Sunday, December 20, 2009

Match Report: Portsmouth 2 - 0 Liverpool

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez suffered a disastrous trip to Portsmouth after Javier Mascherano was dismissed during a miserable defeat at Fratton Park.

Pompey's victory, with the goals coming from Nadir Belhadj and Frederic Piquionne, will ignite hope of survival in the Barclays Premier League.

However, Liverpool chances of finishing in the top four are uncertain - they missed a chance to record back-to-back league wins for the first time since September.

It means Avram Grant maintains his unbeaten record against Benitez after recording two wins and two draws during his time at Chelsea in the 2008 season.

Back then he ended the Spaniard's Champions League hopes at the semi-final stage - this time he has dented their chances of even qualifying for the competition.

Benitez was furious with Lee Mason, who sent two Liverpool players off during the defeat to Fulham earlier in the season, for his straight red for Mascherano, who will now miss four games through suspension.

The defeat also meant there was no celebration to mark Jamie Carragher's 600th appearance for Liverpool - until Belhadj's strike he would not have enjoyed an easier 30 minutes in his previous 599.

In truth, both sides needed time to find their a footing in a game played under tricky conditions. The match was able to go ahead due to the pitch being covered during the week, although there were traces of snow on the shaded areas of the turf meaning passing was sometimes hindered.

Benitez was boosted by the return of Fernando Torres after the Spain striker rested his troublesome groin in the midweek win over Wigan - but he was limited to half-chances.

Torres had a sight of goal early on but Hermann Hreidarsson was back in time - his sliced clearance could have gone anywhere but ended up in Asmir Begovic's hands.

Torres then got closer midway through the half after collecting a pass from Andrea Dossena and curling just over the bar, then he was inches from Steven Gerrard's cross.

Dossena's selection was a curious decision, especially with Yossi Benayoun relegated to the bench and Ryan Babel back after an ankle complaint.

And any plans Benitez had of his changes ensuring a simple victory were blown away just after the half-hour mark when Pompey took the lead.

Belhadj started the move himself by nutmegging Emiliano Insua to set up the attack. When the ball was cleared, Kevin-Prince Boateng forced Pepe Reina into a save with a powerful volley, former Pompey full-back Glen Johnson cleared the ball only as far as Belhadj and the Algerian lashed in at the near post.

Belhadj has been out of favour under Grant, this was his first game since October and resulted in his first goal of the campaign.

Daniel Agger should have levelled before the break. Gerrard's free-kick found him unmarked but the centre-back headed over from close range.

To make matters worse, then came Mascherano's dismissal.

The Argentina midfielder recklessly crashed into Tal Ben Haim, although his feet did not leave the ground. Nevertheless, Mason consulted the fourth official before giving a straight red card.

It was a decision that infuriated Benitez, who had chants of "you're getting sacked in the morning" aimed at him from home fans.

Benitez made his move eight minutes after the break, introducing Benayoun for Dossena to the delight of Liverpool fans, many of whom had set off at unsociable hours for the lunchtime kick-off.

Michael Brown made himself busy in midfield, winding up his opponents. When Torres snapped and fouled the Pompey skipper it earned the striker a yellow card, then the striker may have been fortunate to stay on the pitch when he led with his arm in a challenge on Ben Haim.

Johnson also earned a booking for tripping Jamie O'Hara when the on-loan Tottenham midfielder robbed him deep in Liverpool territory.

Begovic needed to be at his sharpest to deny Gerrard after the England midfielder's shot struck Brown and Hreidarsson. The Pompey goalkeeper was falling the wrong way but managed to palm the ball away.

Piquionne doubled the lead with eight minutes remaining, latching onto Boateng's cross, spinning around Carragher and finishing crisply.

Rafa Benitez: Javier Mascherano Dismissal Cost Liverpool FC Dear At Portsmouth

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez believes the first-half dismissal of Javier Mascherano signalled the beginning of the end for his side as they fell to a 2-0 loss at Portsmouth today.

The Argentinian midfielder saw red shortly before the interval after recklessly crashing into Tal Ben Haim, although his feet did not leave the ground.

Liverpool were already trailing to a Nadir Belhadj goal when they were reduced to 10 men and Frederic Piquionne added another late on to complete the scoring.

Benitez said: “If you analyse the first half we were doing well, even with their goal but then came the Mascherano incident.

