Talks With Bosses Over Liverpool FC's Champions League Situation

Rafael Benitez has held talks with his Liverpool bosses over the implications if the club fail to reach the last 16 of this season’s Champions League.

Discussions were also held on if the club fail to qualify for next season’s lucrative European competition.

The Liverpool manager revealed today that the club did not budget this term for anything beyond the group stages.

And Benitez insisted he was confident that financial problems next season will be avoided “because we will achieve a top four finish”.

Liverpool have never failed to reach the last 16 under Benitez’s management, but they are in grave danger of that eventuality now with qualification from Group E out of their hands after the midweek draw in Lyon.

They must hope that Lyon win their next match away to Fiorentina, and that Liverpool win their final two group games to produce the “miracle” Benitez admits they need now.

Reaching the Champions League next season is also under threat with them currently sixth in the Barclays Premier League, a point behind fourth-placed Manchester City, who are at Anfield on November 21.

Before that Liverpool face Birmingham at Anfield on Monday, needing to get their current form back on track.

Liverpool face earning £10million less from their European campaign this season if they do not reach the last 16, with another £10million lost if they do not qualify for next season’s group stages.

Benitez says: “I spoke to Christian Purslow (Liverpool’s managing director) the other day about the finances.

“The first thing, though, is that we have confidence we can still reach the last 16 of the Champions League this season.

“But whatever happens, the budget was done for this season based on us only qualifying for the group stages. And we did that, that is complete.

“Whether we can still bring in more money, we will wait and see. The commercial department is working very hard, for the next season (in Europe) it is a question of time.

“The Premier League is a long race, we must keep going. I am confident the team will finish in the top four and we are able to continue to do well in Europe, so let’s start against Birmingham with the right result.

“We have to do our job against Birmingham, and then I can guarantee that things will start to get easier.”

Improving their league position would be easier if Benitez could get Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard fit following groin problems.

Gerrard seems unlikely to be available for the Birmingham game, while Torres has a much better chance.

Benitez is likely to risk Torres again, following the striker’s trip to visit a Spanish specialist on Thursday who is believed to have suggested a three-week break for the club’s top scorer.

Benitez also hopes that neither Spain or England will select Torres and Gerrard for international friendlies next weekend.

He wants the pair to have intensive treatment throughout the two week international break ahead of Manchester City’s visit to Anfield.

Benitez has held discussions with Spanish FA officials and believes he has a gentleman’s agreement that Torres will not be called up for Spain’s home friendly with Argentina next Saturday.

Benitez has not held similar conversations with England over Gerrard’s fitness.

England play Brazil in Doha next weekend, and Benitez would be furious if Gerrard was selected.

Dossena Wants Reds Exit

Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena says he is looking to leave Anfield in January and return to Italy.

The Italian full-back has only made two appearances for Liverpool so far this season against Bolton in the Premier League and Leeds in the Carling Cup, despite moving for a hefty £7million in July last year.

Dossena is worried that being frozen out by Rafa Benitez will severely harm his chances of going to next year's World Cup with Italy, and admits he would like to return to his homeland.

"I know that three big Serie A clubs - Napoli, Juventus and Milan - are looking at me," he said in the News of the World.

"In August they just made other choices. I was very close to going to Juventus in the summer but they signed Fabio Grosso.

"I am now worried I will miss the World Cup."

Dossena became the first ever Italian player to sign for Liverpool last year, but has found first-team chances hard to come by this term.

However, the left-sided player insists that he has not fallen out with manager Benitez, and is just disappointed with his performances since his arrival on Merseyside.

"I'm not disappointed with the treatment I've had," he added.

"I know how things work and I've always behaved correctly. Benitez chooses the line-up, and I'm paid to respect his choices.

"In truth I am a little bit unhappy with my performances. They have not seen the 'real' Dossena at Anfield."

Liverpool Chiefs Wants O'Neill

Martin O'Neill has emerged as the man to replace Rafa Benitez.

American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have identified O'Neill to succeed the Spaniard if Liverpool fail to qualify for next season's Champions League.

Hicks, Gillett, and managing director Christian Purslow are standing by beleaguered Benitez despite Liverpool's woeful recent run of form.

But behind the scenes the mood of staunch support for Benitez has shifted as Liverpool's season has lurched towards chaos, with six defeats, one draw and just one win in their last eight games.

The club are wary of making a knee-jerk reaction but recognise that unless results improve dramatically - and soon - they will have to consider replacing Benitez during the season rather than next summer.

