Saturday, December 26, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs Wolverhampton

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez continues to guarantee that his side will finish in the top four of the Premier League, but the Spaniard will be well aware that anything less than three points against Wolves at Anfield will increase doubts.

The Reds have suffered a shocking campaign after producing numerous uninspiring displays to fall eight points off the UEFA Champions League places, a competition the 2005 winners were dumped out of at the group stages this season.

Defeat at Portsmouth last weekend was staggeringly a seventh league loss before Christmas and Benitez will therefore be desperate to avoid another setback on Boxing Day against 2008/09's Championship winners.

Wolves, though, will visit Merseyside high on confidence following a run of three wins from four games, which has seen the Midlanders climb to 12th position in the table.

The only defeat in the recent blip was when McCarthy grabbed the headlines for selecting a second-string side at Manchester United, a decision which paid off as survival rivals Burnley were beaten last time out.

Benitez could bring in Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani, who missed last weekend's defeat at Portsmouth with a calf injury.

Aquilani, a £20million summer signing from Roma, has yet to start a Premier League game for Liverpool having battled to recover from ankle surgery.

With Javier Mascherano suspended, Aquilani could be plunged into the Wolves match, while another option would be to slot short-on-confidence captain Steven Gerrard back into midfield and select Yossi Benayoun behind Fernando Torres.

Benitez has dismissed suggestions that lethal marksman Torres requires surgery on a hernia operation, but Albert Riera, Martin Kelly and Nabil El Zhar are not expected to return from injury until the New Year.

McCarthy, who has voiced his frustration at the criticism of his decision to shuffle his pack at Old Trafford, is poised to name an unchanged side for the meeting at Anfield.

With the exception of Michael Kightly, David Edwards and Andy Keogh, who all have ankle problems, Wolves have no other injury worries to contend with.

McCarthy's men follow the game against Liverpool with another tough clash against Manchester City on Monday.

Boss: Rest Will Boost Dirk

Rafael Benitez is confident Dirk Kuyt will return to his influential best after admitting the striker could need a break from first-team duty.

The Reds boss has been keen to give the Dutchman a breather in recent weeks but insists it is only a matter of time until he recaptures peak form.

"We have had some players who have had to play too many games this season and that is a consequence of the injuries," said Benitez.

"But I'm sure that if we have some more players we will be able to manage in a different way and give the ones who need it some rest, so they will be fresh for the next match. Dirk has played too many games, we know this.

"He could have had a little break against Fiorentina but (David) Ngog was ill and we needed to play him.

"But we know Dirk will get back to his levels, for sure.

"He is an amazing player, his work rate is fantastic and we can see that because we are watching all their statistics.

"He is always one of the players who runs the most during a match but we want him to have a rest if he can because I think that will help improve his game."

Kop In The Chase For Free Pandev

Rafa Benitez has joined Harry Redknapp and Carlo Ancelotti in the stampede for free agent Goran Pandev.

The striker has had his Lazio contract torn up by an Italian court last night.

Spurs boss Redknapp has been after Pandev for more than two years, while the fact that the Macedonian, 26, is not cup-tied for the Champions League means Arsenal could also move in.

The Gunners, however, are more likely to complete the cut-price signing of Bordeaux marksman Marouane Chamakh.

Kop boss Benitez is understood to have registered his interest but Ancelotti's Chelsea can better the wages the Anfield club would be able to pay.

Pandev had been frozen out by Lazio after asking for a move last summer. But he appealed to the Italian League's arbitration board, who not only ruled in his favour, but also ordered Lazio to pay damages and legal costs.

Now they will get nothing for him as Pandev is free to join any club he chooses.

Lazio president, Claudio Lotito vowed: "I don't give up. It doesn't end here. We'll see then who wins."

Pandev's case could mean other European clubs are now forced to include unsettled players in their plans, despite the disruption.

Desperate Liverpool Turn To Aquilani For Inspiration

Liverpool will finally turn to talented Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani against Wolves tomorrow as they seek to salvage their disastrous season.

Aquilani, a £20million summer signing from Roma, has yet to start a Premier League game for the Reds having battled to recover from an ankle injury.

But even though he is over that problem, boss Rafael Benitez has mystified fans with a stubborn refusal to use the 25-year-old despite Liverpool’s increasing problems on the pitch.

Benitez all but admitted that he was concerned about the slight Aquilani’s ability to handle the pace and physical demands of the English game.

But needs must and Aquilani is being lined up to face Wolves at Anfield on Saturday if he can overcome a calf injury which kept him out of last weekend’s abject defeat at Portsmouth.

Benitez said: “Alberto picked up a calf injury in the win against Wigan and was not able to travel to Portsmouth.

