Saturday, December 19, 2009

Match Preview: Portsmouth vs. Liverpool

Pressure has become the key word for Liverpool in the past month, Jamie Carragher has even turned to the man upstairs, but Portsmouth are in a significantly worse situation as the pair prepare to meet this weekend.

Ahead of Saturday's lunchtime kick-off at Fratton Park, it is difficult to imagine two sides in the Premier League whose seasons have drifted so badly off course since the beginning of the campaign.

In truth, financially-stricken Pompey already appeared in dire straights in the summer and since that time they have managed to get through three owners and two managers, with current boss Avram Grant replacing Paul Hart.

Rafa Benitez's Liverpool, meanwhile, are not involved in Friday's draw for the UEFA Champions League knockout stages and they sit sixth in the table only on goal difference, five points adrift of fourth-placed Aston Villa.

Every match for the Reds now almost takes on a must-win status and Carragher, who is set to make his 600th appearance for Liverpool, has therefore resorted to praying to God for a reward at the end of the season.

Grant has only one win since succeeding the sacked Hart, a recent appointment at Queens Park Rangers, in November but he has overseen a marked improvement in performances of the league's bottom club.

If West Ham lose to Chelsea on Sunday, Pompey could climb the division and their boss will be desperate for three points against a club he earned a UEFA Champions League semi-final win against when in charge at Stamford Bridge in 2008.

Last season's meeting was an epic as Liverpool grabbed a late victory on the South Coast and Pompey, who lost at Chelsea in midweek, will want to avoid a repeat, with their cause boosted by the return from suspension of Younes Kaboul.

Kevin-Prince Boateng and ex-Liverpool defender Steve Finnan both overcame viruses to start against Chelsea and should keep their places.

Liverpool are set to restore Fernando Torres to their first XI after the Spaniard was rested on the bench before essentially turning matchwinner in the 2-1 midweek victory over Wigan at Anfield.

Full-back Glen Johnson is fit to face his former club after he missed Wednesday's match with a hamstring problem.

Winger Albert Riera still has a hamstring injury and is not available, but Ryan Babel returns to the squad after an ankle complaint.

Possible starting XIs

Portsmouth: James, Ben-Haim, Kaboul, Wilson, Hreidarsson, Piquionne, Yebda, Boateng, Brown, O'Hara, Dindane.

Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Agger, Carragher, Insua, Kuyt, Lucas, Mascherano, Aurelio, Gerrard, Torres.

Mascherano Coping With Pressure

Liverpool's Javier Mascherano is using the tense experience of only narrowly qualifying for the World Cup with Argentina to deal with pressure at club level.

The midfielder just reached next summer's international finals in South Africa after a nerve-shredding qualifying campaign with his country.

Mascherano is therefore using that experience to deal with the expectation as Liverpool struggle to meet the minimum target of a place in the Premier League's top four.

Rafa Benitez's Reds recorded only their third win in 10 league games to move sixth in the table with a victory over Wigan in midweek and the 25-year-old hopes for more ahead of Saturday lunchtime's trip to Portsmouth.

"We were talking about this (Argentina's struggles) and it has been good for me to have that experience," said Mascherano in the Daily Mirror.

"The pressure with Argentina to get them into the World Cup was worse. Not because it is my country and Liverpool is my club, but because here you have a little bit more time to do the right things.

"We know that we have to keep winning if we want to be in the top four, but we have a game every week to do that.

"With Argentina, I would go for two games then have three or four months to wait for the next one to put things right."

Mascherano also has high praise for David Ngog as the young striker continues to impress in his development this season after scoring the opener in the 2-1 win over Wigan when starting ahead of the rested Fernando Torres.

"David has taken his chances really well and it is very important for him," said Mascherano.

"It's not easy to play all the time if people are expecting David to do the same job Fernando does.

"That is just not possible, so he is under pressure all the time. But quietly he is doing a good job.

"When he has had to play, he has scored goals. He is trying to do the right thing and he is doing well for us and the manager."

Dalglish - Reds Respect Unirea

Kenny Dalglish insists Liverpool will not be under-estimating Unirea Urziceni after being pitted against the Romanians in the Europa League.