Kenny Dalglish has been tipped to hold the Anfield fort if Benitez IS sacked before May but he would only be keeping the seat warm for O'Neill (left).

Wednesday's 1-1 draw with Lyon leaves Liverpool's Champions League campaign in a precarious position and five Premier League defeats already this season means their first title since 1990 is a pipedream.

Failing to qualify for the Champions League next season would have a huge effect on Liverpool's already shaky financial position.

The club's budget is based largely on Champions League qualification and an absence from the top four would badly damage any chances of Hicks and Gillett refinancing the club's debt.

That is why Benitez's position is now being discussed by the club's hierarchy and they have come to the conclusion that O'Neill is the best suited and best placed to take the club forward.

Twenty months ago, when things were wobbling under Benitez, the club flirted with the idea of recruiting Jurgen Klinsmann. But the initial interest came to nothing and despite having done a good job as German national manager at the 2006 World Cup, Klinsmann's lack of credentials at club level were exposed last season at Bayern Munich, where he was sacked in April. Since then Liverpool have flirted with the idea of luring Jose Mourinho back to England to take up the one job the 'Special One' has consistently said would lure him back to the Premier League.

Given the current confused state of Liverpool's finances, however, it is unlikely the Inter Milan boss would want to take on the job at this stage of his career.

Certainly he would not be persuaded to leave Inter mid-season. And come next summer, it is more likely that he will be lured by Spanish giants Real Madrid.

O'Neill has always honoured his contracts at previous clubs but has become increasingly frustrated by how quickly the fans at Aston Villa have turned on him.

He took over at Villa in 2006 when the club was in turmoil following the reign of David O'Leary.

And he rapidly revived their fortunes and has led them into European football and even flirted with breaking in to the top four.

To most, O'Neill has done a fine job at re-establishing Villa as one of the country's top eight clubs. And so O'Neill can't understand why he can become so quickly subject to criticism from the stands.

He has worked well under the ownership of American Randy Lerner and the business model that has gone along with it.

O'Neill's ability to manage in that way has further impressed Yanks Hicks and Gillett, who have become increasingly wary of how quickly Benitez blames his inability to push Liverpool to the next level on a lack of transfer funds.

Last year, Benitez won a significant political battle when chief executive Rick Parry was ousted after the Spaniard had complained he should have total control of transfer business.

But it is understood that Gillett and Hicks are now sceptical of Benitez's ability in the transfer market - but have admired how well O'Neill has worked within budgets and in tandem with Villa owner Lerner's requirements.

Liverpool Will Not Sell Key Players - Hicks

Liverpool will not be forced to sell off key players if the club make an early exit from the Champions League, co-owner Tom Hicks said.

"None of our star players will be sold, regardless of results," the American told the Sunday Mirror. "The club is doing very well due to rapidly growing commercial revenues.

"We have significant investor interest and want to make sure that we pick high-quality partners.

"We are happy with the way things are going financially but we hoped things would be better on the pitch."

The five-times European champions are in danger of being eliminated from the group stage of the Champions League despite having players such as England's Steven Gerrard and Spain's Fernando Torres.

They have also lost five of their first 11 games in the Premier League and are seventh in the standings, nine points adrift of leaders Chelsea before Sunday's games.

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

Liverpool Plan £250m Field Of Dreams

Liverpool will brush off the controversy over England’s top clubs selling naming rights to their stadiums and chase the most expensive naming rights deal in the history of sport. Despite the recession, the Merseyside club’s hierarchy are convinced they can raise a mammoth £250m by persuading a leading global firm to buy the rights to name Liverpool’s proposed ground.

Liverpool’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, have been buoyed by their record £20m-per-season shirt sponsorship agreement signed recently with Standard Chartered, taking it as proof of the world-wide appeal of the club and the Premier League. These factors have persuaded Hicks and Gillett to revisit stadium-building plans, shelved due to Liverpool’s debts. The two Americans now believe they can underwrite more than 50% of the cost of building a new ground on a site earmarked on Stanley Park through a world-record naming rights sale.

The benchmark they have set Liverpool’s commercial team is the deal signed between the New York Mets baseball franchise and Citigroup. The American financial services giant paid $20m (£12m) a year over 20 years to have a new stadium, Citi Field, opened by the Mets early in 2009. Liverpool believe they can outstrip that. “Naming rights are a global market,” said Hicks. “We likely will partner with someone wanting global branding, unlike the US stadiums, which only worry about TV appeal in the States, similar to why Standard Chartered chose to partner with us on our shirts.”

