Sunday, December 27, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 2 - 0 Wolverhampton

Liverpool's players handed boss Rafael Benitez a welcome Christmas tonic with a battling win against 10-man Wolves.

The hosts were poor throughout but forced their way into the game after Stephen Ward had been controversially sent off for two yellow cards.

The numerical advantage allowed Steven Gerrard to powerfully head home an Emiliano Insua cross after the break.

Yossi Benayoun doubled the lead with a deflected effort from close-range to hand the hosts an unconvincing victory.

The hosts came into the match having won just two of their last eight league games and in the unusual position of being mid-table at the mid-way point of the season.

And while fans will not be convinced they have turned the corner after another stuttering display, the cheers around at Anfield at the final whistle will at least offer Benitez some festive cheer.

Wolves were the better side at times and manager Mick McCarthy will surely point to the dismissal of Ward as the turning point.

Referee Andre Marriner showed the defender a second yellow card - but only after being surrounded by Liverpool players for incorrectly cautioning Christophe Berra.

McCarthy had clearly fancied his side's chances of causing an upset by fielding a full-strength team - a very different approach to Wolves' recent outing against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

But the decision to field an attacking 4-4-2 formation allowed Liverpool to take control of the game in the early stages.

The visitors were fortunate Glen Johnson scooped a shot wide after finding space down the right while Fernando Torres, showing no sign of his long-standing groin injury, then tested Marcus Hahnemann after wriggling free in the inside left channel.

Alberto Aquilani, finally making his first Premier League start, looked comfortable in possession but some ill-advised flicks in and around the box tested the patience of an increasingly nervous Anfield crowd.

And Wolves, inspired by their fine recent form in the league, pushed forward and began to create chances of their own.

Nenad Milijas forced Pepe Reina into action from a free-kick before Kevin Doyle put a sharp header wide from only three yards out.

And the hosts' promising start had well and truly faded by the time Kevin Foley failed to control in the box after being left completely unmarked as the tension and frustration around a freezing Anfield increased still further.

But Wolves' hopes were dealt a blow when Ward was sent off early in the second half in chaotic circumstances.

The left-back, already cautioned for a tug on Benayoun, was eventually shown a second yellow card for a foul on Lucas - but not before referee Marriner incorrectly penalised Berra for the offence.

The decision appeared to galvanise the Reds and they soon took the lead when Insua's teasing cross was met in dominant fashion by home captain Gerrard, leaving Hahnemann with no chance.

Any result still seemed possible as gaps appeared all over the field, however, until Benayoun made it 2-0 midway through the second half.

Another fine cross, this time from Fabio Aurelio, found its way to the Israeli and his shot took a cruel deflection off Karl Henry and looped into the net.

From that point on there was no way back for Wolves but McCarthy can take a raft of positives from another impressive display.

Liverpool fans will be thankful of the points but their side are still a shadow of the team that sat top of the Premier League on Boxing Day last season.

f Alberto Aquilani Doesn't Start Delivering, He Could End Up Costing Rafa Benitez Far More Than £20m

Alberto Aquilani cannot have got his calf strain from playing - because he never plays.

Of all the crazy deals in Rafa Benitez’s revolving door transfer policy at Liverpool, the £20m purchase of Aquilani takes some beating.

Benitez got him on the cheap from Roma because of his injury record. And guess what? He’s been injured most of the season.

Up to now, it’s been a bad buy and it may end up costing Rafa very dear indeed because Liverpool look desperately short of quality throughout their squad and Benitez doesn’t have the resources to do much about it.

But despite it being a rotten end to 2009 for Liverpool, my heart tells me that they will still finish in the top four - even if my head is telling me otherwise.

Liverpool In Hunt For strikers

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is said to be lining up an early transfer window move - with three Premier League strikers in his sights.

The Mirror reports that ex Liverpool man Emile Heskey, Kenwyne Jones of Sunderland and Manchester City's Roque Santa Cruz are the top names on his wish list.

It is understood the Anfield boss will be allowed to bring in two new players next month and his main priority is another forward to support Fernando Torres.

As well as the Premier league frontmen Benitez has also been linked to young Spanish star Juan Manuel Mata of Valencia.

