Thursday, December 17, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 2 - 1 Wigan

Liverpool's 2-1 victory over Wigan in the week of the 50th anniversary of Bill Shankly's first match at the club would not have impressed the legendary manager but it was a welcome relief for current boss Rafael Benitez.

Young French striker David Ngog's 10th-minute glancing header from Fabio Aurelio's cross and Fernando Torres' second-half scrambled effort proved enough to see off a Latics side, for whom Charles N'Zogbia scored an injury-time consolation.

It was only Liverpool's fourth win in 16 matches and just their second at Anfield since September 26 but it will do much for the team's shaky confidence.

Although Ngog impressed in the first half the crowd eagerly awaited the arrival of substitute Torres for his 100th appearance, which eventually came in the 64th minute. The striker duly delivered with his 61st goal for Liverpool to wrap up victory.

Wigan have won two of their last 10 outings and are just two points clear of the relegation zone, having conceded more goals than any other Premier League team, with 17 in their last four away games.

In the absence of Torres, who was dropped to the bench after Sunday's defeat to Arsenal, Benitez switched to a 4-4-2 formation with Steven Gerrard playing in central midfield and Dirk Kuyt playing alongside Ngog.

Centre-back Daniel Agger sliced a 25-yard shot wide in the fourth minute while Aurelio's poor contact prevented him opening the scoring from 12 yards.

However, the pressure was building and Wigan cracked in the 10th minute.

Aurelio's inswinging right-wing cross was met by Ngog just in front of Kirkland and he glanced a header past the former Liverpool goalkeeper and into the far corner.

Wigan midfielder Paul Scharner headed N'Zogbia's cross straight at Jose Reina before Kirkland redeemed himself for his misjudgement on the goal.

His brilliant 17th-minute reaction save from Kuyt after Yossi Benayoun's quick throw had released Ngog down the right prevented Liverpool adding a second.

But having taken the early advantage the home side laboured to extend it with Wigan happy to sit back and compress play into a 30-yard zone from the edge of their penalty area.

Javier Mascherano received the full force of Mohamed Diame's clearance square in the face and staggered around the centre-circle like a punch-drunk boxer for a few seconds but was able to continue after treatment.

Aurelio was the heart of most of Liverpool's chances and, after almost picking out Benayoun at the far post two minutes before half-time, he then set up a chance for Ngog.

The Brazilian's pass deflected off Hendry Thomas into the penalty area but the Frenchman's shot rolled inches wide of the far post.

To mark the Shankly anniversary Liverpool paraded a host of his former players during the interval, including the likes of Ian St John and Kevin Keegan.

If it was meant to inspire the current squad the impact was lost on Benayoun, who should have done better in trying to get to Aurelio's teasing left-wing cross.

Wigan counter-attacked quickly from Liverpool's corner and although Reina spilled N'Zogbia's shot he had time to recover.

In the 51st minute Kirkland again displayed the talent which, were it not for his injury problems, would probably have him in Fabio Capello's England squad as he somehow tipped over Kuyt's first-time shot on the run from Ngog's cross.

However, the arrival of Torres in the 64th minute for Ngog was to change things.

The Spain international immediately won a corner but Agger completely missed a five-yard header from Gerrard's cross.

Wigan should have equalised in the 74th minute when Hugo Rodallega and Scharner prevented Reina claiming NZogbia's free-kick but Scotland, still to open his account for the club he joined in the summer, smashed a left-footed volley on to the crossbar and over.

Liverpool were gradually going backwards and their opponents sensed a chance to snatch a point.

However, that was snuffed out in the 79th minute by Torres. He was put clean through by Boyce's back-header from Jamie Carragher's punt and should have beaten Kirkland comfortably.

However, he miss kicked and Titus Bramble half-stopped the ball on the goal line but somehow Torres scrambled it over for his 49th goal in 69 league appearances.

That statistic alone underlines how important he is to Liverpool.

However, in the second minute of injury time N'Zogbia ran across the penalty area to poke home a consolation to highlight just how shaky the Reds' defence has become.

Torres Expects Benitez To Stay

Fernando Torres has expressed his disappointment with Liverpool's season but backs Rafael Benitez to stay at the club and turn things around.

