Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Wigan Athletic

Liverpool head into their midweek Premier League clash against Wigan Athletic hoping to bounce back from a disappointing weekend - and not for the first time this season.

Rafael Benitez had touted Sunday's date with Arsenal as a chance for his side to start the season anew, and come half-time they certainly looked a team reborn. Then Glen Johnson put through his own net and Andrey Arshavin struck an unstoppable winner to send the Reds boss back to the drawing board.

The loss leaves Liverpool rooted in seventh spot, five points shy of the Champions League places, and it has become abundantly clear that they will have to work mighty hard to retain their membership to the so-called 'Big Four'.

Veteran defender Jamie Carragher said recently: "Wigan is a massive game for us. We'll just attempt to get three points and then move on to Portsmouth. We have to look at ourselves and realise we have to do much better."

The Latics, meanwhile, come into the clash on the back of a 2-2 draw at Stoke City; but one look at their results so far in this campaign will tell you that form means nothing when trying to gauge this team.

Roberto Martinez's men have shown themselves capable both of conquering the best in the business, and of succumbing to the most humiliating of thrashings.

They defeated league leaders Chelsea in September, only to lose at Hull City the week after; they became the first team to beat Burnley at Turf Moor this season, and followed up with a 4-0 drubbing by rock-bottom Portsmouth; and then there's that famous nine-goal implosion at Tottenham Hotspur, immediately after which they proceeded to down Sunderland.

It is impossible to say which Wigan will turn up on Merseyside this week, but the fact of the matter is that Liverpool cannot afford to lose to either – assuming they plan on playing among Europe's elite next term.



Dec 13: Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal
Dec 9: Liverpool 1-2 Fiorentina (Champions League)
Dec 5: Blackburn Rovers 0-0 Liverpool
Nov 29: Everton 0-2 Liverpool
Nov 24: Debrecen 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)

Wigan Athletic

Dec 12: Stoke City 2-2 Wigan Athletic
Dec 5: Wigan Athletic 2-3 Birmingham City
Nov 28: Wigan Athletic 1-0 Sunderland
Nov 22: Tottenham 9-1 Wigan Athletic
Nov 8: Wigan Athletic 1-1 Fulham



Fernando Torres cleared the cobwebs off his boots to make his first start in over a month on Sunday, completing the full 90 minutes. He'll be expected to feature on Wednesday, unless boss Benitez has one of his infamous selection shocks in store.

Alberto Aquilani managed 20-odd minutes against Arsenal, coming on for Javier Mascherano in the second period. With the Argentine battered and bruised, 'Aquaman' has half a chance to make his maiden Premier League start.

Last starting XI (v Arsenal): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun, Torres.

Wigan Athletic

Former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland should start in goal at his old hunting ground, having shrugged off back pain to reclaim his place between the posts on Saturday.

Meanwhile, midfielder Hendry Thomas returns the squad after missing the trip to Stoke through suspension.

Last starting XI (v Stoke City): Kirkland, Melchiot, Boyce, Bramble, Figueroa, N'Zogbia, Diame, Scharner, Koumas, Gomez, Rodallega.


Liverpool - Glen Johnson

The England wing-back suffered his worst half in a Red shirt on Sunday evening, first conceding an own goal and then letting Arshavin have just enough room to fire a bullet past Pepe Reina. That was a blip in what has otherwise been a fine individual campaign, so every Kopite will be praying he bounces back in style on Wednesday.

Wigan Athletic - Hugo Rodallega

The Latics have had few constants this term, but this man's endeavour has been one of them. Possessing both ox-like strength and a penchant for the sublime, the Ecuadorian forward is the one Wigan will look to for that match-winning moment of magic.

Anfield To Remember Bill Shankly Before Liverpool FC's Match With Wigan Athletic

Liverpool are to stage an emotional parade of legends at Anfield tomorrow to mark the 50th anniversary of Bill Shankly’s first game in charge of the Reds.

Shankly Boys including Ian Callaghan, Kevin Keegan, Phil Thompson and many more will take to the pitch at half-time during the game against Wigan to pay homage to the Scot.

The game provides the nearest date to Shankly’s opening match, a 4-0 defeat to Cardiff on December 19, 1959.

The sounds of ‘Amazing Grace’ – Shankly’s favourite hymn – will reverberate around Anfield to mark the historic anniversary.

Fifteen former stars from the 1960s and 70s, along with nine members of Shankly’s family will be introduced at the interval and a mosaic on the Kop will be unveiled.

