Sunday, December 13, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Arsenal

The two clubs whose status as members of the 'Big Four' is under most threat this season lock horns at Anfield on Sunday in what could be described as a must-win affair for both of them.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez claims the showdown with Arsenal heralds “the beginning of a new season” for the Reds, whose Champions League campaign ended ignominiously with a 2-1 home defeat by Fiorentina on Wednesday. That means the Merseyside giants have now won only three of their last 14 matches in all competitions, and have failed to secure victory at Anfield since October 25. If Liverpool don't dispose of the Gunners on Sunday afternoon, then far from being a new start it will be a frustrating continuation of a season that has already fallen well short of expectations.

The Reds currently languish, by their standards, back in seventh place, 12 points behind leaders Chelsea, although a positive spin on the situation would be that they are only three points behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, are unbeaten in their last four Premier League games and have not lost at Anfield since Aston Villa beat them in August. Moreover, Liverpool are unbeaten in their last five home league games against Arsenal, winning three and drawing two.

The Gunners, in third-place, can move seven points clear of Liverpool if they can conjure their first Anfield victory since October 2003. That match saw a Sami Hyypia own goal and a sublime strike from Robert Pires cancel out Harry Kewell's opener as Arsene Wenger's side maintained an unbeaten season that culminated in their last title triumph in May 2004. Despite their recent stumble - losing four of their last six matches in all competitions and failing to score in each of those defeats - Wenger refuses to concede that it is now a two-horse race for the Premier League title between Chelsea and Manchester United, insisting that the Gunners can still win it themselves. If the Frenchman is looking for omens, four of Arsenal's last five League victories at Anfield have seen them go on to be crowned champions that season.

More immediately, though, the less grandiose target for both managers on Sunday will simply be to stabilise their respective teams' current situations by defeating a major rival.

Both sides have been disrupted by injuries this season, though Liverpool look to have turned the corner in that respect with Alberto Aquilani, their £20 million summer signing from Roma, having made his first start of the season in midweek against Fiorentina - a game in which talismanic striker Fernando Torres also returned from injury. In contrast, Arsenal's treatment room is still bursting at the seams, a factor which influenced Wenger's team selection for the Champions League tie with Olympiakos on Wednesday. Having already won their group comfortably to reach the knock-out stages, Arsenal fielded the youngest side in the competition's history (average age: 21) in Piraeus. Kerrea Gilbert, Fran Merida, Carlos Vela, Jack Wilshere and in particular Aaron Ramsey all performed well in a side that also featured debutants Kyle Bartley and Tom Cruise, and Wenger was proud of the way the youngsters acquitted themselves in a narrow defeat.

Another young Arsenal side had come unstuck at Manchester City a week earlier in the League Cup, the competition from which they eliminated Liverpool six weeks ago. In that encounter Merida and Nicklas Bendtner scored for the Gunners in a 2-1 win at the Emirates, with Emiliano Insua replying for the Reds.



09 Dec (Champions League) v Fiorentina (H) LOST 1-2
05 Dec (Premier League) v Blackburn Rovers (A) DREW 0-0
29 Nov (Premier League) v Everton (A) WON 2-0
24 Nov (Champions League) v Debrecen (A) WON 1-0
21 Nov (Premier League) v Manchester CIty (H) DREW 2-2


09 Dec (Champions League) v Olympiakos (A) LOST 0-1
05 Dec (Premier League) v Stoke City (H) WON 2-0
02 Dec (League Cup) v Manchester City (A) LOST 0-3
29 Nov (Premier League) v Chelsea (H) LOST 0-3
24 Nov (Champions League) v Standard Liege (H) WON 2-0



Fernando Torres could make his first league start for six weeks after recovering from a hernia problem, havng come on as a substitute against Fiorentina. Alberto Aquilani is in the running for a starting berth, having made his full debut in that Champions League defeat.

Their availability signals that Liverpool are close to having a fully fit squad again, with Ryan Babel, recovering from an ankle injury, the only doubt for Sunday's clash.


Midfielder Alex Song is free of a domestic ban and is likely to start in a side that will be much-changed side from the one that lost to Olympiakos in midweek.

Eduardo (thigh) and Abou Diaby (calf) could be back in contention if they recover in time, but top striker Robin van Persie's recovery from surgery to reconstruct ankle ligaments will keep him sidelined until at least March, while injury-plagued Tomas Rosicky also misses out with a groin strain.

