Saturday, December 05, 2009

Match Preview: Blackburn Rovers vs. Liverpool

Liverpool will be hoping to take another step on the road to recovery this weekend when they tackle Blackburn Rovers, who showed in midweek that they are more than capable of running with the Premier League's big boys.

Rovers booked their place in the League Cup semi-finals on Wednesday with a shock win over table-toppers Chelsea. The score was locked at 3-3 after extra time, but Paul Robinson emerged the hero in the penalty shoot-out to set up a date with Aston Villa in January.

Blackburn's league form hardly reflects such a fine result. They presently lie 13th in the table, five points clear of the relegation zone and eight adrift of the Champions League slots – it is, at least, a marked improvement on their early-season achievements under Paul Ince last term.

On Saturday they will have the chance to claim another big scalp, although the Reds look to be on the mend after a horrendous run that has seen them bow out of the Champions League and slip well behind in the title race.

Liverpool eased their European woes somewhat last weekend when they downed bitter rivals Everton in the Merseyside derby. Rafael Benitez's men may have been on the back foot for much of the contest, but Pepe Reina's efforts in goal ensured a 2-0 win to the visitors.

Those three points boosted the Red into fifth place, two points behind Arsenal – although the Gunners have a game in hand. And with the fight for places in the top four looking as tight as ever, a slip up at Ewood Park this weekend is not an option.


Blackburn Rovers

Dec 2: Blackburn Rovers 3-3 Chelsea (League Cup)*
Nov 28: Blackburn Rovers 0-0 Stoke City
Nov 25: Fulham 3-0 Blackburn Rovers
Nov 22: Bolton Wanderers 0-2 Blackburn Rovers
Nov 7: Blackburn Rovers 3-1 Portsmouth
* Blackburn won 4-3 on penalties


Nov 29: Everton 0-2 Liverpool
Nov 24: Debrecen 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Nov 21: Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City
Nov 9: Liverpool 2-2 Birmingham City
Nov 4: Olympique Lyonnais 1-1 Liverpool (Champions League)


Blackburn Rovers

Sam Allardyce will reclaim the reins from stand-in gaffer Neil McDonald, having sat out the last few games following an angioplasty. You won't see Big Sam jumping up and down on the touchline, however, as he will direct things from the relative comfort of the stands.

Franco di Santo was ineligible to play in midweek against his parent club, Chelsea, but the young Argentine forward is available once more and could reclaim a starting spot.

The in-form David Dunn was another who missed out on Wednesday, due to a calf complaint, and remains a doubt for Saturday's clash.

Last starting XI (vs Chelsea): Robinson, Salgado, Nelsen, Samba, Chimbonda, Emerton, Nzonzi, Pedersen, McCarthy, Kalinic, Roberts.


The big news is that Fernando Torres could make his long-awaited return from injury. The Spanish striker hasn’t featured since the 1-1 draw at Lyon on November 4.

Alberto Aquilani is still eagerly awaiting his first Premier League start, but boss Benitez has made it clear that he won't rush the fragile Italian midfielder back into action.

Both Albert Riera and Yossi Benayoun made cameo appearances in the derby win at Goodison Park, so they could be in contention to start this weekend.

Last starting XI (vs Everton): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Aurelio, Ngog.


Blackburn Rovers – David Dunn

He's far from certain to play, and that's been the story of this man's career. An uncharacteristic run of fitness has allowed him to remind everyone just why he was once branded the new Paul Gascoigne. If he plays, he'll be the go-to guy; if not, Rovers may struggle to create anything – although the win over Chelsea would lead one to believe otherwise.

Liverpool – Fernando Torres

Again, not a sure-fire starter, but all the press whispers indicate that 'El Nino' is ready to return. David Ngog has deputised admirably in the past few weeks, but the Reds have nonetheless missed their superstar No.9. Assuming he does feature, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact he has after his lay-off.

Liverpool Won’t Risk Fernando Torres Against Blackburn

Fernando Torres has been ruled out of Liverpool’s Premier League trip to Blackburn on Saturday after failing to recover sufficiently quickly from the groin injury which has forced him to miss Rafael Benitez’ side’s last four fixtures.

The Spanish international striker returned to full training with his team-mates yesterday and took part today, but Benitez has confirmed he is not yet fit enough to be considered available, though the Liverpool manager is hoping Torres will be able to play some part against Fiorentina in the dead rubber Champions League game on Wednesday.

“Fernando will not be in the squad today,” confirmed Benitez. “He is much better than he was and he is very close and we hope to have him available against Fiorentina so at least we can give him some minutes.

