Monday, December 14, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 1 - 2 Arsenal

Liverpool suffered their second home embarrassment in five days as Arsenal grabbed the points in a game which was supposed to be a new beginning for the Anfield men.

Manager Rafael Benitez had insisted the season started again after the midweek Champions League defeat to Fiorentina.

But he did not get his wish even though Liverpool led at the break through Dirk Kuyt and should have had a penalty when William Gallas felled Steven Gerrard.

Arsenal grabbed two quick goals through a Glen Johnson own goal and an outstanding winner from Andrey Arshavin to heap more misery on the men from Merseyside.

Arshavin hit four last season in a 4-4 draw, but this time one was enough.

Bill Shankly's first official day behind the manager's desk at Liverpool was 50 years ago this Monday, and Benitez will sit uncomfortably in that same office after this.

Liverpool made six changes from the side dumped out of the Champions League in midweek, with Fernando Torres back in the starting line-up for the first time since early November. Fabio Aurelio was brought in at left-back against the pace of Theo Walcott.

Arsenal were unrecognisable from the side that lost to Olympiacos in Greece, only Walcott being retained by manager Arsene Wenger.

With Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Spurs all dropping points 24 hours earlier, both sides were desperate to take advantage.

And at last Anfield was treated to a pulsating clash after weeks of insipid displays.

The tempo and passion came from both sides and Liverpool could have had two goals in the opening 13 minutes.

First Torres broke away, fed Gerrard to his right and then took the return before failing to lift the ball over Almunia when clear.

Two minutes later referee Howard Webb controversially denied Liverpool a penalty when Gallas felled Gerrard.

The Liverpool skipper may have pushed the ball too far, but Gallas clearly took Gerrard's legs.

Denilson was booked for a high tackle on Mascherano as Liverpool poured forward.

Arsenal survived, at times with difficulty, but still sought to play their intelligent, passing football out of defence.

Samir Nasri fired wide and Cesc Fabregas tested Jose Reina as the threat on the break from the Gunners became increasingly apparent.

But four minutes from the break Arsenal finally cracked.

Aurelio lifted a free-kick into the six-yard box, where Almunia, under intense pressure in the air, managed only a weak punch and Kuyt fired home from 10 yards.

Arsenal were furious with a supposed aerial assault on their goalkeeper, Wenger making the point angrily to fourth official Andre Marriner.

The Gunners' chief was even more upset two minutes later when it looked like Aurelio stopped Walcott's run with an arm across his face. Only a booking ensured.

Arsenal came out after the break fired up for the challenge and were level after 50 minutes.

Nasri tore down the right and fired in a low cross that Johnson turned past Reina for an own goal with Walcott lurking behind him.

Mascherano was soon booked for a foul on Fabregas and it was soon to get worse for Liverpool, and especially Johnson.

Fabregas' cross after 58 minutes eluded Johnson, who then failed to stop Arshavin turning to fire in off the post from 18 yards.

Benitez finally turned to Aquilani with 25 minutes left, Mascherano making way, and with the watching Xabi Alonso applauding from the directors' box as the man bought to replace him trotted on.

But Aquilani made little impact and finished the game limping.

As much as the first half had been so positive for an aggressive Liverpool, the second was becoming deeply frustrating.

Passes started going astray, Liverpool were no longer in Arsenal's faces, rather chasing their heels.

The passion had gone from Liverpool and the accomplished young Gunners had a measure of control they were not going to lose.

Arshavin was booked for one too many late challenges on defenders clearing the ball, then Fabregas for kicking the ball away from a free-kick.

David Ngog coming on for Yossi Benayoun and then Philipp Degen for a flagging, disconsolate Johnson did little to change the flow of the match and Liverpool now have just three wins in their last 15 games.

I Will Not Walk Away From Liverpool - Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez insists that he will not abandon the club and walk away from the crisis that they are facing.

The Reds have bowed out of the Champions League and are well off the pace in the Premier League, where they currently sit seventh in the standings.

There have been many questions asked of the Anfield giants' top-four credentials, while Benitez has come under harsh criticism for his selection policy and decision-making.

But despite all the perceived problems, the former Valencia manager has stressed that he intends to stay on Merseyside for the long haul and will not entertain offers from elsewhere.

"I am happy here and if another club wanted me I would once again say no," the Spaniard is quoted in The Mirror as saying.

"When I decided to sign my new contract I was very clear - that I was signing to stay for another five years.