Club stalwart and former captain Tommy Smith, who played under Shankly throughout his time in the Liverpool hot-seat, says paying homage at Anfield to the man from Glenbuck is a fitting way to mark the anniversary.

The Anfield Iron admits it could be an emotional occasion for all involved – one he hopes will inspire the current squad.

Smith said: “It is something we should do every week as far as I am concerned.

“It is amazing how quickly Shanks turned things round at Liverpool Football Club and I can’t remember any other team winning as much as we did under him in so little time.

“Shanks was a great manager and I can’t say anything bad about him – the only thing was he didn’t like leaving anyone out and wouldn’t do it until the very last minute.

“He left me out of an Arsenal game and I wasn’t too pleased, but the next day it was forgotten.

“Shanks is the greatest manager football has ever produced and getting together to remember him like we are doing will be an honour for every one of us who were privileged to play under him.

“It will be fantastic to step back out at Anfield with so many great players from the club’s past – and so many great friends too.”

Other players who will once more step out in memory of their old manager will be 60s legends Tommy Lawrence, Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Gerry Byrne, Ron Yeats, Chris Lawler, Willie Stevenson, Geoff Strong, Ronnie Moran and from the 1970s, Keegan, Thompson, Steve Heighway, Gordon Milne and a member of the late Emlyn Hughes’ family.

No Liverpool Move For Barcelona Starlet Keirrison

The agent of Barcelona striker Keirrison has told ESPN Soccernet it is highly unlikely that his client will be joining Liverpool on loan in the January transfer window.

Recent reports in the English media had claimed that Keirrison, 21, could cancel his unproductive loan spell with Benfica in order to sign for Rafael Benitez, who was linked with a move for the striker before he joined Barcelona in July 2009.

The Spanish champions paid 14 million euros to recruit the highly-rated Keirrison from Palmeiras and quickly loaned him to Benfica. However, his progress has slowed and he has made only five appearances this season with Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo striking up a prolific partnership for the Portuguese club.

Keirrison's agent, Naor Malaquias, feels Fernando Torres would represent another formidable barrier to regular first-team football at Anfield, making it unlikely Barca would sanction the move, and in any case has heard nothing from the Liverpool hierarchy about a possible transfer.

"That would be a very nice place to go but I think that we should talk directly with Barcelona to see if they have the interest to loan him to Liverpool," Malaquias told ESPN Soccernet. "I don't have any information about [interest from] Liverpool but it could be a pleasure to play in this club.

"It is difficult because the position of Keirrison at Benfica is hard because Cardozo and Saviola are doing a very good job. He is young, he arrived at the club and now he doesn't have many opportunities to play.

"I don't think that going to Liverpool will change this position because Liverpool is a very big club with very good strikers so I think that the same situation could happen. So I don't think that for Barcelona that would be a very nice change. They want a club that he could have minutes to play and I don't think that Liverpool is this club."

Keirrison arrived in Europe with a burgeoning reputation after topping the goalscoring charts in Brazil in 2008 when scoring 21 times for former club Coritiba. At Palmeiras, he scored five times in seven league games before Barcelona came calling.

Both Santos and Vasco da Gama are believed to be interested in bringing the striker back to Brazil but Malaquias has explained that prising Keirrison from Benfica will prove a tricky prospect for any club.

"I think that is a difficult transfer right now because Keirrison has a contract with Benfica and Barcelona has a contact with Benfica," Malaquias said. "They don't have the interest right now to change the player. I think that it would be a very difficult transfer. There is no club that has made a real offer to Barcelona or to Benfica."

Benitez 'Guarantees' Top Four Finish

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez says he "guarantees" that they will finish in the top four despite their poor form so far this season.

Having begun hoping to challenge for the title Liverpool lie seventh in the table, 13 points behind leaders Chelsea and out of the Champions League.

"I am sure we can do it because I know we are better than the team you are seeing on the pitch," said Benitez.

"I can guarantee we will finish in the top four."

On Sunday, Liverpool lost 2-1 at home to Arsenal, despite scoring first.

That result, their sixth league defeat of the season, left them five points adrift of the Champions League places. And it extended their run of poor results to only three wins in the last 15 games, their last home victory having come against champions Manchester United on 25 October.

Benitez is facing the most difficult period of his five years in charge at Anfield, but insists he will not compromise his principles to get out of an uncomfortable situation.