“He played in a game in training this week but we have to keep an eye on him. The doctors said it would be three weeks, more or less, before he is ready and we are still within that time, so he is progressing well.

“Of course, it would be better for us to have one of the best strikers in the world available. He is a top striker who is always a threat, so it is really good news for the club that he is on his way back, but we have also been very pleased with David Ngog, who has done well while Fernando has been out.”

Torres picked up the injury in October while on international duty with Spain and has struggled for fitness ever since, featuring in just three of Liverpool’s subsequent 10 games, and failing to finish any of those he was deemed fit enough to play in.

His absence has coincided with a dreadful run of form for Benitez’s side, winning just three of those fixtures as their Champions League and Premier League campaigns have fallen apart.

Benitez is taking solace, though, that Liverpool’s fortuitous win in the Merseyside derby last Sunday could prove a turning point in a week of huge significance for the club. Steven Gerrard will make his 500th appearance for Liverpool at Ewood Park in the week in which Anfield celebrated the 50th anniversary of Bill Shankly’s arrival as manager.

Steven Gerrard: I Have Total Belief In My Liverpool Team-Mates

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard has affirmed his faith in the abilities of his Anfield team-mates, claiming that there is enough spirit and quality within the camp to see the side through their current bad patch.

"I have total belief in my team-mates. We have certainly under-achieved this season," he told his club's official website.

"But after last season where we finished so close in second, we're virtually the same group of players. We've added a couple to that, obviously Glen Johnson who is a top player.

"We've just underachieved this year, we haven't played to our capabilities. What we've learned so far this season is that if you do under-perform and don't match the teams around you chasing it, you will certainly fall behind as we have done.

"There are some fantastic teams out there full of world-class players. There are six or seven top-class teams in the league at the moment, all fighting for the top four positions. The league is very difficult, we realise that.

"But we certainly won't stop trying and we'll keep working hard to try and bring it back for all those Liverpool fans that are desperate for it as well.

"It's been too long without a league title and because it is missing from my collection it is one that I'm most desperate for going forward."

The England international is also hoping that Rafa Benitez's team can build on the momentum of Sunday's win at Everton against Blackburn Rovers at the weekend - likely to be Gerrard's 500th appearance for the club.

"Our main target is to get back into the top four. We're coming off the back of a fantastic win at Everton and we want to continue that against Blackburn and try and go on a run of games where we can get closer to the teams above us," he added, before revealing just what an honour reaching the milestone of 500 games was to him.

"It means everything to me personally," he affirmed.

"I'm a local boy and my dream when I was young was always just to play one game for Liverpool. So to reach this milestone is a really proud moment for my family and myself."

Beware The Fulham Factor, Warns Liverpool FC’s Fabio Aurelio

Winter has bitten for the first time this week but, like the rest of his team-mates, Fabio Aurelio has kept himself warm by basking in the glow of a Merseyside derby victory.

Last Sunday’s hard fought 2-0 win over Everton has, at long last, released some of the pressure that had been building on Liverpool and given Rafa Benitez and his players reason to breathe out a little.

After all, many Reds came away from Goodison Park feeling a corner had been turned and the autumn gloom which had enveloped their club was finally starting to disperse.

No wonder. When a Javier Mascherano shot from 30-yards that was going wide loops into the opposite corner of the net he was aiming for and Pepe Reina makes a save which he had no right to, it’s easy to see why people are saying Liverpool’s luck has changed.

But as happy as Aurelio is going into the next assignment on Liverpool’s agenda – a trip to Blackburn Rovers tomorrow – he is also mindful of making any rash predictions as it is not too long since they were in a similar situation.

You only need go back six weeks to be reminded that, unless the focus is good and the application matches, football has a nasty habit of ensuring that frustration follows the days when elation rules.

Manchester United’s visit to Anfield should have been the defining afternoon of the campaign but that was wiped out by a wretched performance six days later at Fulham, when Liverpool lost 3-1 and finished the game with nine men.

So despite Benitez’s men being odds-on to record back-to-back wins for the first time since September at Ewood Park, Aurelio is quick to sound a note of caution, as Sam Allardyce will inevitably have the Carling Cup semi-finalists fired up.

What’s more, if Liverpool don’t replicate the endeavour and hard work which epitomised their efforts at Goodison, the cultured Brazilian defender warns that everything good about last weekend will go to waste.

“Our target is to get back into the top four as quickly as we can,” Aurelio said. “We’ve got to start moving up the table and to do that, we need to win every game we have got coming up; it was important to get a result at Everton but it is the same at Blackburn.