They join Kieran Gibbs (fractured metatarsal), Johan Djouoru (knee), Nicklas Bendtner (hernia) and Gael Clichy (back) on the sidelines, with Emmanuel Eboue also nursing a hamstring problem.



There will be much expectancy on Merseyside if, as expected, Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani starts against Arsenal. After his full debut against Fiorentina, Benitez said: “To see Aquilani, to see [Fernando] Torres, those were the real positive things for the next match and the rest of our season. Aquilani showed his quality, his touch was good. His vision and passing were good but obviously he will have to work on his match fitness." It was while playing against Arsenal, for Roma, in last season's Champions League, that Aquilani sustained the injury that so delayed the start of his Liverpool career. Meanwhile Torres, who is the Reds' leading scorer with 10 goals, all in the Premier League, needs two more to reach 50 for Liverpool in the league. The Spaniard has missed much of Liverpool's disappointing run of form and results leading up to this match, and will be eager to get back in the groove.


It is impossible not to refer to Andrey Arshavin in the context of this match: it was at Anfield last April that the Russian playmaker announced his arrival in English football by scoring all of Arsenal's goals in a thrilling 4-4 encounter. Arshavin again showed his class last week against Stoke, when he was deployed as a centre-forward and ran the Potters' big centre-backs ragged with his movement, vision and positional play. He scored Arsenal's opener, missed a one-on-one, saw an effort deflected on to the bar and won the penalty which Cesc Fabregas failed to convert. If he leads the Arsenal line as well against Liverpool, the hosts will be in for a busy afternoon. Welsh teenager Aaron Ramsey, who scored the Gunners' second against Stoke after coming off the bench, was the man-of-the-match against Olympiakos in midweek, producing an array of astute passes that split open the Greeks' defence but on which his team-mates failed to capitalise. If Ramsey is involved at Anfield, it will be another step in his development.

Torres Is Left To Shoulder Burden Of Expectation At Average Liverpool

THE euro was plummeting this week (blame those feckless Greeks and Irish) but in football terms it's the English Premier League that looks the devalued currency.

A mire of dismal ineptitude characterises the entire lower half of the table. Just above them lie the plucky but unremarkable battlers, Sunderland, Birmingham, Fulham and Liverpool.

Liverpool's supporters will be dismayed to be grouped with those clubs, but perhaps they should be grateful, given the character of their team's recent performances. Liverpool's league position, a humble seventh, flatters them. Their recent unbeaten sequence in the league shows a side getting through on a wing and a prayer. They were clueless about how to break down a dully predictable Blackburn. They were both lucky and embarrassingly reliant on Jose Reina to win against a dominant but despondent Everton. They were lucky again to draw against a dominant Manchester City. They were very lucky to get a penalty to draw against Birmingham.

This dismal streak of fortuitous results was punctuated by a deserved exit from the Champions League, which Rafael Benitez attributed to the misfortune of conceding a couple of last-minute goals against Lyon. Another last-minute winner for Fiorentina at Anfield this week suggested that phenomenon was not down to the caprices of fate, but attributable to a familiar failure of mental acuity on the part of Liverpool defenders.

Received wisdom has it that the difference between the swaggering, goal-grabbing Liverpool of last season, and the dismal strugglers of this year amounts to the regular presence or absence of Fernando Torres, pictured, and Steven Gerrard. That is misleading. Liverpool managed to perform creditably last season when one or both of those talismans was unavailable, and have contrived to look dismal this season even in the presence of those supposed geniuses. Explanations must be more far-reaching.

It is true that Xabi Alonso looks a greater player with every week that passes since his departure to Real Madrid, but his departure cannot be the sole explanation for Liverpool's comprehensive loss of invention, composure and confidence.

This is a disjointed team playing without belief. Its character can probably be best appreciated in the players whose form has been half-decent. Glen Johnson, vilified by many for a defensive laxity that recalls Rio Ferdinand at his most nonchalant, was nevertheless one of Benitez's more inspired signings. He brings an urgency and directness down the right, and provided a significant attacking threat, until his injury in late autumn. He returned to a Liverpool side demoralised by their European failures.

Yossi Benayoun has been assiduous and inventive in the team's cause without being rewarded with the manager's confidence. Deployed, usually as a substitute, in a variety of positions, Benayoun seems to be regarded by Benitez as a stop-gap until something better comes along. Meanwhile, the earnest but unimaginative plodder Dirk Kuyt still seems to bask in his manager's inexplicable loyalty.