The Reds have failed to make it through to the last 16 of the Champions League, while they are also out of the Premier League title race after slipping 13 points behind leaders Chelsea.

Liverpool had been expected to mount a much stronger challenge for silverware on all fronts after an encouraging 2008/9 campaign and their miserable form has sparked speculation about the future of manager Benitez.

There have been suggestions that he could leave Anfield but Torres does not believe he would want to go out on such a low note.

"It looked like this was going to be our season, but it's turned out very differently from what we expected," the Spanish striker said in the Daily Star.

"I don't think Rafa will leave, especially halfway through the season.

"He still has four years to run on his contract, and he would not leave through the back door.

"Were he to leave, it would be with the team at the top. He's been given time, space and full control of every area of the club.

"Rafa wouldn't be able to enjoy the same benefits elsewhere."

Reports have also linked Torres with a move away from Liverpool but he has reiterated his commitment to the club.

The 25-year-old insists he will stay regardless of what happens with Benitez, although he would like to work under his current boss for as long as possible.

"I still have four years left on my contract and my future is here," he said.

"It's not linked to Rafa, but I hope that we can see out our contracts here together.

"Right now I don't see myself playing elsewhere.

"Now I just want to improve the side's current standing and hopefully we'll all remain here together."

Fernando Torres Can Win Trophies With Liverpool - Rafa Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has affirmed his belief that striker Fernando Torres can be successful with the Reds.

As the Merseysiders' season stumbles along, many have speculated that Torres may consider leaving the club if the chances of winning silverware decrease.

There is also a real fear that the Reds won't qualify for next season's Champions League.

But Benitez insists that the player is happy and as determined as ever to help turn things round at Anfield.

"Of course Fernando wants to win things, just as we all do, but I am sure he can fulfil his ambitions here," Benitez told his club's official website.

"He wants to be in the Champions League next season and I can guarantee he will, because I know we will finish in the top four.

"I am talking with Fernando and Stevie [Steven Gerrard] all the time and they know my idea for keeping this club going in the right direction.

"I have spoken at length with both players in the past week or two. We discussed how things are going and what we want to achieve this season, and both were very supportive and very positive.

"It was clear they share my determination to put this bad spell behind us and emerge as competitive as in previous seasons."

Torres is set to make his 100th Liverpool appearance against Wigan Athletic on Tuesday night. He has scored 60 goals for the Reds since joining from Atletico Madrid in 2007.

"I think he was an amazing signing for the club," the manager added.

"The first year was fantastic. The second year he had some injuries, but still did well. This year, hopefully, he will give us the same as in the first year now that he is back from injury.

"We have to manage him properly and it depends on the fitness of the player. After each game we have to talk with him and see if he can play one or two games in a week.

Liverpool's Rafa Benitez Wants Real Madrid's Ruud Van Nistelrooy To Cover For Fernando Torres

As reported by Marca, Real Madrid striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy is on Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez's Christmas wishlist to serve as Fernando Torres' understudy.

Despite announcing his international retirement after the Euro 2008 tournament, the Dutchman would like to make the international team for next summer's World Cup, but in order to do so, he must find playing time; with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema and Raul ahead of him, he is unlikely to find such minutes at Real Madrid.

Van Nistelrooy is still coming to terms with football again after a serious knee injury that ended his season after little over a month of play last year. The Dutchman has spent much of this season on the sidelines with varying ailments, the most recent of which was tonsilitis.

At the moment, Real Madrid has not expressed interest in selling any one of their players, although that could change should an attractive offer be put on the table. Chelsea, Blacburn Rovers, Arsenal, and Liga side Zaragoza have all reportedly expressed interest in the Dutch striker.

Andrea Dossena Unlikely To Leave Liverpool For Napoli - Agent

Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena is unlikely to leave Anfield for Napoli in January, according to his agent.

Dossena has not especially enjoyed his 18 month spell on Merseyside, struggling to make any impact on the first team.

A proposed move back to Serie A has been mooted for several months, with Napoli appearing to be favourites to land the Italian international.

However, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis seems to be becoming a little impatient with how the proposed move is progressing and is ready to turn his attentions elsewhere, hinting at the player's wage demands being the snag which has halted the deal.

"I'm tired of hearing about Dossena. If they want to give him to us OK, otherwise nothing," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"What is the problem? If a player wants to relaunch, he cannot think only of money.