"For five years I think we were doing well," he said. "So we have to keep going in the same way because the club is stronger now in everything: the squad, the value of the club is better than five years ago.

"Yes, it is a bad moment but I still think we can improve.

"I think it is very important for any manager, but especially here in England, to be strong.

"You have to show you have an idea, you have your own people that you can talk with and analyse things and say 'This is the way to do things' and we have to keep going.

"The main thing for me is to come here early in the morning, do my job, go home still working a little bit and try to be ready for the next day.

"That is the way to do things and that is an example for the players - and they are doing the same thing.

"Everything can be improved and if we make mistakes we keep going.

"There are still 22 games to play so we know we have to change our target. Now it is to get three points against Wigan and then start thinking about Portsmouth (at the weekend)."

Rafa Benitez ‘Set For Huge Transfer Market Boost’

The huge windfalls that George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the co-owners of Liverpool, will collect from the sales of their American sports properties could be pumped into the English soccer club, according to English press reports.

'Under-fire Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez could be handed substantial transfer funds next month thanks to a cash windfall for American co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks,' reports the Daily Express.

'Gillett has already banked a £180 million profit from the sale of his ice hockey team Montreal Canadiens. And Hicks is days away from being £150m richer after his baseball side Texas Rangers was put under the hammer.'

However, sources close to both men suggest the money is unlikely to be spent on Liverpool.

Indeed, Hicks has already stated that business at the Rangers will not affect his actions at Liverpool.

In a piece of good news for the club's fans, though, the American added last month that the club's Champions League exit will not force it to sell any of its players.

Liverpool Defender Jamie Carragher Prays For Good Times

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher is praying that there are good times around the corner as the off-colour Reds look for an upturn in fortune.

Sunday's luckless 2-1 home defeat by Arsenal means that Liverpool have now won just three times in 15 matches.

"I pray that we win the FA Cup, Europa League and get in the top four," Carragher told BBC Radio Merseyside.

"But between now and the end of May it's going to be a grind at times and we have to stick together."

Liverpool have a good chance to get back in contention from their next three games.

Starting with Wednesday night's home clash with 14th-placed Wigan Athletic, they face successive games against teams currently in the bottom four - at backmarkers Portsmouth this Saturday (19 December) before the Boxing Day clash with Wolves (26 December).

They then round off the festive period with a trip to Birmingham to take on one of their main rivals for a Champions League place, Aston Villa (29 December, 1945 GMT).

And Carragher does not accept, despite all the flak they have received in the media for their poor run of results since the end of September, which the Reds are on their knees.

"Every night I'm praying that at the end of the season they'll be something worth what we've gone through," added the former England defender.

"Statistics like that are not good. But before the Fiorentina game we hadn't lost in six.

"Statistics can change quickly and we want to make sure we can start changing those stats, starting Wednesday.

"We've got to move on now. Wigan is a massive game but it's a perfect game for us.

"When you have a disappointing result you want to get back on the pitch as soon as possible."

Liverpool fought hard last season to finish Premier League runners-up as they failed to clinch what would have been a record 19th league title - instead allowing Manchester United to equal their haul of 18.

But the Reds vice captain believes that, despite Xabi Alonso's summer departure, they still have a strong enough squad to challenge.

"With the quality of the players we've got and the stature of the club we realise we should do better," said Carragher.

"It's tough at the moment for everyone associated with the club, but we've been here before.

"It's not always great times here at Liverpool. Part of playing for Liverpool is having big character and that's what's we need at the moment.

"Then we can dust ourselves down and at the end of the season say it wasn't so bad in the end."

Yossi Benayoun: Liverpool Must Get Winning Habit Back

Liverpool winger Yossi Benayoun has challenged himself and the rest of the Reds squad to rediscover their winning mentality and embark on a run of victories.

The Israeli feels that recording a few back-to-back wins would see the confidence return at Anfield, along with a more optimistic outlook.

"We need to win three or four games in a row and try to get our confidence back up," Benayoun told his club's official website.

"We always seem to win one, but then we don't follow it up with a result in the next match. We need to keep working hard in training and try to start winning, beginning against Wigan Athletic. We know we need to be in the top four and that is our target.

"If we can do that and have a good run in both cups our season will improve."

Liverpool welcome Wigan to Anfield on Wednesday night. They currently trail fourth-placed Aston Villa by five points in the Premier League table, with the prospect of Martin O'Neill's men extending that lead against Sunderland on Tuesday night.