“It will be the same after that when we play Arsenal. We have to be ready for these games and fight in the same way we did at Goodison. But it was just three points and we have to make sure we follow up.

“We did a great job last Sunday and you could see how much we wanted it. But it won’t mean anything if we don’t make sure the next result is a positive one as well. It is a thin line of getting the results in our favour.”

Few would argue with that claim; had Liverpool emerged from the 212th derby with the wrong result, the hysteria regarding their league position, coming so soon after being jettisoned from the Champions League, would have been intolerable.

Although there is no disputing the level of performance can improve dramatically, Aurelio is quick to point that Liverpool are unbeaten in their last five games.

And should they collect another three points at Ewood Park and results elsewhere go their way, Benitez and his squad could find themselves in the third place by the close of play this weekend.

“It was really important to beat Everton,” Aurelio reflected. “We need to get a result and it was great for confidence that we did it in a derby. We had to match them in terms of fighting for possession and there was a big battle in the first half.

“When the game started to open up in the second half, we were able to pass it a little bit easier and created some chances, but it was a very difficult game and it’s likely to be the same against Blackburn.

“We are starting to build momentum and the win feels so much better than Debrecen. It was difficult there because we knew it wasn’t just about us but against Everton, we did our job and showed we can start to move up the Premier League.

“We have got our targets. The most important thing was to take three points but now we can start to look ahead a bit more. We know from now until the end of the season, every game is going to be massive for us.”

If things do go the way Aurelio hopes and anticipates, he will not forget the role Reina has played to keep Liverpool in the thick of things.

Reina may have fewer clean sheets than he might not normally expect to have at this stage of affairs but that does not detract from how consistent his performances have been since August.

“Pepe has been showing that all season,” Aurelio declared. “He has been helping us a lot with some of the saves he has made and it was brilliant to see him do the same against Everton. They had a clear chance to score but that’s what Pepe does.

“He’s such a quick goalkeeper that you know he is going to get to the ball most of the time first; he’s got great quality with his feet. You don’t really have to talk about how good he is because everyone can see it on the pitch.”

Rafa Benitez Hails David Ngog's Liverpool Form

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is very pleased with the way in which David Ngog has stepped forward and led the Reds' line during the recent injury absence of Fernando Torres.

The 20-year-old has started Liverpool's last four games, scoring twice. He has now notched five goals in all game this season, and Benitez is pleased that the striker seems to have answered some of his critics.

"I think he is doing well because everyone has been talking about Torres, so to play in his position, work hard and score goals is difficult," Benitez told his club's official website.

"When people talk about Torres, you know the next striker will always be in a bad position.

"But Ngog is working very hard, he has good movement and technique, and is scoring goals. For a young player, you cannot expect any more from him."

And the speed of the Frenchman's development has been a pleasant surprise for his manager.

"When we signed him, we were talking about him playing maybe five to 10 games a season, 15-20 maximum," Benitez added.

"Now he is playing a lot of games, which is very good for him and the team also.

"Sometimes for a young player it can be difficult because you have to fight with two strong centre-backs in difficult games.

"But he has scored some goals and has given us some options in attack. We are watching the progression of a very good young player.

"He likes to train and learn. We were doing training sessions with him and Torres and they were working together on some movements. He is someone who is keen to learn.

"Always when you talk about young players, you talk about the price, so when you put everything together, he is a very good signing."

Benitez: Gerrard Is "Key"

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has praised the contribution of Steven Gerrard to the club.

The midfielder is set to make his 500th appearance for the team he supported as a boy when he leads Liverpool out in their clash against Blackburn.

He will become only the 13th player to reach for the milestone for the Anfield club and Benitez believes his captain can make a further 200 appearances at the highest level in a Liverpool shirt.

"To reach 500 games for one club is remarkable," Benitez said. "Usually good players don't stay with one club. Bigger clubs with more money tempt them away.

"He is certainly one of the very best players I have ever worked with. When I was at Real Madrid I worked with people like Raul and many other very good players who did very well in the first team.

"Like them, Stevie is known as a top-class player all around the world."

Benitez also applauded the commitment of his lynchpin midfielder, having seen Gerrard remain at the club despite nearly being tempted away by a big-money move to Chelsea in 2005.

The 29-year-old has spent 11 years on Merseyside, and has established himself as a Kop favourite for his all-action and often matching-saving displays.

And Benitez recognised the dynamic style Gerrard brings to the team.

He added: "To play 500 games is a massive achievement for any player, especially at the same club.