Torres remains Liverpool's key player. His return to the attack against Fiorentina on Wednesday immediately made Liverpool look more focused and menacing. The summer of 2008 belonged to him, with that insouciant winner against the Germans in the European Championship final. Next summer the World Cup offers the opportunity to make his mark as one of the great international forwards, but in the meantime he has to shoulder the burden of expectation at Liverpool, while his fitness is under close scrutiny. Christmas is the fulcrum of the season. Liverpool are now sifting through the wreckage of their campaign, looking for scraps to salvage, with a qualifying position for next year's Champions League, and possibly a cup run to keep them interested.

Sunday’s game against Arsenal at Anfield is the latest crisis point for Benitez. A win, and Liverpool can restore a little credibility, and briefly exalt their status to join Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa as flawed but sporadically useful challengers for a top four finish.

Nostalgists will cast their minds back to the scintillating match at Anfield last April, when Andriy Arshavin's four goals earned Arsenal a point, and put a spoke in Liverpool's hitherto healthy title challenge. Torres and Benayoun were superb for Liverpool that night, but defensive lapses undermined their pretensions to be champions.

Arsenal's meek submission to the might of Chelsea at the Emirates two weeks ago served to diminish their own title credentials. Arsene Wenger has become the footballing equivalent of one of those mature artists who had a few smash-hits in the past but is now more interested in exploring the limits of artistic invention. His work is imaginative and critically-acclaimed, but commercial success looks unlikely.

It might be up to the players to remind the manager of the obligations of delivering some silverware. Cesc Fabregas, who has become inordinately fond of his own pronouncements, has suggested that Wenger buy a big burly lad in January to protect Arsenal's plethora of diminutive geniuses.

Wenger has already expressed a degree of interest in Marouane Chamakh the Moroccan striker currently at Bordeaux. Chamakh is 6ft 2in but not quite the archetypal bustling target man (even if Wenger would ever countenance anything as vulgar). Wenger still seems fatally distracted by the flair of his youth players. He fielded eight or nine of them against Olympiacos on Wednesday, and purred at their potential (you wonder if he even noticed they lost the match).

Liverpool will huff and puff, while Arsenal pick out pretty patterns. Between them they would have a decent side. Separately though, they make a persuasive case that the strength of the Premier League runs exceedingly shallow

Manchester United And Liverpool Trail Congolese Star - Report

Monaco defender Cedric Mongongu is reportedly a target for a number of English clubs, according to his agent.

The 20-year-old DR Congo international has also been linked with a move to Serie A giants AC Milan, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool the Premier League sides reportedly keeping tabs on him.

Mongongu's agent Christophe Mongai does not think a deal will be done during the January transfer window, but expects him to move in the future.

"Milan has followed him for some time and has often sent its scouts to observe him, but that doesn't mean that there is a real deal," he told tuttomercatoweb.

"I don't know anything about interest from Juventus.

"In football you never know, but I think it is very difficult. AC Milan could be a problem with the competition from other clubs.

"The player is also wanted in England and the Premier League is a more important stage than the Italian championship."

Gerrard: Fitness Is The Key To Top-Four Hopes

Steven Gerrard believes Liverpool will find their way into the top four by the end of the season - if they can keep people fit.

The Anfield skipper, speaking ahead of Sunday's crucial home clash with Arsenal, is determined to raise spirits after the club's disastrous plunge out of the Champions League.

Gerrard has proved his fitness after a groin problem by playing four full matches since his return from injury, and that total would have been five had Alberto Aquilani, not been summoned to replace him against Debrecen in Budapest in the final minute.

Now Gerrard must turn his attention to salvaging Liverpool's Premier League campaign, particularly in a vital run of 11 matches before the Reds enter the Europa League in February.

And the midfielder sees the returning Fernando Torres as the key to a Liverpool revival.

Gerrard said: "If we get back to our full-strength team, and we get people fit, we're confident we are good enough to finish in the top four.

"Torres' return is massive for me, massive for everyone else. He's our main man, he's our top scorer and we need him back fit and firing.

"If that happens I'm sure we'll move back up the league and get in to the top four places. Without a doubt that has to be the main aim this season."

