Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 2 - 2 Birmingham City

Steven Gerrard's hotly-disputed second-half penalty rescued a point for Liverpool but did little to lift the pressure on boss Rafael Benitez.

It is just one win now in nine matches for the Reds and they must be grateful for the two-week international break which will allow the dust to settle on their faltering season.

It had started so well for the hosts with youngster David Ngog firing them into an early lead.

But Ecuadorian Christian Benitez's nodded equaliser and Cameron Jerome's thunderous 35-yarder had Birmingham ahead at the break.

And only a hotly-contested spot-kick - which TV replays showed should not have been awarded as Lee Carsley made no contact with Ngog with his attempted tackle - gave Liverpool their lifeline, Gerrard sliding it home.

Fernando Torres did not even get a substitutes' role, the Spain striker now clearly being given a lengthy rest to recover from his groin problem.

Gerrard, with a similar if less severe injury, was named on the bench along with Alberto Aquilani.

Glen Johnson, Albert Riera and Martin Skrtel all returned from injury, with Jamie Carragher suspended.

Birmingham had Joe Hart back in goal while they were without Barry Ferguson, also suspended, so Teemu Tainio came into the side.

Liverpool went with the 20-year-old Ngog up front and Dirk Kuyt, captain for the night, in a central supporting role.

Of all Liverpool's young imports, Ngog has looked the most likely to make the breakthrough this season, and his balance and clever control were soon in evidence.

Hart saved one Ngog effort before the France Under-21 striker gave Liverpool a 13th-minute lead. Johnson surged down the right, cutting between two defenders before crossing for Ngog who saw his first effort blocked by Hart.

The ball flew to Kuyt only for Hart to again get his legs in the way, but when the rebound dropped for Ngog he made no mistake with a fierce a close-range volley into the roof of the net.

Tainio limped of two minutes later, former Everton midfielder Carsley coming on in his place.

Liverpool had been cruising up till now, but Birmingham struck back with an impressive set-piece, and once again Liverpool's susceptibility in the air was evident.

James McFadden fired a free-kick into the area and Roger Johnson headed back across goal where Scott Dann nodded on for Benitez to head past Jose Reina from close range.

Hart touched over a Javier Mascherano drive, and Daniel Agger saw a low shot following a corner kicked off the line by Carsley as Liverpool tried to hit back.

A minute from the break Riera, who had appeared to be on a solo bid to score from outside the box at almost every opportunity, suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury, and Gerrard was brought into the fray as a substitute.

His arrival was met with huge cheers from the Kop, but the home crowd was silenced within seconds as Birmingham took the lead.

Jerome shook off the attentions of Mascherano to lash a swerving 35-yard effort into the top corner.

The confidence Liverpool had shown in the first half hour evaporated and, with the crowd's anxiety growing, errors in possession increased.

Gerrard saw a low header hit Hart's left-hand post from Johnson's cross from the right as Liverpool at last produced some sustained pressure.

McFadden was booked for a foul on Johnson, the Scot being substituted soon after to be replaced by former Red Gregory Vignal.

Liverpool were then awarded the highly-contentious 71st-minute penalty.

Ngog did well to get to the byline and went sprawling to the turf as Carsley came in with a sliding challenge, even though the Birmingham man's leg did not touch the Liverpool youngster.

Carsley and Ngog exchanged views and pushes, and referee Peter Walton booked both before Gerrard stepped up to drill home the spot kick.

Liverpool then lost Benayoun with a hamstring complaint, Ryan Babel coming on.

Gerrard fired over a cross for Ngog to hit wide at the near post before sending an 18-yarder just wide.

With nine minutes left Aquilani finally made his Anfield debut as a substitute for Lucas.

The visitors were forced to defend desperately in the final minutes but they clung on valiantly for a point.

Liverpool Confident Of Reaching Champions League Last 16

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has not given up hope of qualifying for the later stages of the Champions League this season.

Escaping the group stages is looking like an uphill struggle for the Reds after losses to both Lyon and Fiorentina, who currently occupy the top two places in the group.

But the Spaniard still believes Liverpool can seize the possibility and, even if they fail to go beyond their group, will not be affected financially.

"I spoke to Christian Purslow [Liverpool's managing director] the other day about the finances," he said, according to skysports.com.

"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, which 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."