It is understood that any transfers would be funded with money raised from the sales of frine players such as Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena, Andriy Voronin and Philipp Degen.

However Aston Villa man Heskey is also linked to Chelsea, who need cover for Didier Drogba when he takes part in the African Cup of Nations next month.

Emile Heskey, Kenwyne Jones And Roque Santa Cruz Top Rafa Benitez's Christmas List

Rafa Benitez will make an instant splash in the transfer window, with Premier League strikers Emile Heskey, Kenwyne Jones and Roque Santa Cruz topping his wish list.

The Liverpool boss has been given the go-ahead to bring in two new players as soon as the window opens on January 1, and his main priority is a forward to take the pressure off Fernando Torres.

The Spanish coach has targeted one of the experienced trio, and also has young Spanish star Juan Manuel Mata on his short-list, as he looks for the reinforcements he hopes can help salvage something from Liverpool's disastrous season.

Benitez has been told he can spend the money he raises from selling fringe players like Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena, Andriy Voronin and Philipp Degen, which could give him a figure approaching £15million.

And he wants a striker in immediately, which means he will swing into action as soon as the New Year dawns.

Heskey is his prime target, but the Anfield boss is painfully aware that his relationship with Aston Villa counterpart Martin O'Neill is non-existent and that could scupper any chance of a deal.

O'Neill would prefer to sell his striker to Chelsea, and that deal could go through swiftly, with the London club hoping to bring the England striker in as cover for Didier Drogba, who will be away for much of January on African Cup of Nations duty.

If Liverpool lose out on Heskey - and that seems likely with Chelsea ready to spend upwards of £5million on the 30 year old - then he will put all his efforts into landing one of the next three on his list.

The Reds manager though, knows that the asking price for all three will be prohibitive, and that could stop him from making a deal unless he can get decent money from his surplus to requirement players in the January sales.

Mata is a highly regarded full Spanish international who, at the age of 21, has already shown his immense promise with Valencia in La Liga, but that has catapulted his price towards the £20million mark, which is far too expensive for Liverpool.

Santa Cruz too, could be priced out of Liverpool's league. The Paraguay international centre forward has made only eight appearances since signing for Manchester City for £17.5million, but the Eastlands club will not want to let him go to a direct rival unless the money is right.

Jones is more in Liverpool's price range, and he could be available in January, after relations with his Sunderland boss Steve Bruce have become strained in recent months.

The Trinidad and Tobago international has scored 23 goals in 76 Premier League games for Sunderland, and would be available at around the £10million mark.

Stoke have been pursuing the striker too, but Jones would be keener to make the move to Anfield, and he could become a more likely option for Benitez if his other targets prove unattainable.

When Benitez has determined which striker he will sign, he will then swiftly turn his attentions to bringing in a wide player who can help provide the threat that has been missing this season.

Benitez will wait to see how much money he has left after trying to sell at least four players in the window, but he is determined to also bring in a winger as well as a striker to bolster his squad as he looks to markedly improve performances in the New Year.

Reds Linked With Norwegian

SK Brann striker Erik Huseklepp has been linked with a shock move to Liverpool in the January transfer window.

Speculation in Norway has suggested the 25-year-old forward could be heading to the Premier League giants in the New Year with boss Rafa Benitez keen to bolster his striking options as he bids to resurrect a miserable season on Merseyside thus far.

The Reds have badly missed skipper Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando Torres for long spells this season and only the inexperienced David Ngog has provided anything near an acceptable back-up to the Kop's star duo.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Victor Moses have all been linked with a move to Anfield in recent weeks but a lack of finances looks likely to scupper Benitez's plans to secure a deal for any of the trio.

An alternative option for the Reds boss is Huseklepp, who would be a significantly cheaper choice, but the Norwegian international hardly boasts a prolific goalscoring record with only 12 strikes in his career.

Huseklepp has also courted interest from Hull City and Wigan, as well as a number of clubs in France, and the Norwegian international's agent has revealed the five-time European champions have yet to make contact with him about a potential move.

"In case these rumours are correct, it's great." Huseklepp's agent Stig Lillejord told Bergens Tidende.

"It's a big club and it's nice if they have noticed Erik. There are several clubs who are seriously considering Erik, but I can't comment which clubs."