"However, I'm considering a number of names."

Dossena's agent Federico Pastorello also indicated that he is ready to bring negotiations to an end.

"I don't want controversy, I'm on good terms with the president," Pastorello told Sky Italia.

"I think there aren't conditions for continuing negotiations with Napoli."

Benitez Praises Higher Quality

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes the additional competition for Champions League places this season will actually help his stuttering side.

The Reds are currently seventh, five points outside the top four, after a dismal run of only two wins in their last nine Barclays Premier League matches.

However, despite their recent poor form, they have not been cut adrift from Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City, the other teams realistically chasing Champions League qualification.

And, with leaders Chelsea having lost three times and United and Arsenal four, the Liverpool boss believes there will be plenty more opportunities to reclaim lost ground.

"It is easier to lose games for the top four because the other teams are stronger, too," said Benitez, whose side faces a must-win match at home to 14th-placed Wigan on Tuesday night.

"You can see Aston Villa, Tottenham or Manchester City can beat anyone, too, so maybe it will be better for the competition.

"Now we are in a bad position but it can help us because, if other teams continue to lose points, there are 22 games to play so we have to be positive."

Benitez believes his side is close to turning a corner but admits that confidence is the key.

Liverpool were well in control against Arsenal on Sunday, leading 1-0 at half-time, but an unfortunate Glen Johnson own goal sent shockwaves running through the players and the belief visibly drained from them as the Gunners fought back to win 2-1.

"If the confidence is not high a goal can affect the players and that is the situation now," said Benitez, who claimed the current mentality was the only difference between this season and the squad that finished second in the Barclays Premier League in May.

"You can do some things in training to send the right messages.

"People criticise the team and the squad but the majority of players were here last year.

"We have scored 22 goals at home (in eight matches this season) but we are conceding goals, too.

"We have to improve in attack if we can but we have to improve in defence.

"We had three clean sheets in a row and I was really pleased and then we conceded against Fiorentina and then Arsenal.

"But the team is much stronger now, we are stronger at set-pieces and we are defending set-pieces better."

Benitez is confident his side will improve in the last six months of the season, starting at home to the Latics on Tuesday night.

"Every game for us is a game we have to win," said the Spaniard.

"If Wigan come here, play well and get a point, maybe they will be happy but, for us, we will try to do our best and try to win.

"I have to have confidence in my team and I am sure we can do it because I know we are better than the team you are seeing on the pitch.

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

Liverpool Co-Owners George Gillett And Tom Hicks To Gain Around £124m From Share Deal

Liverpool co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks are closing in on a deal that will see them sell a significant share in the club to a new investor for around £124 million, Telegraph Sport can disclose.

Gillett was in London last week to hold talks with potential investors, and Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow is understood to have held talks with a number of candidates interested in taking an equity stake in the club.

A long-list of around six serious investors has been compiled with two or three proposals thought to be particularly strong, offering the owners around $100 million (£62 million) each for a share in the club.

It is yet to be decided precisely what stake the two owners are willing to sign over to a new investor, but they are expected to each offer the same share so that they retain parity on the new board.

Hicks and Gillett have been searching for fresh equity all year but the process has gathered pace in recent weeks, with Gillett keen to strike a deal in the near future.

His visit to London last week was significant. Last month he sold his ice hockey franchise the Montreal Canadiens for C$575 million (£333 million), a windfall that should enable him to reduce the level of debt across the family businesses, although it is unlikely any of this money will go towards Liverpool.

In London last week he made it clear that he was keen to strike a deal soon, and urged any potential investors not yet at the table to make their interest know quickly.

A key issue in negotiations will be price and the share on offer. The American co-owners consider the club to be a massively undervalued asset and may seek a price above the current market valuation of around £500-£600million.

They are known to believe that the club's value and profitability could double when the new Anfield development, stalled by the credit crunch, is completed, and may demand a premium for investors who would enjoy the upside of that.

Since buying the club, revenue and pre-tax profits have increased threefold, evidence say the Americans of the attractiveness of the investment.

The new investors will also have to establish a working relationship with the co-owners, whose sometimes fractious relationship has been a distraction in recent seasons.

Both men are keen to break the deadlock with a fresh face at the boardroom table, but they will not want to relinquish control.