Benitez is also sure his team will qualify for Europe's most prestigious competition again next year, despite currently sitting a long way outside the top four.

He added: "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 [on Monday] with the right result.

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

Liverpool Consider Move For Unsettled Real Madrid Star Lassana Diarra

Liverpool could make a January bid to prise Lassana Diarra away from Real Madrid after being told that he is unsettled at the Spanish club, according to a report in The People.

Reds manager Rafael Benitez wants to add to his midfield options and he believes that the former Chelsea and Arsenal star could be the answer.

Since joining Madrid in January from Portsmouth, Diarra has been a revelation in La Liga and is a regular alongside Xabi Alonso in Manuel Pellegrini's team.

Despite that, the British newspaper believes that he is not happy in Spain and has told friends that he would welcome a return to English football, with Anfield providing the perfect platform.

The report suggests that Diarra would make up for the loss of Alonso in the summer and may even allow Benitez to cash in on want-away Javier Mascherano.

While the French midfielder is more defensive than creative, his attacking side has shone at Madrid. Meanwhile, his tackling and tracking back have seen him become a firm favourite at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Barcelona still want Mascherano and if they make their interest concrete then Liverpool may contact Madrid about Diarra, who has played for four clubs in four seasons.

Rafael Benítez Confident Liverpool Will Start To Climb Back Up The Table

Rafael Benítez believes that Liverpool have been the victims of bad luck this season and has spoken of his conviction that the club will have significantly improved their league position within "one or two months". The Liverpool manager, who has presided over six defeats in the last eight matches ahead of Birmingham City's visit tonight, claimed he was "100% sure" his team would start to climb the table.

"You can see the table and it is not a big, big difference," said Benítez, whose side are four points adrift of a place in the top four. "The main thing for me is we need to analyse our position and ask ourselves: How can we improve? We have to keep working and in one month or two months' time I am 100% sure that we will be higher in the table and it will be totally different."

The Liverpool manager hopes to start with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, who have been struggling with a hernia and groin problem respectively, while Alberto Aquilani is expected to make his Anfield debut from the bench. The Italy international, who was bought as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, has overcome a virus after initially being sidelined with a knee injury. "It could be the time to let the Anfield fans see Aquilani at last," said Benítez.

Liverpool are desperate for three points, although Benítez feels that some good fortune is also long overdue. Asked whether he felt Liverpool had been unlucky this season, he replied: "Yes, in some games. It's very clear. Against Tottenham and Aston Villa we scored and after we conceded one minute later. Too many things have happened like the beach ball, or the late goals we have conceded against Lyon. But hopefully that will change for the rest of the season."

Torres has the better chance of being involved against the Midlanders. Gerrard has barely trained for a fortnight, but Benítez was pleased with his involvement in a training session yesterday. Fábio Aurélio, Martin Skrtel and Albert Riera are also likely to return from injuries. Glen Johnson has also improved his after training this weekend, but he and Martin Kelly are still struggling.

Benítez at least needs Torres on the pitch for a game Liverpool must win. "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.

"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 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."

Torres Closing In On Legendary Status

Fernando Torres could take another step towards securing his credentials as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever scorers by notching the two Premier League goals which would take him to a half-century for the Anfield outfit.

If the Spaniard manages the total in the coming matches he’ll have reached the target faster than any player in the Merseyside club’s history; a feat which manager Rafael Benitez believes would put him on the path to legendary status.

Liverpool host Birmingham City this evening with Benitez talking up his prized asset to the club’s official website:

"I think it shows the quality of Fernando," Benitez stressed.

"He has been doing well and it also shows the team has been doing well.

"The list of players shows some big names, legends, and if Fernando can do it he will be a legend too."

Fabio Capello Leaves Out Steven Gerrard For England's Long-Term Health

There is proof at last that Fabio Capello is capable of compromise. The England manager has listened to Liverpool's plea that Steven Gerrard should not be involved in Saturday's friendly with Brazil in Doha. There is a chance, however, that the midfielder will play a part in his club's game against Birmingham City despite his recent adductor muscle injury.

These are circumstances in which Capello could have earned easy applause by frogmarching him to the departures lounge and on to the flight for Qatar. It has, after all, been his mission to demonstrate that international games, including friendlies, count for at least as much as club fixtures. In addition, he would have wanted Gerrard for a game against a country ranked first in the world.