“He is getting better but we will have to see how he progresses. He is certainly in contention to play against Wolves.”

There was speculation that Aquilani was due to fly to Belgrade this week for treatment from the same specialist, Mariana Kovacevic, who has been used to treat Glen Johnson, Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera.

But bad weather put pay to flights to the Serbian capital and Benitez added: “Alberto was with us all week, working with our physios.”

With Javier Mascherano serving a four-match suspension, while recovering from a knee injury that will keep him out for three weeks anyway, there is a gap to be filled in midfield if Aquilani can prove his fitness and satisfy Benitez that he is up to the challenge.

Benitez could field Steven Gerrard in a deeper midfield role and play Benayoun or Aquilani behind Fernando Torres in another must-win game for Liverpool.

Benitez again refuted claims that Torres will need an operation on his hernia problem, despite suggestions from Spain that national team officials want the striker to have surgery now to avoid him breaking down again and missing the World Cup.

“An operation is not in our minds,” Benitez added. “I was surprised to hear such suggestions from Spain because we have a good working relationship with their medical team.

“We will continue to manage Torres’ problem and assess him on a game-to-game basis.”

After just four wins in 17 matches and with Liverpool eight points adrift of a Champions League qualification spot, their season is going from bad to worse with Benitez’s position constantly questioned.

But the Spaniard consistently declined to discuss his own future today.

Asked if he would resign if things did not improve, Benitez said: “We must start winning, against Wolves certainly, and then we will see a change.”

With Manchester City manager Mark Hughes axed last weekend despite being in sixth place, Benitez said: “I do not like to see any manager fired, it is important to give support to managers and to wait, to give them time.

“But things are changing in football, especially in England. However, it is important that people retain confidence in a manager.”

Asked if his own record of seven defeats in the league this season made him fear for his position considering Hughes lost only twice, Benitez again dodged the question, saying: “I am just concentrating on Wolves and preparing the team for the next game.”

Benitez Hails Liverpool Squad Strength And Expects Better 2010

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has declared in his Christmas message to the club’s official website that he is sure 2010 will see improvement in the side’s performance.

Bentiez also stated he was sure the fans would continue to back the team to help them through a difficult period.

"We know the fans are always behind us. We need to keep going and that is the way to change things."

The Spanish boss hit out at those who feel the squad he has assembled is not good enough, commenting: "The squad is much better than people think and we showed this last year. Now we need to show this again this year."

Benitez also pinpointed injuries as the major reason for Liverpool’s underperformance in the first half of this season. "We have had too many injuries this season, but now we have players coming back, which is good for us because it gives us more options and more quality."

Whilst Liverpool face Wolves at Anfield on Boxing Day, their meeting with Aston Villa just a few days later is more crucial than ever and will be a test of Benitez’s optimism.

Leeds Extend Martin Deal

Leeds United have extended the loan deal of Liverpool goalkeeper David Martin until the end of January.

Martin joined the League One leaders at the end of November and was due to return to Anfield after Monday's game against Stockport County.

However, Whites boss Simon Grayson is keen to ensure he has sufficient cover after Shane Higgs encountered a setback in his recovery from injury.

The deal means Martin will spend a second month at Elland Road and he is also eligible to play in the FA Cup, with Leeds travelling to Manchester United in the third round.

To date, Martin has made a solitary senior appearance for Leeds in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy against Accrington Stanley when he kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win.

Reds Keep Close Eye On Star Pair

Rafael Benitez admits the fitness of key men Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres is having to be carefully managed as Liverpool desperately seek an improvement in their form.

The Merseysiders have won just four of their last 17 games, and have fallen so far that Birmingham are ahead of them as the halfway point of the Barclays Premier League season looms.

Both Torres and Gerrard have had groin injuries which have restricted their involvement this season, and although they are presently available to boss Benitez, the Liverpool staff are closely monitoring their fitness.

Benitez said: "They still have some problems, so we must manage them carefully over a period of so many games in such a short space of time. We virtually have to decide on them before every game.

"And after each game we have to check them, to see how they are coping with their recoveries from injury."

Liverpool will be without suspended midfielder Javier Mascherano against Wolves, however Benitez is hoping the hard work carried out on the training ground will reap reward against Mick McCarthy's men.

"We do not need to talk too much about the problems we have, we have to work hard and find solutions. The only way to change things is hard work," Benitez said.

"I have been a manager for 23 years, and I know you have good and bad moments. The only way to change things is to keep working.

"We have tried to relax the lads. On Tuesday we had a Christmas meal for all the staff and players, which was a very positive occasion.

"We have a good team spirit, the players know we must improve and they know the only way is to stick together.

"We must show this unity on the pitch, and the players are concerned, they are talking about what is going wrong.