"Nothing has changed in my mind. I thought we could improve and I still think that we will improve."

Liverpool have been struggling under the pressure of debt believed to be well over the £300 million mark, but Benitez stands firm.

"I knew at the start of the season that we would all have to work together to reduce the debts and at the same time try to keep the team doing well on the pitch," he said.

"It was something I understood and accepted. It is all part of the business of being the manager of this football club."

Chelsea To Make £30m Bid For Liverpool Star Steven Gerrard

Chelsea are set to test Liverpool's resolve to hang onto Steven Gerrard with a £30 million bid for the player in the summer, according to a report from The Daily Mirror.

Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti has reportedly told friends that the Reds skipper has become a target as rumours of his growing disaffection with the situation at Anfield begin to spread.

With the Merseysiders in massive debt and seemingly heading towards another frustrating season, the Anfield hierarchy might well be tempted by the deal.

Whether Gerrard, 29, who signed a new four-year £25 million deal in the summer, is dissatisfied enough to consider leaving his hometown club remains to be seen.

Chelsea also have the threat of a FIFA transfer embargo still hanging over them that could mean they will be unable to deal in the close season.

Liverpool Move For Ruud van Nistelrooy Hinges On Wage Demands

Ruud van Nistelrooy’s hopes of landing a New Year move to Anfield hinge on the Dutchman accepting a pay-as-you-play deal instead of the £100,000-a-week after-tax wages he earns at Real Madrid.

Sunday Mirror Sport revealed last month that Rafa Benitez had identified the former Manchester United striker as a January recruit.

But while Liverpool believes they can get Real to slash their initial £3million asking price for the 33-year-old, they are not willing to match his salary at the Bernabeu given his recent injury record.

Van Nistelrooy’s advisers have touted him around Europe in a bid to safeguard his place in Holland’s World Cup squad.

He is now fully recovered from a thigh problem, but opportunities with the Spanish giants are at a premium now they have Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema, Raul and Gonzalo Higuain to choose from.

Benitez is interested in doing a deal that will add more firepower to his squad. And Liverpool are also willing to meet Van Nistelrooy’s demand for a two-and-a-half-year contract – but only if he slashes his current wages.

An Anfield source said: “There is an interest in Van Nistelrooy, but doing a deal will be very difficult unless something changes financially.

“His fitness record is a big worry. There are some reservations about bringing in a player who has suffered so much with injuries given how the squad has been hit by injuries this season.

“It would be a gamble, so any deal must offer some value for money otherwise it will not happen.”

Kop Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Pulls Plug

Liverpool's American rulers are reeling after Saudi Arabian Prince Faisal bin Fahd decided against pumping his family's millions into the Kop.

The Anfield club was in talks with the wealthy Arab owner of sports company F6 who was wooed by co owner George Gillett to buy a big chunk of the famous club.

Prince Faisal was a VIP guest at the thrashing of Hull earlier in the season and also invited Gillett to his Arabian base to discuss the possibility of taking a financial stake in the Kop.

However, People Sport can reveal the young Sheikh has told his closest aides to scrap any plans - despite the fact that Liverpool are out of the Champions League and more keen on a deal than ever.

Prince Faisal feels the asking price to buy out the club - £300million - is too high. And the option of taking just a 50 per cent stake does not appeal because the Saudi prince does not fancy a boardroom battle for power.

The collapse of the deal is a savage blow for Liverpool who knows that they must make the top four this season or lose out on the Champions League money that has been central to their planning.

Gillett had hoped the Saudi money would end years of bickering with co-owner Tom Hicks and score brownie points with Anfield fans.

Kop sources now say that Gillett is taking a back seat and that Texan Hicks, the hard man of the duo, is calling the shots about future planning.

Boss Rafa Benitez will not have any money to spend in the January transfer window unless he sells.

With reinforcements needed up front, Benitez could try to find a buyer for one of his midfielders - Lucas Leiva or Javier Mascherano - but is reluctant to let either of the South Americans leave.

Jamie Carragher Facing Anxious Wait Over Liverpool Future

Jamie Carragher faces an anxious wait to see if he is going to be offered a new contract by Liverpool.

The Kop cult-hero’s deal expires at the end of next season and he has been pushing for talks aimed at securing his Anfield future.

Carragher has seen Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Daniel Agger all agree long-term deals of late, while the Merseysiders are also looking to finalise agreements with Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano.