“We were a good team in the first half and the sending off changed everything.

“We had some chances, we should have scored, we were controlling the game and everything changed with Mascherano.

“Now we have to hope we can win our next game.”

Pompey’s victory will ignite hope of survival in the Barclays Premier League.

The result also means Avram Grant maintains his unbeaten record against Benitez after posting two wins and two draws during his time at Chelsea in the 2008 season.

Grant was thrilled to claim the scalp of Liverpool having narrowly missed out to leaders Chelsea in midweek.

“Today we played like a team,” he said.

“From game to game we are playing better and today we deserved the win.

“We played on Wednesday against a team in first place at home, and we showed ourselves if we can do things well at the bottom of the table we can still surprise the other team, and today it went well.”

Pompey midfielder Michael Brown added: “We’ve been playing well in general. It was a fantastic result for us.

“It’s a matter of getting some points and three points is fantastic against a strong Liverpool team with a lot of talent. It’s an enjoyable day for us.”

Rafa Benitez Putting Faith In Liverpool FC Defender Glen Johnson

There is an irony attached to Rafa Benitez’s signing of Glen Johnson, if you are willing to believe the chatter in some parts.

It goes like this. The manager who is more preoccupied with defending and making sure the back of his team is in order actually weakened his rearguard by selling a player who could occupy a number of positions for someone who struggles to do his main job.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Yet ever since he played for England in Ukraine on October 10, Johnson has found his positional sense and ability to help Liverpool keep clean sheets called into question.

Never was that more apparent than after last Sunday’s alarming 2-1 defeat at home to Arsenal as Johnson put through his own net to give Arsene Wenger’s side a route back into the game before having his pocket picked by Arshavin for their winner.

Every player, at some point in their career, experiences a 45 minute spell when nothing goes right, but for there to be suggestions that Johnson has struggled since swapping Portsmouth for Liverpool in the summer would be grossly unfair.

Fast, skilful and decisive in the tackle, Johnson has made an assured start to life on Merseyside; yes, there has been the odd lapse, but ask Benitez about the man he bought to replace Alvaro Arbeloa and you are left in doubt about the manager’s views.

Having shaken off the problem which forced him to miss Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Wigan, Johnson will take his place alongside Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio at a ground he knows well.

An FA Cup-winner during his time on the south coast, Johnson is sure to get a good reception at Fratton Park, but all Benitez is bothered about is the 25-year-old making a key contribution to another Liverpool win.

“When we looked at Glen, we knew we were signing an attacking full-back,” Benitez explained. “Everybody knows he is really good going forward but, at the same time, we know he can improve in defence.

“It’s too early to talk about how he has done for us so far, but we have seen him take good positions on the pitch and he does well in certain situations; sometimes he makes a mistake, but generally he is doing very well.

“But he has an attacking mentality and that is good. He is improving and he will keep improving; it is all a question of time, but, clearly, we know he is going to be a good player for Liverpool.

“Last Sunday was just a bit of bad luck. First the cross took a deflection off Fabio then another off Carra and it was really difficult for him to get out of the way; but the main thing always for me is the reaction.

“This week we have watched Glen and he has been very good. He has a good mentality and he is keen to learn; at this moment he is showing that he can become a key player for us for a long time. He just needs to keep improving the little details.”

What will help him achieve that aim is if Benitez can get Carragher, Agger and Aurelio alongside Johnson on a regular basis – it is no surprise Liverpool have conceded more goals this season than usual, given how much shuffling the manager has had to do.

Agger and Aurelio may have had more injuries than most, but Johnson has suffered his fair share and Benitez is hoping the former Chelsea and West Ham can put those niggles behind him to play one week after another.

“The injuries have been very important,” said Benitez. “Glen has had problems, but we have also had other problems with too many players having injuries at the same time and they (the back four) haven’t been able to play together regularly for a while.

“But if we can change that, I think it will be much easier because the understanding between defenders is very important. Glen was Portsmouth’s best player last season and I’m sure he will get a good reception.”

Johnson was in opposition back in February when Liverpool staged one of their most dramatic comebacks of the season, scoring twice in the last five minutes to snatch a 3-2 win when it seemed like they were going to return empty-handed.