The Reds, like Unirea, dropped into the Europa League after failing to progress from the group stage of the Champions League.

Unirea finished third in Group G and picked up a memorable win over Rangers at Ibrox in the group.

Dalglish admitted Reds boss Rafa Benitez is likely to speak to Rangers counterpart Walter Smith to get the lowdown on their opponents.

"I think they got eight points in their Champions League group which included Rangers, Sevilla and Stuttgart so that's a decent number of points," Dalglish told Sky Sports News.

"Obviously there is plenty of coverage now, it's not as if you're going to get a team that won't have been on television so there's plenty of tape there for Rafa (Benitez) to have a look at.

"And also there's a phone call up the road to Walter Smith at Rangers, I'm sure he'll be happy to disclose any information he's got on them.

"It will be a difficult game. They go on a break until March now but whether the rest helps them or hinders them remains to be seen."

Liverpool could face a return to Istanbul, scene of their famous Champions League success of 2005, in the last 16 if they overcome Unirea with Fenerbahce or Lille waiting in the next round.

Dalglish admits the club would relish a return to Turkey, but insists they are not thinking too far ahead of themselves.

"We've got happy memories of Istanbul," added Dalglish. "But we've got to pay Unirea the respect they deserve."

Former Reds boss Dalglish conceded Liverpool would rather be still in the Champions League, but insisted they will be going all out to win the Europa League.

"We'd rather be in the Champions League," noted Dalglish.

"But we'll give it as good a go to win it, as we would the Champions League, I don't think the boys will let anyone down."

Rafa Targets Euro Success

Rafa Benitez has set his sights on claiming Europa League glory after Liverpool was drawn against Unirea Urziceni.

The Reds saw their UEFA Champions League hopes ended at the group stage and must now make do with the consolation of Europe's second-tier tournament.

Benitez knows his side faces a tough task against the Romanian champions, who have also been parachuted into the competition after finishing third in their Champions League group.

Anfield boss Benitez will not treat the Europa League as a distraction and will do his homework on the side who are managed by former Chelsea midfielder Dan Petrescu.

"For me it is too early [to talk about it] because we know we will play in February so we have plenty of time to prepare and learn about the other team," said the Spaniard.

"It will be tough. Unirea won the league in their country and were in a tough group with Sevilla and Stuttgart - I have some friends in Sevilla so maybe I'll be in touch with them.

"But it is important to have an option to win any trophy. The Europa League is different to the Champions League but there are some good teams in it.

"We have to progress if we can and then it is an opportunity to win a trophy and we will try to do it."

Liverpool, as an unseeded team after their poor Champions League display, will play the first leg at home on 18th February before travelling to Romania the following week.

"We would prefer to play the second game at home but we have to be ready. It will be interesting," added Benitez.

Carragher Reveals England Approach

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher has revealed he turned down an invitation from Fabio Capello to return to the England set-up.

Carragher, 31, won 34 caps for his country but announced his international retirement in the summer of 2007.

However, with encouragement from club captain Steven Gerrard he initially agreed to meet Capello's assistant Franco Baldini, but changed his mind at the last moment.

Carragher told The Times: "I was supposed to meet Franco Baldini for a chat a year ago and at the last minute I pulled out.

"It was more out of courtesy that I was going to do it. Stevie had mentioned it to me a couple of times, so I agreed to the meeting, but at the last minute I just didn't want to do it.

"I don't think my situation would change if I got back in the squad. John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are first choice and they are two of the best central defenders in the world.

"Maybe I would have won 10 more caps over the last couple of years because Rio and John have missed a few games, but you couldn't ask for a better centre-half pairing than those two going into the World Cup."

Carragher also said he would rather leave Liverpool than play for them when he is past his best.

"I wouldn't want to get to 34 or 35 with Liverpool and have people thinking, 'He's well gone."' he added.

"So I do think about whether it would be better to go while I'm still at a decent level and play out my days at another club.

"I do worry about maybe playing in big games for Liverpool and perhaps costing the side, and I also think about not playing every week and whether I could do that.