But Liverpool will not open talks until the end of the season – when the most he can expect to be offered is a one-year extension.

That will be a major blow to the 31-year-old, who has served Liverpool all his career and is guaranteed his status as a club legend.

A Liverpool insider said: “When a player gets to that age you have to be more careful with new contracts.

“You take other things into account like form, fitness and injuries. We’ll look at it at the end of the season.”

Liverpool Likely To Follow Arsenal Blueprint For Staying In The Premier League's Top Four

Asked if the club must now focus on fourth place in the Premier League, England international Steven Gerrard replied: "Of course, that is always the priority at this club."

Inadvertently, Steven Gerrard offered Liverpool supporters a glimpse into the stark reality of the club's predicament as he mulled over defeat to Fiorentina, and elimination from the Champions League, this week. Asked if the club must now focus on fourth place in the Premier League, the England international replied: "Of course, that is always the priority at this club."

He meant, of course, that Liverpool's stature relies upon their continuing presence among the continent's elite, that the club could not run the risk of the financial shortfall of missing out altogether, that their desire to challenge Europe's elite for the signatures of the world's best players is predicated upon offering them the lure of Champions League football.

It sounded, though, as a damning indictment of Liverpool Football Club, class of 2009. At a club which, as Bill Shankly said, existed solely to win trophies, it is now the taking part that counts.

That Liverpool are operating under such severe financial constraints that to demand any more would be churlish is well-documented. The club hope to find an investor, or investors, to take a 25 per cent stake of Anfield by the end of the season.

The £100 million cash injection would help kick-start the building of the new stadium on Stanley Park, as well as allowing manager Rafael Benítez more leeway in the transfer market.

Even that injection of capital is unlikely to bridge the gap between Liverpool and the petrol parvenus of Chelsea and Manchester City, or the Old Trafford marketing juggernaut.

Liverpool's wage bill is the fifth highest in the Premier League. Figures suggest that factor determines league finish with almost unerring accuracy. Unlike City, Liverpool must live within their means. Until those means increase, they can hope for little better.

Liverpool Chase Everton's Louis Saha

Liverpool are ready to go ahead with a cheeky bid to snatch striker Louis Saha from Everton.

Manager Rafa Benitez has finally decided he needs someone to play alongside Fernando Torres.

But he’ll face a battle with Toffees chief David Moyes, who wants to rush through a new deal for his French hitman.

Benitez has been alerted by news that Saha’s two year ‘pay as you play’ contract expires in the summer.

It means the former Man United and Fulham striker is free to sign a pre-contract agreement with another club next month.

That’s alerted Bordeaux, Roma, Atletico Madrid and now Liverpool. Bordeaux see the France international, 31, as a possible replacement for their star striker, Marouane Chamakh, who is also out of contract at the end of the season.

Chamakh has been a target in this campaign for Arsenal, Sunderland and West Ham.

News of Liverpool’s interest is forcing Moyes to act fast. He will tell chairman Bill Kenwright that Saha is going nowhere, especially not to arch-rivals Liverpool.

The canny Scottish boss will now offer Saha a new two-year contract.

Meanwhile, Benitez knows that buying Saha would be a huge risk because, like Torres, he has suffered badly from injures and missed a lot of playing time in his career.

Benitez splashed out £17million for Italian Alberto Aquilani, only for the player to spend more time in the treatment room than on the pitch. And he would hate a repeat of that situation.

But Benitez knows he must do something to turn the club around after their poor performances in both the Premier League and Champions League.

Hitman Torres has often been forced to play through the pain barrier this season despite a hernia problem – because Liverpool do not have another recognised striker.

Saha, for all his previous injury problems, is a genuine frontman with 11 goals in all competitions this season – and wants to make the French World Cup party.

The Mersey Beatts For Star James Beattie

Liverpool have made a surprise enquiry about James Beattie as they hunt for a back-up striker to Fernando Torres.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez is desperate to add more firepower and provide some much-needed cover for the Spain star. But his targets are significantly limited by the club's financial plight.

Stoke striker Beattie would, however, be well within his price range and, following his bust-up with manager Tony Pulis last weekend, is available in January.

Beattie's wages - believed to be around £20,000 a week - would not be a problem for cash-strapped Liverpool, as the player would cost only around £500,000.

Benitez considers a move for injury-prone Ruud van Nistelrooy a risk given Torres's injury history and has distanced himself, for now, from a move for Roman Pavlyuchenko.