It has been made clear that there has not been any sort of deal, because Capello will be uneasy about Premier League managers seeking a "Gerrard dispensation", particularly since Chelsea's Ashley Cole and Portsmouth's David James have both been omitted due to fitness concerns.

There may be some self-interest in Capello's actions. He will see that it is to his own long-term advantage that the Liverpool midfielder should be restored to health. Even his club may not call on Gerrard from the start against Birmingham despite the fact that Rafael Benítez has to revive his faltering side.

Capello's sidelining of footballers, however, is not necessarily founded on compassion. Once again Michael Owen has been overlooked, putting his World Cup hopes in terminal condition. The manager recently called the Manchester United forward his "tormentor" because of the endless public discussion of the striker's involvement or lack of it.

The Italian's beef is not so much with Owen as with those who do not see the logic of his stance. Capello demands evidence before he will enlist anyone and, despite the injury that ruled out Dimitar Berbatov, United still did not have any use for the striker until they had fallen behind to Chelsea yesterday. He was brought on with seven minutes remaining.

Given Capello's general policy, there was inevitability about the call-up for Darren Bent, who missed a penalty against his former club Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday but has scored eight goals for Sunderland this season. Forwards do remain an issue for Capello and that is underlined now that the injured Emile Heskey will not be on the scene to enjoy the so far fruitful partnership with Wayne Roney in Doha.

With the stature of Brazil in mind, Capello has not been too experimental in his selections. Stephen Warnock, however, is included in the absence of Cole. There is also a berth for Tom Huddlestone, who scored spectacularly for Tottenham before the watching manager on Saturday. David Beckham is included and could win his 116th cap, although the midfielder will be pulled out of the squad should LA Galaxy qualify for the MLS Conference final.

Liverpool Beat Tottenham To Lift First Trophy Of The Season

Liverpool FC secured its first trophy of the season in Spain at the weekend, but it was on the track rather than on the pitch.

A motorsport team backed and financed by the English soccer club won the 2009 Superleague Formula title, seeing off the challenge of Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool's driver, Adrian Valles, secured a fourth-place finish in the final race, won by Anderlecht, to take the series.

Superleague Formula features motorsport teams backed by professional soccer clubs. Going into the final race of the six-race season - which has already announced that it will have an extra four races in 2010 - the championship statistically remained a four-horse race with Olympiacos and FC Basel 91 trailing Liverpool and Tottenham.

"It's fantastic to have won the championship and I'd like to thank the whole team for the great job they've done this season," said Valles. "We have been competitive at every round, yet we’ve never had any problems with reliability. To win the Superleague Formula title is a great honour for a driver because the level of competition is so high and the cars are all the same.

"I'm also really pleased for Liverpool. I met all the players and staff last week and they wished me good luck so I am so happy to have clinched this title for them. They've won a lot of trophies in their history so it is nice to have added another one to that list."

Craig Dolby, driving for Tottenham, added: "I'm obviously very disappointed not to win the championship, but I pushed as hard as I could and had a lot of fun. We've had some bad luck here and there without which things could have been different, but overall it has been a great year."

Benayoun Asked To Excel

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has challenged Yossi Benayoun to fill the probable void left by the ongoing injury problems of Steven Gerrard.

The Reds are again expected to be without captain Gerrard for Monday's match with Birmingham at Anfield as the England ace continues to struggle with the groin problem sustained against Ukraine in October.

Benitez is therefore expected to ask Benayoun to operate in the playmaking role against Alex McLeish's Blues as Liverpool attempt to end a run of one win in eight games in all competitions.

Benitez has suffered the wrath of some fans for substituting the former West Ham man in recent weeks, with the Israel captain having transformed his reputation since a questioned £5million arrival on Merseyside in 2007.

But he is now calling for Benayoun, who has arguably been the Reds' best player this season, to continue a run of consistent form, saying in the Liverpool Echo: "Yossi is a key player for us.

"There was a time before when people had some doubts about him but we knew he always had quality.

"We knew he could have an influence and change a game. He is intelligent and players don't know what he is going to do the next time he gets the ball.

"That's a big difference and when you don't have Steven on the pitch, it's important we have Yossi and we hope he will keep doing that in this game."