Benayoun knows that a win is a must if Rafa Benitez's men are serious about a top-four finish this season.

"After you lose you want to play the next game as soon as possible," he added.

"We are lucky we have the game on Wednesday and we will try to play good football and win the game for our supporters. We owe them a lot because we haven't played well this season.

"There's never an easy game. We have already seen this season that anyone can beat anyone. The top four teams from last season have lost a lot of points. We know it will be difficult against Wigan at home, but we need all three points. Anything less would be a disappointment."

Mark Lawrenson: It’s Up To Rafael Benitez To Give Liverpool FC Players Their Belief Back

The belief seems to have gone from Liverpool at the moment – and it needs to come back quickly.

In short, the players need to realise how good they are again.

Rafael Benitez won’t find the answers to the current problems by looking for money in the January transfer window or by taking any notice of anything the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann or Graeme Souness say.

They are just pundits paid to give an opinion, it’s what they do.

What football managers do is pick their best team and send them out motivated and up for it.

That’s all Benitez needs to concentrate on now – don’t worry about anything else.

It seemed to have worked to a tee against Arsenal with the way Liverpool started against them on Sunday.

They were at it from the start and I think if the first half had been 10 minutes longer they would have more than one goal up.

But if it only takes one goal to completely knock you off your stride then a second goal is essential, but it also underlines the fact that there are definitely issues with confidence.

At 1-1 a game is still there for winning, but Liverpool seem to lack the conviction to recover from setbacks at the moment.

The Glen Johnson own goal is just the kind of scrappy, nothing goal they could benefit from themselves at the moment, but when those things aren’t going for you, you need to make them happen.

And Liverpool are still good enough to do that without a doubt.

Once the sharpness of Fernando Torres is back, Benitez has his strongest squad to choose from and now is the time to instill into them how good they are as players.

Even Torres and Steven Gerrard will need to be told that – just to give them that extra boost of inspiration and a spring in their step. Those things are important when the mood among the players is a bit down during a dodgy run of results.

It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s called good mean-management and Benitez needs to demonstrate that to his players now to start getting the best out of them again.

Come out against Wigan on Wednesday like they did on Sunday and the tide could finally turn.

One thing Benitez has in his favour – and perhaps one thing that some would argue mean he is lucky to be at Anfield – is that the crowd are understanding and want to back the team.

They know that this current Liverpool side is much better than the results this season indicate and they know the players have it in them to turn it round.

Those results need to be forgotten about now as does any other issue surrounding the club.

Benitez needs to pick his best players, look them in the eye and remind them how great they are.

Hosting Wigan gives them the perfect chance to prove it.

And sometimes it only takes one game and one good result and ‘bang!’ You’ve bounced back.

Suarez Reiterates Ajax Pledge

Uruguay striker Luis Suarez has reiterated that he will not be leaving Ajax before the World Cup finals.

The 22-year-old is the leading scorer in Holland by some margin, with 18 to his name already this term.

This has seen the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United linked with him, though Chelsea are believed to be leading the chase for his services.

But despite interest from Carlo Ancelotti, Suarez does not want to think about moving ahead of the World Cup finals.

"I am not going to move anywhere for the moment. I thank any team that is interested but my idea is to stay at Ajax at least until the end of the current season," said Suarez to Radio Carve.

"Maybe when this season ends I will accept a move somewhere.

"Chelsea? There is nothing at all.

"I don't know from where the press gets some information.

"If it's true, I thank them that they are interested.

"I have said to everyone at Ajax that I want to stay here because I nearly always play and I want to be in good shape for next year to play for Uruguay in South Africa. I am going to stay at Ajax at least until June."

Liverpool In £6m Swoop For West Ham United's Scott Parker

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is reportedly set to capitalise on the financial worries dogging West Ham United with a £6 million move for Scott Parker, according to The Sun.

The tabloid claims that the Reds are ready to seal the deal once the transfer window opens in January, particularly if the alleged takeover bid from David Gold and David Sullivan does not go through.

The 29-year-old midfielder - who was voted Player of the Year for the Upton Park outfit last season - is said to be a stop-gap replacement for Javier Mascherano, who is tipped to leave Anfield if the Merseyside club fail to finish in the top four this season.

Parker, who joined West Ham from Newcastle United in 2007, earns more than £50,000 a week plying his trade for Gianfranco Zola's side.