Liverpool fans saw a hint of the future during the 2-1 home defeat by Fiorentina on Wednesday, as the Merseysiders slipped out of Europe's elite after their final group E match.

Gerrard, Torres and Aquilani joined forces during the second-half for the first time and the passing, movement and understanding between the trio must have lightened boss Rafael Benitez's mood.

Gerrard said: "It's obviously important for the club financially (to be in the top four) and having played in the Champions League for such a long time, I'm desperate to play in it again next season.

"In the six games prior to the Fiorentina defeat we had gone unbeaten, including three successive clean sheets. We have been improving.

"It was a shame we lost it at the end, because we wanted to use the game to prepare for Sunday.

"But we will be right up for the Arsenal match. If we can get three points there and then take that into the Wigan home game next Wednesday, we can turn a corner."

Benitez could well use Gerrard, Torres and Aquilani against the Gunners, and the Spaniard agrees with his captain that Liverpool will end the season in the top four.

Benitez said: "This season's race for the top four is good for the fans, for TV and for neutrals. If you have just one club trying to break into the top four it is not so exciting.

"Now there are three, at least, trying to get into the top group and that makes everything more exciting. And that helps everyone because all teams will lose more games in the race.

"Even Chelsea and Manchester United, who are both very strong, are also losing games.

"But I feel it will still be the same top four at the end of the season.

"We have options now. We have Aquilani, (Javier) Mascherano, Lucas, Gerrard, Torres all to chose from. It is not a question of someone being left out, more a question of having choices for a change.

"We are better than we look, now we have three quality players all available and all fit. Now let's see whether we can improve our position and get into the top four.

"We will be there (in the top four). Arsenal will do that too. We can improve, we can be in the top four and we can win a trophy. It is only what you would expect from a top side.

"We have had a bad spell but we are still very close to the top four and our top players are now available."

Alan Smith: Liverpool's Fernando Torres Will Tear Into Arsenal

Think back to October when Liverpool deservedly beat Manchester United. Think back to the circumstances leading up to that game.

Rafael Benítez's side had just lost four on the trot, including the beach ball game at Sunderland and a home defeat to Lyon, which left their Champions League chances hanging by a thread.

But buoyed by the return of Fernando Torres, Liverpool reacted like a wounded beast, tearing into United with unstinting energy and aggression. The champions that day couldn't handle the pace, so determined were the home side to get a result.

Thinking about it, the situation isn't too dissimilar now going into Sunday's showdown with Arsenal. Torres returns to a team who, once again, have their backs firmly pressed against the wall. The football world awaits Liverpool's response.

It doesn't take a genius, therefore, to work out Benítez's likely game plan. Because if the Spaniard's players go about their work in similar fashion to the United duel, if they set the same kind of frantic tempo and pile into tackles with equal force, it will be interesting to see how Arsenal cope.

Arsenal, after all, face issues of their own. If the recent mauling by Chelsea wasn't painful enough, it reinforced the notion that Arsène Wenger's diminutive technicians tend to struggle when confronted by talented players who also bring a physical presence to proceedings.

Without Robin van Persie and Abou Diaby, this Arsenal side are handicapped in an important area, one that Liverpool will surely attempt to expose.

John Aldridge: Liverpool FC Must Cut Out Errors In Order To Rescue Season

I hope Wednesday’s defeat to Fiorentina acts as a wake-up call because it’s time everyone realised just how desperate the situation is that we find ourselves in.

To be out of the Champions League and out of the Premier League title race before Christmas is a real kick in the teeth.

It’s unbelievable and now it’s’ game on’ with the battle for fourth place. We’re playing catch-up and it makes Sunday’s clash with Arsenal at Anfield very juicy.

People are saying it’s a must-win for Liverpool. I wouldn’t go as far as that but it’s certainly a game we cannot afford to lose.

I know we had Reina, Carragher and Johnson missing but Fiorentina were without seven first teamers. It just shows the depth they have is better than ours.

On the balance of play we probably deserved a draw, but we were undone by another late goal.

It was the third time that’s happened in our group and those lapses have cost us dearly.

You’ve got to learn from your mistakes, but we just haven’t done that this season.

At one point the Italians had a corner which was chipped to the edge of the box for one of their lads to volley.

Nobody in red bothered to close him down so they did it again.

You’ve got to deal with things like that but nobody seems to take responsibility.

When things are going wrong defensively you need to sort it out on the training ground, but I’d question whether that’s happening. It seems to me things are just being swept under the carpet.

