Sunday, December 06, 2009

Match Report: Blackburn 0 - 0 Liverpool

Blackburn and Liverpool fought out a gruelling 0-0 draw at Ewood Park with Liverpool substitute David Ngog coming closest to a goal with a shot that rattled the bar.

The first half was a shocking, grim affair with neither side producing anything worthy of note.

After the break Liverpool were arguably the better side, but even a third successive clean sheet will not mask another display which lacked drive and belief.

Blackburn deserved their point in a good week which also saw them beat Chelsea in the Carling Cup quarter-finals.

They made four changes from Wednesday's victorious side with Michel Salgado, Nikola Kalinic, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Jason Roberts on the bench and the fresh legs of Gael Givet, Vince Grella, El Hadji Diouf and Franco Di Santo all back in the side.

Liverpool had Albert Riera and Yossi Benayoun returning to the starting line-up from the side which won at Everton last time out.

Dirk Kuyt played as the lone central striker with Steven Gerrard, playing his 500th game for the club, delegated to his supporting role.

With Riera and Benayoun out wide and a clear decision to defend in depth, Liverpool were looking to hit Blackburn on the break.

Rovers accepted the initiative handed to them in midfield and came forward with purpose with ex-Liverpool man Diouf prominent as the home side monopolised possession.

Not one serious chance was created in the opening half, Liverpool not having enough up front to make things happen and Blackburn finding it tough to weave their way through Liverpool's massed ranks.

Rovers boss Sam Allardyce, back after his heart surgery but leaving the dug-out to his assistant Neil McDonald, would have been reasonably pleased with what he was watching.

Liverpool chief Rafael Benitez fashioned his side to counter Rovers' aerial threat at set-pieces.

He has always been preoccupied with competing against anything Allardyce comes up with, either at Bolton or now Ewood Park.

The first half saw precious little penalty box activity. Givet's 36th-minute free-kick presented Di Santo with a flick-on chance, but Jose Reina was alive to the danger.

A minute later Gerrard burst into the box from the left, but Chris Samba's lunging tackle deflected the shot wide of the far post.

Di Santo should have scored a minute into the second period when Steven Nzonzi's pass put him clear, but the young striker was painfully slow to get the ball under control and was dispossessed by Daniel Agger.

Then Liverpool again lost Riera to injury as he limped away to be replaced by Ngog, Kuyt moving to the left.

Gerrard soon tested Paul Robinson from 25 yards and then saw another flighted chip clear the bar. Diouf was booked for tripping Javier Mascherano, the tempo of the game finally rising.

Gerrard had another shot blocked and Benayoun's header from his captain's corner flew over the bar.

Rovers hit back when they took advantage of Lucas falling over in possession, surging away for Di Santo to test Reina.

Glen Johnson's exciting run past four men ended with a low cross that Ngog smashed against the bar after 71 minutes from just a few yards out, Kuyt's follow up being blocked by Samba.

David Hoilett came on for Diouf and Nabil El Zhar replaced Benayoun, with Benni McCarthy shooting inches wide before being taken off after 76 minutes, Kalinic taking over.

Johnson's cross was then headed back by Gerrard for Ngog, who failed to connect three yards out under pressure.

Rovers sent on Keith Andrews for Di Santo with six minutes left as Liverpool surged forward, but they could not manage the decisive finish.

Steven Gerrard Leads The Way, But His Team-Mates Refuse To Follow

Rafa Benitez has been falling over himself to praise Steven Gerrard in the run-up to his skipper's 500th Liverpool appearance, but having seen Blackburn Rovers hold his side to a tepid goalless draw at Ewood Park, the Spaniard may now cast his eye at the rest of his squad as he looks to inject some consistency into his side's season.

Gerrard did his utmost to unpick the lock which Blackburn had placed across their backline, but was let down badly by his support cast as Sam Allardyce's men - watched from the stands by their manager, following his recent heart surgery - picked up a relatively comfortable point against a Reds side lacking conviction and confidence.

Indeed, were it not for the wayward finishing of Rovers' substitute - and midweek League Cup hero - Nicola Kalinic, it might even have been worse for Benitez's side. A defeat would have been harsh, but Liverpool would have had only themselves to blame.

As it stands, a third successive clean sheet, and sixth game unbeaten, should not be underestimated in a season which has promised so much yet delivered so little, but Liverpool fans will traipse away from Ewood Park ruing a lack of cutting edge in their side.

With Fernando Torres ruled out of this trip to Lancashire, Liverpool were always going to need someone to step up alongside Gerrard. Dirk Kuyt, selected at centre-forward in preference to David Ngog, provided little in a first half for which the term 'insipid' may have been invented.