Benitez Admits Torres Concerns

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez admits he is performing a delicate balancing act with the fitness of star striker Fernando Torres.

The Reds No.9 has persistently struggled this season and was absent for several weeks due to a groin injury which created rumours that he requires a hernia operation.

Torres was far from his best as he started Liverpool's defeat at Portsmouth last weekend, but he is again expected to be a member of the first XI for Boxing Day's meeting with Wolves at Anfield.

Liverpool, who sit eight points off the Premier League's top four, then face crucial matches against fourth-placed Aston Villa and fifth-placed Tottenham, with a trip to Reading in the FA Cup sandwiched in between.

Benitez is desperate to have Torres available, but confesses it is an uncertain process of nursing his record signing through matches, saying in the Daily Mirror: We know it is difficult for Fernando and we have to do it a different way.

"If he is okay, we can give him time. If he feels something, we have to rest him.

"We have to manage his injury. He could manage a full Christmas program, but we will see if he can start."

Meanwhile, Benitez has dismissed suggestions that he has held a specifically-arranged meeting with Steven Gerrard to discuss his captain's lack of form and confidence.

The Reds boss said in The Independent: "Have I had a meeting with him? We have a lot of corridors here and we bump into one another. We don't need to organise a proper meeting.

"I have a lot of conversations not just with Steven but a lot of players and they know they want to improve. Sometimes they try too hard.

"I was talking this week about how to improve. I was really pleased because they were positive."

John Aldridge: This Could Be The Most Important Week In Liverpool FC’s History

Christmas should be a time when you leave your worries behind and enjoy the festivities but, for Liverpool supporters, that is likely to prove impossible.

As I was privileged to play for the Reds and still enjoy a profile thanks to this column and my work for Radio City, rarely does a day pass by without me having a conversation with a fan about the state of our nation.

Never in my life, though, have I experienced a week like the one just gone.

Whether it has been at the shops, at the gym or in the pub, everyone I’ve spoken with has been in the doldrums; after witnessing at first hand the display at Portsmouth, it’s easy to see why.

When you compare our position today with where we were last Boxing Day, the only thing you could say about Liverpool is this is a club going backwards, one saddled with a massive debt and in real danger of slipping away from where it should be.

We are now faced with two massive games and, without being overly dramatic, the fixture at Villa Park on Tuesday evening is, in my eyes, one of the most important in our recent history.

Should we take six points off Wolves and Villa, the panic will start to subside but if we happen to lose to Martin O’Neill’s side, I would have to seriously doubt whether we would be able to retrieve an 11-point deficit – on fourth place!

But until our owners have sold up or we can move into a new ground, I cannot see a way forward for Liverpool and I’m starting to fear we are in decline; my biggest concern is that the situation has festered into the dressing room.

You could see that the body language of some of those who played at Fratton Park was not right; these lads are human. They know about the issues behind the scenes, they know we don’t have the money to compete for big signings.

Rafa Benitez, however, remains adamant that we will get back into the top four and has guaranteed he will achieve that objective; we, on the other hand, can only hope he is right – and pray his faith in certain players is not misplaced.

One Time Liverpool FC Owner Steve Morgan Is Back Home

It will be impossible for many Liverpudlians to watch this afternoon’s contest with Wolves without casting a wistful glance towards the director’s box.

While a battery of cameras will inevitably be trained on Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who is due back in town after a first visit in September, a rather more discreet, reserved gentleman will be the focus of attention for most.

Had things worked out differently, Steve Morgan could have been Liverpool’s owner but, for one reason or another in the summer of 2004, his dream was never able to come to fruition and he now finds himself as chairman of Wolves.

Whatever he feels, though, is unlikely to come close to the sense of ‘what if’ among the majority of the home crowd; had his takeover been completed, it is safe to assume Tom Hicks and George Gillet would never have crossed this particular doorstep.

“I have made mistakes in life,” Morgan said in an interview earlier this week. “But whatever disappointment came out of not buying Liverpool – and it was that at the time – something really good came out of it. I’m absolutely delighted to be in charge at Wolves.”

Perhaps sometime in the future, he will finally find a place back home.