Despite debts approaching £300m and Liverpool’s onfield worries, Hicks remains bullish about the outlook for his club. He said Rafael Benitez would not be forced to sell star players even if Liverpool fail to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Hicks and Gillett are seeking new investors, in the hope of raising money to reduce the club’s debt by diluting their shareholding, and spoke of “significant interest”. They are undeterred by protests by Newcastle fans in response to their club’s stadium being renamed James’ Park Stadium and criticism of Chelsea, who last week announced they were looking to sell off naming rights to Stamford Bridge in the hope of raising £150m.

Liverpool believe their situation is different, because they are building a new stadium rather than renaming an existing one. They regard as a precedent Arsenal, who signed a £100m 15-year deal with Emirates, which also included shirt sponsorship, when they moved from Highbury in 2006. Manchester United are the only Big Four club for whom a naming rights sale does not appear an option. A club source said a rights sale involving Old Trafford is “not on our agenda”. Sir Alex Ferguson said Chelsea’s plans were driven by money. “It is the only reason I can think of. But it does not really concern me. I wouldn’t have thought [it would happen at United].”

Guus Hiddink Would Be Perfect For Liverpool

When Guus Hiddink sneezes, Roman Abramovich catches a cold and Vladimir Putin develops a nervous cough.

They’d better order additional supplies of extra strength tissues for Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge today.

Hiddink – like another student of socialism, Sir Alex Ferguson – understands how to use the cult of personality, welded around strong leaders.

They revere authority figures in Russia, a land trying to convince itself that Joseph Stalin was not so bad for a dictator who killed untold millions.

Putin may ignore David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary when he pitches up in Moscow, but he’ll take the Dutchman’s calls 24/7.

Hiddink’s remarkable ability to win friends and influence important people ensures he will be conspicuous by his absence from the most significant match of the Premier League season so far.

He is way too cute to swan into West London, imply disrespect to Carlo Ancelotti and provide a diversion for a Chelsea team that, deep down, he must still consider his own.

Hiddink plans to be in Moscow, on media duties before his Russia squad assembles for World Cup play off matches against Slovenia.

The pressure on him to extend his contract until the 2012 European Championship is being applied from the Kremlin downwards. Hiddink has yet to enter negotiations with the Russian FA beyond an impish suggestion that, at 62: “I’m not getting any younger.”

The latest set of multi-millionaires to respond to his human qualities has been queuing up to eulogise him.

Arsenal and Russia striker Andrey Arshavin captured the mood when he suggested that: “Without Guus, there is no team.”

Russia should qualify for South Africa, and postpone the panic prompted by any hint from Hiddink it is time to move on. Should they lose to Slovenia, a small nation punching above its weight, big men have big decisions to make.

Hiddink has the knack of never outstaying his welcome.

Unattached, even in spirit, he’s the most attractive manager in world football.

United, remember, need a huge personality to succeed Fergie.

They need someone who is not cowed by legend or intimidated by a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

If I were Tom Hicks or George Gillett – football’s answer to Dick Dastardly and Muttley – I’d make plans to sack Rafa Benitez and offer to sell the last remaining sliver of my soul.

Hiddink would be perfect for Liverpool.

He would take a warm bath in the club’s history, cleanse himself with Shankly’s spirit.

Then he’d win round Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, in the way he convinced Frank Lampard and John Terry he was The Man.

Abramovich takes loyalty deadly seriously. He will not want to lose someone in whom he has invested so much faith.

Hiddink’s spell as caretaker-manager, ruthlessly engineered but undeniably necessary, marked a turning point in Chelsea’s development.

He set about changing attitudes to a regime that lacked humility, class, and sheer common sense.

Whisper it, in the way you might admit Take That can hold a tune, but it may now be socially acceptable to admire Chelsea.

Peter Kenyon and his PR man have left the building. New chief executive Ron Gourlay has been understated, realistic. Even the impending abomination of selling naming rights to Stamford Bridge smacks of commercial expedience. Chelsea are flirting with the real world.

My best guess is that, eventually, Hiddink will return as technical director.

Few will mourn Frank Arnesen’s passing.

Hiddink doesn’t need the limitations of the manager’s role. He will be in the background, pulling the strings.

Just like his new best friend, Vladimir Putin, the man who really runs Russia, rather than President Medvedev.