"I must manage and control the anxiety of the players, and the anxiety of the fans.

"We know we have to change the situation, sooner rather than later. That is clear.

"If we talk too much about having to win a title, or win a cup, it just makes things worse. We must help our players by making them concentrate on the next match and winning it."

Liverpool Football Club Lights Up Alder Hey Childrens Hospital

To anyone who reads this article and feels that it should not be on here as it is not really football related - please stop and think for a moment.

We have now reached the time of year when everyone should be in good spirits and ready for the two greatest events that take place every year. The first as everyone should know is the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem and the second as any child will tell you is the arrival of a certain gentleman called Father Christmas.

Unfortunately though there are some children who are unlucky enough to be ill and in hospital at this time year rather than being at home with their families. As part of their community affairs programme, Liverpool Football Club arrange for the Manager and players to bring some festive cheer to the patients and staff of Alder Hey Children's Hospital.

Liverpool Football Club as you know are going through a crisis of confidence at the moment and I am sure were pleased to be able to turn their minds to things off the pitch. This week they took the time out from their training and match preparation to visit the children and distribute gifts donated by the club.

I am sure that the children were told that they would be having extra special visitors before the man in red arrives this evening.

The delight on the children's faces as you can see from the photographs that I have attached tells a million stories. Can you imagine lying on your sick bed, perhaps with something as bad as cancer and Fernando Torres and Stevie G walk up to your bedside? That I should imagine lifts the spirits of a child more than any medicine or story can do. Whether you are the Liverpool supporter or whether it is your parents, it is something that will be remembered for many years to come.

What has amazed me whilst looking at the photographs is how happy the children do look even though some of them are obviously really ill. It is a great compliment to the staff of Alder Hey to see that the children are well looked after and able to treat their illnesses as just one of those things.

This year Jamie, Albert Riera and Aquilani visited the special care baby unit which must have been a wonderful pick me up for the parents of these very young and very fragile children. Unfortunately though whilst there, they had to leave the ward rather quickly as a three week old little girl had a heart attack. On their return much to their relief they were told that she had survived and was again sleeping in her cot.

It was left to Rafa Benitez and Sammy Lee to visit the older children but I am sure they were just as pleased. I can just imagine the tales that will go around the school playground once they are discharged and back in their normal surroundings. To be able to stand there and say I have met Rafa and some of the team must be one of the greatest things that these children are able to boast about and I certainly can't blame them for doing so I will finish this article by giving my thanks to Rafa Benitez and the team for making a lot of children very happy. Of course my thanks also go out to the Staff who do a wonderful job day in and day out and I wish them all a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

To the Children I will say - don't forget to tell the nurses to leave some biscuits, sandwiches and a hot drink out for Father Christmas and also some Milk for Rudolph and the rest of the Reindeers.

Go to sleep when the nurses tell you too, and if you wake up in the night and hear the sleigh bells, close your eyes and listen, it means that Father Christmas is outside and waiting for you to return to the land of nod. You see, he likes to do things in secret. When you wake up in the morning, I am sure you will find that some wonderful gifts are waiting for you. He may even send in one of his helpers later in the day.

Pepe Reina And Emiliano Insua Meet Reds Fans

Hundreds of Liverpool FC fans queued up to get stocking fillers signed by their heroes.

First-team stars Pepe Reina and Emiliano Insua braved the Christmas crowds at Liverpool One to autograph team merchandise last night.

After one of the shopping centre’s busiest-ever days, the LFC store was closed and a crowd of fans snaked along Liverpool One’s upper level.

They were allowed to bring merchandise and memorabilia to get signed and meet goalie Reina and left-back Insua.

Sam Tyrer, pictured centre, left, who is from Bebington, Wirral, got Reina to sign a shirt.

It followed a similar event when midfielder Lucas Leiva and defender Fabio Aurelio were at the store earlier last week.

Rafael Benitez: Players Lack Confidence

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has admitted that he is responsible for lifting the Reds' low morale, following the recent performances that have seen the club go from title contenders to also-rans.

The Merseysiders are eighth in the Premier League, and have won only once in their last five outings in all competitions. Benitez admits this has caused a slump in self-belief among the players, something he must retrieve.

"That is my responsibility, to improve confidence," said Benitez.

"To do that I have to be positive, it is the only way. The message is very clear, we have quality in our squad and we must show that.

"We can win a run of games in a row, we have done that with these same players. That is the positive thought we must retain."

The former Valencia boss attributed the sharp dip in performances to the persistent injuries his skipper Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando Torres have had to endure in recent times.

He added: "They have been included in FIFA's world team [of the year] this week, that shows how good they are and what they can produce. But when they are not fully fit, they cannot perform to those standards."