The home side's sponsor - Crown Paints - was apt. It was like watching paint dry in an opening 45 minutes in which quality and incision were in desperately short supply, from both sides. A couple of forays down the inside-left channel from Gerrard were the sum total of Liverpool's attacking raids as the wide players - Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera - offered next to nothing by way of service.

With Riera so anonymous he lasted just six minutes of the second half before being replaced by Ngog, Liverpool's attacking play was disjointed and lacking any sort of consistent threat, despite a few near misses.

Too often Gerrard's efforts were not matched by the awareness of his team-mates, as a series of dangerous balls in from the skipper were not met by a Liverpool shirt. One piece of skill in the second half should have opened Rovers up, but no colleagues were able to get themselves on the end of his inviting cross.

The same, it should be said, goes for Glen Johnson. The England international full-back grew in confidence as the game wore on, and should have provided the key to the door for Ngog with a bold, imaginative raid down the right. Unfortunately, the young French striker's finish on the six-yard line was wild, and crashed against Paul Robinson's cross bar.

As for Alberto Aquilani, another game passed without the Italian being spotted. Benitez has, quite rightly, spoken of the need to be patient with the £17 million signing as he works his way towards full fitness, but the sight of a creative, powerful shooting, attacking midfielder sat on the bench as Liverpool toiled here was puzzling.

Lucas and Javier Mascherano are playing well both individually and collectively, yet there is a nagging feeling that when wins are needed, one of the pair must surely be sacrificed.

Aquilani will surely start against Fiorentina in the Champions League on Wednesday night, and Torres is likely to be involved too. Yet Liverpool desperately need points in the Premier League and, despite a much-improved second-half display, there were few signs here that they had the werewithal to pick up all three.

With Manchester United, Arsenal and Aston Villa all picking up wins, a draw here was always likely to be two points dropped. That was the certainly the case, and Benitez will be hoping that Torres and Aquilani can return to add some purpose to the Reds' attack. And quick.

Blackburn Too 'Physical' A Place To Risk Alberto Aquilani

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez admitted his disappointment with Liverpool's goalless draw at Ewood Park but defended his decision not to bring on Alberto Aquilani.

He said: "We did not play well in the first half, but after the break we were much better. We were certainly better in possession than we had been in the last game when we won at Everton.

"We need to win, though, in these situations. We are getting better but we know we have to do better."

Benitez revealed that Liverpool are likely to have Fernando Torres fit for the Champions League match on Wednesday against Fiorentina, with Alberto Aquilani also expected to start the match.

Of his decision to keep Aquilani on the bench at Ewood Park, Benitez said: "He is fit now, the ankle injury has healed. But I feel this was a difficult, physical place to come and not the right time to throw him on.

"He will be better getting his chance in a home match with our fans behind him. It is a difficult decision when someone is not fully match fit, he could make a mistake and it would set him back."

Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce revealed that he couldn't resist a return to the dug-out on his first game back since undergoing heart surgery.

Allardyce had spent much of the match in the directors' box following his heart surgery last week, but he ventured down to the dug-out for the closing minutes.

He said: "I felt okay until the last few minutes, they were a heart-stopper.

"But in those minutes we could have won it. Nikola Kalinic was through, and should have at least got his effort on target. He was flattened by (Jose) Reina just outside the box, but he still should have rolled the shot on target. "

Liverpool Face 'Meaningless' Match

The true measure of Liverpool's Champions League humiliation will really hit home next week when they face a meaningless Group E match against Fiorentina.

Liverpool are already out of the competition with one match still to go and all that boss Rafael Benitez can really look forward to is the prospect that both Fernando Torres - still fighting to recover from a groin problem - and £20million midfielder Alberto Aquilani could play.

Benitez said: "Fernando was not quite ready to play at Blackburn but we are working on him playing against Fiorentina. The same applies to Aquilani, this might be the right moment to play him from the start of a match after his long-term ankle injury."

That will be scant consolation for the fans, who have become accustomed to seeing Liverpool facing an exciting final group match with qualification at stake.

This time they will be the supporting cast watching an Italian side celebrating their first qualification for the last 16 for 10 years.

The only remaining issue is whether Fiorentina can claim the win to secure top spot in the group above Lyon.

Liverpool have only the Europa League to look forward to after Christmas, with the draw for the last 32 taking place on December 18.

Benitez may well leave out the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Jose Reina on Wednesday ahead of the far more important home Premier League game against Arsenal on December 13.

Their route back into the Champions League depends on a top four-finish now but Benitez said: "It is important that we put on a good performance, play well and win. That can only help our confidence in the future.

"But I may well use some players who are not usually involved in the first-team starting line-up. But we have to win. We must show quality and give the fans a good game."

Aquilani Set For Viola Start

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has revealed that Alberto Aquilani could make his long-awaited first start for against Fiorentina on Wednesday night.