"Over the next year or two I'll probably have a decision to make. I'd love to stay at Liverpool - that's what I want to do - but there are different things that I think about that may compromise that."

Reds Promise £15m To Redevelop Anfield

Liverpool have insisted they are willing to invest the estimated £15m it would take to upgrade Anfield to a World Cup venue for 2018 or 2022 should the club not get their proposed new stadium off the ground in time.

The Football Association asked the city's bid team to include Anfield as a back-up option in case the proposed new stadium at Stanley Park does not materialise.

There have been doubts in some quarters in the city about the club's willingness to commit to the overhaul of car parking, corporate facilities and seating needed, when only a brand new stadium would enable the club to earn as much match-day revenue as Manchester United and Arsenal. But a senior Liverpool source said the investment would be made if necessary.

The FA said that the city's bid included undertakings committing Liverpool financially to such work on Anfield if the stadium were called upon.

Liverpool are anticipating having the new stadium in place, though. The key to that is the pursuit of investors which has been under way for several months with the aim of raising at least £100m by selling a 25 per cent share of the club to one or a number of equity holders.

The idea of having a number rather than just a single investor – a model resembling the institutional shareholders of a public company who are consulted at an AGM but are otherwise at arm's length to let the business develop under its management – has its attractions.

On the football front, Javier Mascherano, whose contribution in the 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic underlined his emergence back into form, has admitted that Liverpool's season is heavily dependent on the fitness of Fernando Torres. "It is so important for us that Fernando stays fit," he said. "We know that we can win games when he is not playing but, equally, when he is on the pitch you can see the respect that other teams give him."

The Argentine said he and manager Rafael Benitez had discussed Argentina's ultimately successful battle to qualify for the World Cup as a way of approaching Liverpool's struggle. "We have spoken a lot about that situation," he said. "The pressure with Argentina to put them in the World Cup was worse; not because it is my country and Liverpool is my club. Here you have a little bit more time to do the right things."

Jamie Carragher Is A Liverpool Legend - Steve McManaman

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher is set to mark another career milestone at the weekend when the Reds travel south to face Portsmouth on Saturday.

Former Liverpool and Real Madrid winger Steve McManaman, who came through the Anfield academy system like Carragher, has paid warm tribute to the defender.

Carragher's leadership and versatility are just two of his fine qualities as a player, according to his former team-mate.

"My first real memory of Carra came from when he was playing in the team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1996," McManaman told the Reds' official website.

"I used to go with Jamie [Redknapp] and Robbie [Fowler] a lot to watch them and he always stood out, particularly in one game at West Ham.

"He was a great character - with that voice you could hear him coming from a mile away - but it was extra special for me and Robbie to see him come through, as it was another good young local lad.

"Over my period in the team, he must have played in four or five different positions but his attitude was impeccable; he was so determined that it didn't matter whether he played right-back, left-back or wherever.

"He was always eager to learn but, equally, Carra was never afraid to mix it with the older lads and he would put himself about in training - people always talk about his tackling but I wouldn't know about that; he was never quick enough to catch me!

"You sometimes wonder how hard it is going to be for a young, local lad coming into the team and whether the crowd will accept them; sometimes the pressure to succeed can be too much but with Carra it was never going to be an issue. It didn't bother him at all."

And McManaman feels that to play in such a massive total of games for one club is a special achievement in the modern game.

"To get to 600 games in this day and age is an outstanding achievement," he added.

"It shows how well he has looked after himself and why he has been at the top of his profession for such a long time - that he can still play three times a week is a testament to his ability.

"Carra has been a wonderful player for Liverpool, an absolute superstar and I've no doubt whatsoever there will be many more games to come in the future; he's as important to this team now as he's ever been."

Rafa Benitez Confident Liverpool's System Will Create Goals

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez will not be changing his tactics for this weekend's Premier League trip to Portsmouth.

The Spaniard also confirmed that striker Fernando Torres is likely to start on the south coast.

"With this system we have scored a lot of goals in the last three years so the system is good for us with the players we have," Benitez said, according to Press Association Sport.

"Sometimes you need to change things if it is necessary but at this moment I think it is good for us.