“We showed there last year that we have got a very good mentality,” said Benitez. “We were able to win a lot of games at the end and we have shown we can do it; the mentality we are looking for now is this one.

“When you have some problems you have to show character and I think the players are ready. Hopefully we can play well and we will not need to win in the last minute, but if we have to that’s fine, too. We have got to keep the momentum going.

“We needed to win on Wednesday and that was the main thing. We had a situation with which I was furious – it should have been a free-kick when Pepe Reina was trying to catch the ball but the referee allowed them to play on and they hit the bar.

“I was really disappointed because it would have meant us having to score another goal when we were nervous. But still the performance was good.”

Carra Keen To Emulate Giggs

Jamie Carragher hopes to remain a key part of Liverpool's plans for several years to come.

The defender will make his 600th appearance for the Reds when they travel to Fratton Park to face Portsmouth on Saturday lunchtime, having made his debut as a teenager back in 1997.

Carragher, now 31, has already admitted he would rather leave Liverpool than stay with his hometown side beyond his best years.

However, he believes he can continue playing to a high level for some time if he is managed carefully like Ryan Giggs has been at Manchester United.

The Welshman is no longer a permanent fixture in the Red Devils starting XI but he is enjoying some of the best form of his career.

"I'd like to do what Giggs has done. Alex Ferguson is very clever in deciding when he plays. I could do that role one day," Carragher said in The Sun.

"It's a little bit different at centre-back where managers do not like to rotate it as much but it is a position where there isn't a tremendous amount of running, so it can work both ways.

"Either way, I'd like to think I'd be capable of playing 25-30 games for Liverpool a season at the age of 34 or 35."

Carragher received criticism for his performances during the early part of the season but he has learned to deal with the pressure.

"I've got 18 months left on my contract so I'd like to be playing regularly next season," he added.

"I could finish this season on 620-625 games. Then, hopefully, play another 40-odd next season taking me to second in the list.

"It would make me happy. It will prove that I've been up for the fight for a long time.

"I've not been playing as bad as has been made out.

"Liverpool is a great club to be at when everything is going well but when we're struggling, it's a very difficult place to be.

"That's why I'm still here after 15 seasons - I can take the flak."

David Ngog Is Looking The Ideal Second Striker For Liverpool FC

Statistics can be made to say anything you want so here’s one to mull over; at this stage of last season, Liverpool’s second striker had scored four goals this year the total is six.

When Robbie Keane arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2008, with many lauding him as perhaps the final piece in the jigsaw, the promise was of him forming a devastating partnership with Fernando Torres that would fire Liverpool to the title.

As you can see from the figures above, though, the reality was somewhat different, as Keane failed to get to grips with Liverpool’s style of play and never looked capable of dovetailing to any great effect with Torres.

Yes, there were a couple of assists a delightful cross at Goodison Park, for instance, which Torres smashed in to give the Reds a crucial lead but nothing to ever suggest he was capable of filling the legendary number seven shirt.

True, his effort could not be faulted but the running stood for little as, more often than not, he looked incapable of doing the one thing Rafa Benitez brought him to the club for ie. scoring a considerable number of goals.

That he went into the Christmas period with just four strikes to his name said everything about the effect he had and it is not being unfair to say that an experienced international should have had double the tally.

Now contrast that with David Ngog. When it became apparent the young Frenchman who arrived at Anfield a month after Keane would start this campaign as Torres back-up, there were groans of frustration among Liverpudlians, who feared the worst.

It is no secret that Benitez wanted to sign a second striker in the summer and had the goalposts not been moved, there is reason to believe Stevan Jovetic, Fiorentina’s gifted Serbian star would have ended up at Anfield.

You may understand, then, why Benitez glowered more than he has ever done during a game, when Jovetic scored twice at Stadio Artemio Franchi in September to put Liverpool on the road to Champions League oblivion.

Would Jovetic have made a difference during the time Torres spent fighting to overcome his nagging groin problem? That is open to debate. What we do know, however, is Ngog has slowly started to come of age in the last couple of months.

He has taken his chances and it is very important for him, noted Javier Mascherano. As a footballer it is not easy to play all the time if people are expecting David to do the same job that Fernando does.

That is not possible. 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 the manager.

Ngog does not yet have the physical strength or stamina to cope with the intensity of 90 minutes of Premier League combat once every three or four days but, as he is only 20, that will come with time.