"He has reached this stage by showing the same passion and commitment for many years. His loyalty to Liverpool is to be praised, few players do what he has done for his local club.

"Steven is a key player for us, the kind of player that can make a difference in a game.

"We have some important players but Stevie is one of those that, when he is playing well, the team can win any game.

"It doesn't matter if the other players aren't playing well, he can win a game for you with one special moment."

Liverpool have endured a difficult season to date, and will be without Fernando Torres for the trip to Ewood Park.

The Reds have not won the league since 1990, and despite success in domestic and European cups, the Premier League crown is the trophy Liverpool fans crave.

Their title charge has stumbled though, and they lie 13-points shy of leaders Chelsea.

But Benitez said Gerrard can win more silverware with the club and would go down as "one of the best players in history" - if he can maintain current levels of fitness.

"You cannot win trophies with just one player, you need a team behind that player," Benitez explained. "But if you have a good team, players like Gerrard can make the difference.

"He has won a lot already in his career, but if we can win even more trophies with him he will go down as one of the best players in history.

"He is at a good age and is very professional. If we can keep him fit he can still play another 200 or more games for this club, hopefully at the same level he has shown for many years now."

Ian Callaghan holds the all-time Liverpool record of 857 games and that is unlikely to be beaten by Gerrard, but he is now just 20 short of Kenny Dalglish's tally for the club.

And the Liverpool manager highlighted Gerrard's hunger as the driving force behind his success, as well as his willingness to learn.

"He's set very high standards but, of course, cannot play at the same level all the time," he said. "That is why he needs the team to be playing well with him.

"He has learned under different managers but for the past five years we have been talking a lot about different parts of his game and how he could improve.

"He has always been willing to learn. He is always learning and knows the game much better now than when I first came to the club."

Pacheco: I'm Watching Yossi

Daniel Pacheco has taken to studying Yossi Benayoun in a bid to make the grade at Liverpool.

The 18-year-old Spaniard is one of the hottest prospects at Melwood but is still waiting for his competitive debut.

He believes watching Benayoun can help his progression.

"Yossi is an important player for Liverpool," Pacheco told LFC Weekly magazine.

"Both in games and on the training field I pay a lot of attention to what he does with the ball. It's great to watch him.

"I like the way he plays between the lines and is able to go past defenders."

Martin Skrtel Targets Liverpool Return

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel accepts that his current absence from Rafa Benitez's first-choice line-up is part of being a footballer, but he is still targeting a return to the heart of the Reds' defence soon.

"When one player plays, another one is on the bench - that's football," he told his club's official website.

"That is the situation for me at the moment, but in my position we have four players.

"It is good to have competition for places because the season is very long, there are a lot of games. You need a lot of players in the squad to cover every position.

"I have played in the past, and now Daniel [Agger] is playing with Carra [Jamie Carragher]. That is a normal situation, so I will keep working hard in training and wait for my chance."

Liverpool go to Ewood Park on Saturday to face a Blackburn Rovers team energised by their League Cup quarter-final victory over Chelsea in midweek. Skrtel is anticipating a stern physical test.

"Blackburn are a team who like to play physical football with a lot of long balls and tackling," he said.

"It will be a difficult match, but if we play our game, try to keep the ball and score early, I think we will be okay.

"We have to play our game and focus on ourselves - not Blackburn.

"It's very important because it's the Premier League and we have to try to win every game.

"We've had some bad results so far this season, so we need to change that and every game is very important for us."

The Reds did manage to beat Everton at Goodison Park last week and Skrtel is keen to build on that momentum after the team's recent slump.

"We were very happy after the Everton game because it was a very important match for us. We won, so it was perfect," he added.

"We'll see if it changes our season, but it's given us a boost in confidence.

"After the Debrecen game we were very down because we were knocked out of the Champions League.

"Now we have won two games in a row, our confidence is increasing and I hope it continues."

Wayne Rooney And Steven Gerrard Lead Fight For Share Of $420 Million

Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard will lead England's quest to win the Fifa World Cup next summer, aware that they will be chasing not only winners' medals, but a prize fund more than 60 per cent larger than in Germany 2006.

More than US$420 million will be on offer at the competition, with US$30 million handed as a prize to the winning country. Every team participating will receive at least US$1 million, with the runner-up landing US$24 million.

Meanwhile, each club who contributes players to the competition will receive US$1,600 per day, per player - meaning that, for example, Liverpool or Manchester United would receive US$48,000 per player should England stay in the competition until the final.

In return, clubs have agreed that any compensation claims for injuries will not be pursued through the civil courts.