Aquilani was once again an unused substitute in the goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.

The Italian midfielder could now make his first start in Wednesday's Champions League clash with his countrymen Fiorentina with nothing at stake in the encounter.

"Maybe we will start with Aquilani in our next match because today was a very difficult and tough game," said. "But against Fiorentina maybe he will start.

"We were thinking of putting him on today but the game was too open. When a player isn't match fit, it is a risk to put him on the pitch. Maybe it would have been worse for him. At Anfield, with our fans behind him, I think it will be easier.

"It's also a question of the other players being injured. Gerrard was injured before and is fit now. With Gerrard, Lucas and Mascherano we now have balance in the midfield."

Aquilani has made just three substitute appearances since recovering from ankle surgery in the summer, but despite calls for the player to be included in his starting XI Benitez is refusing to rush the former Roma man.

"He is a player who needs to settle down," added Benitez. "We are watching him in every training session and he is improving and doing well.

"He can only get match fitness by playing. We were hoping to play him in the reserves the other day but the game was postponed, so we have to carry on and then he will have a chance against Fiorentina."

Liverpool After Star Russian Striker

Reds boss Rafa Benitez is believed to be after Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko.

The Russian forward has found life difficult at White Hart Lane, spending the majority of time on the bench for Tottenham Hotspur as Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and Peter Crouch hog the starting positions.

Pavlyuchenko is keen to leave North London, and the striker has been constantly linked with a move to Serie 'A' side Roma.

However, Liverpool boss Benitez is keen to add some strength to his thin attacking options, and Pavlyuchenko could be a shock choice for the Spaniard.

Rumours that originally surfaced in The People refuse to go away, and the striker hasn't hidden his desire to move.

"I only sit on the bench for my club - I can only hope that January will bring changes in my life," said Pavlyuchenko.

"I've never had such a black period in my life."

Fernando Torres' Injury Could Affect His World Cup Claim

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has warned that striker Fernando Torres' injuries are mounting up to such a degree that his fitness may not be one hundred per cent for Spain come next year's World Cup.

Torres was told last month to rest for three weeks, rather than have surgery for a plaguing hernia problem, by a specialist in Valencia, but the 25-year-old is still set to miss the clash with Blackburn on Saturday night.

Benitez fears this injury may persist all season and could cast doubt over the strikers involvement in South Africa.

He told The Guardian: "When you have this kind of problem it is very difficult.

"We were talking about how to manage it at a conference with four specialists the other day, and everyone had their own opinion, so it is not easy. In this case I think we have done the right things and you have to keep working during the season.

"Maybe he will be stronger in the second part of the season because he hasn't played too many games in the first half. After that, we have to analyse what his condition is. We will discuss it."

Benitez, however, remains confident that the star finisher will be able to come back and put his injuries to bed.

"We will have to keep an eye on him during the season but he can carry on. It will depend on each game but he has confidence and he is very positive and can carry on through the season," he said.

Winger Ready To Take Chance

Nabil El Zhar is relishing the opportunity to make up for lost time by playing a part in Liverpool's ascent up the Barclays Premier League table.

The Moroccan winger missed the opening months of the 2009-10 campaign due to a knee ligament problem sustained in pre-season.

However, El Zhar has been named on the substitutes' bench for the Reds' last two league outings, and with his injury woe now behind him, the 23-year-old is eager to make his first-team return in the coming weeks.

"I am good now. I have recovered from the injury and I am training as normal," he told

"I twisted my knee in pre-season and had problems with the ligament. It took a long time to recover from, but now I am back.

"I have been injured since July, so I am not 100 per cent fit. But I am feeling better every day and hopefully in a few weeks I will be at 100 per cent.

"It's never a good time to be injured, especially in pre-season, but now it's over and I am just looking to the future."

After making 19 appearances for the first-team last term, El Zhar was rewarded with a contract extension by Rafael Benitez in the summer.

Now back in contention, the winger is determined to pick up where he left off prior to the injury.

"Of course it has been difficult to watch," he said. "But the club have been helping me a lot - it's not easy to be injured. Now I just want to play and improve.

"We did well last season, and I played a part which was good for me. I hope to get some more games this season.

"Rafa has told me to be patient because I have been out for a long time. Obviously I am not 100 per cent fit, and that will take time.

"I need to wait, work hard to get my fitness back and take my chance when it comes."

Liverpool are currently on a five match unbeaten run and will head into today's clash with Blackburn Rovers on the back of a morale-boosting Merseyside derby triumph over Everton.

El Zhar added: "The mood is good here and we all stick together. Confidence is up and we got a win on Sunday against Everton, so everything is right.

"We've had some bad luck this season, but that's in the past and we have to look to the future and learn from our mistakes. The next game is against Blackburn and we have to try and win."