A key question for supporters will be what use the Americans put any fresh investment to. The owners have indicated in the past that the intention is to use the money to pay down some of the club's debt, which currently stands at around £240million, and kick-start work on the new stadium development.

The stadium plans have been drawn and planning permission has been granted, and the owners are waiting for a thaw in the credit markets before proceeding. New investment will help start that process, and may inspire some confidence among potential lenders.

Supporters will want to see at least some of the new money used to pay down debt, though there will be concerns that it might be diverted into more troubled parts of the Hicks and Gillett empires. Both men have considerable quantities of debt across their business empires.

The counter-argument from the owners is that actually Liverpool's debt burden is manageable in contrast to some of their rivals, most markedly Manchester United, which carries almost £700million secured against the club and Glazer family interests.

The proposed investment could also affect the future of Rafael Benítez, under huge pressure following a dismal run of results and elimination from the Champions League.

The Spaniard has played off the two Americans expertly during the last three years, securing a £20million new contract and unprecedented control at the club.

Failure to finish in the top four would be a huge blow to Liverpool's self-esteem and finances regardless of the new investment. He will hope that the new investor at the boardroom table has more faith in his abilities to turn the club round than some already there.

United Arab Emirates' Ruling Family Set To Buy Into Cash-Strapped Liverpool

Liverpool could be set for a badly-needed cash boost from the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates.

According to reports from the Middle East, members of the Ras al-Khaimah family are seeking talks with the club's owners to discuss possible investments.

They want American co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks to fly to the UAE to open negotiations about buying into the ailing club.

A senior official close to the Ras al-Khaimahs said representatives from Liverpool "may be coming next week".

Ian Cotton, Liverpool's director of communications, refused to be drawn on the reports, saying: "At the moment, we are not commenting on this speculation."

Liverpool would welcome investment as the club's borrowings stand at £313m.

Just last week manager Rafa Benitez had said that managing the club's huge debts was proving to be difficult.

Hicks and Gillett have been courting investment from the Middle East for months and Gillett recently visited Saudi Arabia.

Ras al-Khaimah's royal family is the latest Gulf investor to be linked with Liverpool and in September, Saudi Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Al Saud was said to be keen to invest, but nothing came of the interest.

Tom Hicks Club Takes Step Closer To Selling Major League Baseball Franchise

Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks today moved a step closer to selling his Major League Baseball franchise – in a move that could free up funds at Anfield.

Hicks found a number of interested bidders for the Texas Rangers, and late last night selected a group led by Pittsburgh lawyer Chuck Greenberg to enter exclusive negotiations.

Hicks now has 30 days to agree a deal with Greenberg before submitting plans to MLB for approval. The banks that hold Hicks’ debt must also approve.

The deal would see the Hicks family retain a small share of the team which could fetch up to £300m.

In a statement, Hicks said: “Our family has chosen to negotiate with the group we believe will be best to protect and ensure the long-term positive future of this franchise. We understand that this is more than a transaction. You never really own a baseball team; you just have the right to be the trustee of a public institution.”

Hicks has been working to sell the Rangers due to the debts held by his Hicks Sports Group, which defaulted on debts attached to the Rangers and Dallas Stars hockey back in May.

Earlier this month, Liverpool’s other co-owner George Gillett completed a deal to sell the Montreal Canadiens NHL franchise but is yet to invest any of the £333m into Liverpool.

Eccleston Agrees Reds Stay understands Liverpool's promising striker Nathan Eccleston has agreed a new three-and-a-half year contract.

The former Bury trainee had been out of contract at the end of the season, but will now commit his long-term future to the Premier League giants.

The 18-year-old, who has been in impressive form with six goals in ten reserve team outings, is currently away with Liverpool's second string in Spain and will put pen-to-paper upon returning to England.

Eccleston had reportedly been attracting interest from Premier League rivals, but has ended fears he could jump ship by agreeing to stay until the summer of 2013.

The youngster has broken into Rafa Benitez's side this season after appearing in Carling Cup action against Arsenal while he also made his Premier League debut off the bench against Fulham.

Benitez is believed to be willing to loan out Eccleston in January in order to further his education with both Blackpool and Nottingham Forest keen on bringing him to the Championship.