The players should be angry at what’s going on and they should be determined to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

We can’t keep on making those kind of errors and expect to achieve anything.

Arsenal have got the best young players in the league, but they lack a bit of experience and we have to capitalise on that.

The big positive the other night was the return of Fernando Torres. He looked very sharp and it was great to see him back.

If he can stay fit then there’s every chance we’ll finish in the top four.

Alberto Aquilani did okay against Fiorentina and getting 75 minutes under his belt will do him the world of good.

He showed some good touches and vision, and did well going forward.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back on the bench on Sunday.

I think Lucas will come back into the centre of midfield.

Rafa clearly has a lot of faith in him and the Brazilian, who has played every league game, seems to have become his first name on the team sheet this season.

The fact is the manager seems to like central midfielders with defensive qualities.

Rafa - Debt Had To Be Managed

Rafa Benitez has revealed that playing a part in helping to reduce Liverpool's debt burden was one of the most important issues he had to manage over the summer.

Liverpool's financial situation has been cited as a reason for the team's lacklustre first half to this season, with Benitez not given the funds to strengthen his squad.

He was only able to bring in Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani over the summer as he sought to aid the club's owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks by balancing the books with the sales of the likes of Xabi Alonso.

And Benitez insists it was vital that he understood the economic situation at Anfield in order to prevent the Reds suffering the same fate which has befallen Leeds United in recent times.

"I don't see Liverpool in the same way as Leeds," said Benitez.

"One of the priorities this year was to reduce the debt, so the club is working very hard to do this and I think that our position will be much better. We were doing a very good job this year trying to reduce the debt.

"It was one of the most important things that we had to manage. Along with football issues we had to manage them together.

"When I signed my five-year contract [in March] we knew that we had to work together so we will try to do the best for the club.

"Sometimes you can do it and still perform on the pitch and sometimes you have to wait a little bit. Sometimes you have to think about the big picture and the future of the club and that means you have to do your best on both sides.

"I think that we have to accept our situation and then try to do the best in the conditions that we have.

"Can we improve with these conditions? I think so, but it is a question of time."

Aquilani Gets Masch Backing

Javier Mascherano admits he is growing tired of talk that Liverpool are missing Xabi Alonso and has given his full backing to Alberto Aquilani to shine at Anfield.

Alonso joined Real Madrid in the summer in a £30million move that saw the Reds use two thirds of that sum to purchase Roma's midfield maestro Aquilani.

But the 25-year-old Italian international has been an injured bystander with a troublesome ankle problem as his new team has suffered an indifferent start to the season both domestically and in Europe.

Aquilani's delayed start to his career in England has fuelled opinion that the Reds' poor form, which has seen them crash out of the UEFA Champions League, is largely due to the absence of their former Spanish pass-master.

But Mascherano, who formed a formidable partnership with Alonso in Liverpool's engine room last season, has called for an end to such views and has seen enough of the Reds' summer signing to suggest he will be a hit with the Kop and could be in line to show his talents against Arsenal on Sunday.

"We have to forget Alonso," said the Argentinian captain, who is in talks with boss Rafa Benitez about a new deal at the club. "You cannot find two players doing the same things in the world.

"Aquilani will give us everything he can and if he is fit he will be really good for us.

"Now little by little he'll increase his confidence and learn about English football, because it's totally different, but I think he will be really good for Liverpool."

Mascherano is aware that when Aquilani gains full fitness, the competition for places in midfield will increase.

Brazilian youngster Lucas seems the most likely player to give way, but Mascherano said: "I always have to fight for a place with my team-mates.

"As a player, when you have competition it's really good for everyone. You have to fight for recognition and everyone tries to work hard so that is good for the team."

Aquilani made his full debut for Liverpool in Wednesday's Champions League defeat by Fiorentina in a deeper role, with Steven Gerrard acting as the main support for Fernando Torres.

Mascherano was used, as usual, in a holding midfield role but it is believed that, in time, Aquilani will play further forward, with Gerrard in a deeper role.

Mascherano's own improved form has pleased Benitez, but the combative ball-winner insists he is solely focused on maintaining his best level.

He said: "I am trying to do my best, but others will have to decide if I am in my best form.

"I don't like to talk about me. The manager has to talk about me, the media have to talk about me, but I just try to do my best.

"But I am very relaxed at the moment because I am happy and trying my best."