For the moment, however, his efforts have been more than sufficient and what has impressed most of all is that the vast majority of his goals in the last couple of months have been all significant not token strikes at the end of games that have already been decided.

His effort at Leeds secured Liverpool’s passage into the next round of the Carling Cup, he showed composure to put Manchester United out of their misery, came up trumps in Debrecen and showed a poachers instinct against Wigan on Wednesday.

Of course, brows were furrowed with the way he won a penalty against Birmingham City but the young Frenchman will not make that mistake again; he is learning all the time and working with Torres can only be to his benefit.

Something that could not be said for Keane who would have thought the young man who cost 13 times less than him would go on to have an infinitely more successful Anfield career?

John Aldridge: It’s Vital That Liverpool FC Go Fourth And Conquer

Portsmouth have been written off as relegation certainties already but I wouldn’t be so quick to condemn them to the drop.

With that in mind, Liverpool face a huge task this afternoon on the south coast at one of the most atmospheric, noisy stadiums in the country. Coming away from Fratton Park will prove easier said than done.

Though we managed to get back to winning ways against Wigan, I didn’t see any signs of confidence being restored and its a good job Charles NZogbia’s goal didn’t come five minutes earlier as the jitters would have well and truly set in.

Still, the victory was gratefully received and Rafa Benitez has got to start Fernando Torres this lunchtime to improve our chances of securing back-to-back wins for the first time in the league since September.

But if we can see off Portsmouth no easy task when you consider that Avram Grant has managed to get some improvement out of them and they acquitted themselves well at Chelsea then I think you will see a real difference.

Hopefully we would then be able to see off Wolves without too much fuss. It would be nice if my old mate Mick McCarthy brought the reserves again, or is he now too much of a Manchester United fan? We could then go into the Aston Villa game on a high.

The Reds cannot allow Villa to sneak too far away, as they are riding on the crest of a wave after beating Manchester United and Sunderland, and are probably the side who will come closest to getting into the top four.

Fortunately, given how badly we have played, we are not too far off fourth spot but we are miles behind in the race for the title and that goes to show that wool has been pulled over our eyes in terms of what we are fighting for.

All we wanted from this season was to challenge for the title, but that is not to be as things stand. We have to make the best of a bad situation and ensure we have Champions League football to look forward to next year its the least we expect.

Liverpool's Rafael Benitez Attacks Premier League For Fixture Failure

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has weighed into the fixture debate, criticizing the Premier League for handing his men a congested schedule.

Benitez joins both Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson in attacking the Premier League's fixture list that has the Reds playing Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night, before travelling to battle Portsmouth the following afternoon.

He is frustrated for fans who wish to attend both matches as they would most likely have to take the train to Fratton Park from Lime Street Station at no later than 6:45 am for a nine and a half hour return journey, during one of the busiest weeks of the year.

Telling the The Guardian: "It is the worst time to travel and it is something the authorities have to consider because a lot of fans will be on the road and maybe it will be snowing."

"But it is something that is very easy to change.

The Spaniard, who has already formally protested about the fixtures and match scheduling to the Premier League, says that he has a solution to the problem.

"My idea is simple, you draw the fixtures at the start of the season and you mirror it in the second half as they do in Spain. It would be a level playing field.

"In Spain they have the same number of teams in La Liga as they do in the Premier League, the same television rights issues and the same press. They can do it in Spain and the rest of Europe where the games are strictly home, away, home, away. I don't know why they cannot do that in England," he said.

Lucas Leiva Remains Confident Of Liverpool's Top Four Hopes

Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva has reiterated his hopes for a top four finish, despite the team struggling.

The Merseysiders remedied falling to a sixth Premier League defeat of the season last weekend by triumphing with a 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic on Wednesday, and the win has restored confidence in the Reds camp as burgeoning.

"We could feel the taste of victory again in midweek which was really important after the defeat by Arsenal," Lucas informed the club's official website,

"It was an important win for us as we want to be as close as possible to the top four.

"We have to fight for every point and each game left for us will be like a final for the rest of the season.

"We are working really hard and hopefully the second part of the season will be even better.

"We have to think about each game and win some games in a row.

"That will give us a lot of confidence and I have confidence we will finish in the top-four."

Liverpool are currently sixth; five points behind Aston Villa in fourth.