"We have to manage Torres carefully and I think he will be ready to face Portsmouth."

David Ngog has been an effective deputy for Torres in recent games and Benitez feels the 20-year-old Frenchman has the ability to function as a lone striker.

"Ngog has very good movement. He is always in a very good position and his running supports the midfielders going forward, so I think he has enough quality," he explained.

"Ngog did well [against Wigan Athletic in midweek]. I am really pleased with him because he is scoring goals."

Benitez also hailed the recent form of midfielder Javier Mascherano.

"Javier is doing well. He is working very hard and you can see on the pitch that it is the Javier we knew we had," said the Reds manager.

"He is doing better but I still think he can improve. He is working hard and is an inspiration for the other players.

"Everyone knows he is a key player for us."

Carra Milestone Momentous - Rafa

Rafael Benitez believes players like Jamie Carragher are part of a dying breed as the defender prepares to make his 600th Liverpool appearance.

The Bootle-born centre-back is set to reach the milestone for the club he joined as a schoolboy at Portsmouth on Saturday.

Carragher worked his way through the academy and an apprenticeship to make his debut on January 8 1997.

But with football having gone global in the intervening years, Benitez believes Carragher's achievements will be almost impossible to replicate.

"Maybe someone will do it but it will be very difficult. Now there is too much money around the world in football," said Liverpool manager Benitez.

"If you have a good player, normally someone will make a good offer and the agents have too much power.

"Modern football is more difficult so 600 games in a top side for a local player is a massive achievement."

Benitez has overhauled the academy at Liverpool in the hope the club can unearth more local prospects who can follow in the footsteps of Carragher - who is already the club's European appearance record holder - and captain Steven Gerrard.

He believes having home-grown, talented players is an addition bonus.

"For me as a manager - for any manager - to have local players coming through the system is easier and better but it is more difficult in modern football," he added.

"You have a lot of scouts watching games but it would be really good for us."

Benitez paid tribute to Carragher, who has played in both full-back positions and also as a defensive midfielder during his Liverpool career, for reaching the 600-game mark.

In doing so, he will become only the ninth Liverpool player to reach the appearance milestone.

"I think it is amazing. At this time with modern football, to play 600 times for the same team and be a local player is a fantastic achievement," said the Spaniard.

"He is a very good example for the younger players. He trains 100% in every session and that is good for the mentality of the team.

"Carra has a strong character, passion, he likes to win every game, and that is the type of player you are looking for.

"The last five and a half years have been really good. He was playing as a left-back, right-back and now he has settled down as a centre-back.

"He knows he can help the others and is always talking. That is now one of his main strengths as he can organise the defence.

"He has improved his game and, because he is a centre-back, he has time and he will play for a long time."

The 31-year-old Carragher has 18 months left on his current contract and, in an interview on Friday, said the club had not yet offered him a new deal.

However, Benitez played down the comments, insisting there was no issue between him and the player.

"He has 18 months left on his contract and he is clever; he knows that when a player is over 30 you have to manage them in a different way than when you sign a player who is 20 years old," said Benitez.

"I don't see any problem if he continues to play at the same level and we will talk about this in the future as we have a fantastic relationship with him and his agent.

"He is taking care of himself, he is a very good professional, and I think he can play a lot of years."

Benitez also thinks Carragher will make a good coach and, possibly, even manage Liverpool one day.

"He knows the game. We talk about football all the time and he is someone you have to listen to," said the current Reds boss.

"He is doing some practice in the academy, so I think he will be a manager - hopefully not the Liverpool manager in the next four or five years but in the future."

While much of the focus has been on Carragher's landmark appearance, Benitez has been concentrating on planning for victory at bottom side Portsmouth to maintain the momentum created by Wednesday's win over Wigan.

He has former Pompey full-back Glen Johnson back after injury and winger Ryan Babel returning following an ankle problem.

"Portsmouth is a tricky game because it is a Saturday early kick-off," said the Spaniard.

"They have had problems but now with Avram Grant they have a manager with experience and they did well against Chelsea (in a 2-1 midweek defeat)."