Sunday, February 28, 2010

Match Preview: Liverpool vs Blackburn

Liverpool return to Premier League action on Sunday against Blackburn aiming to boost their bid to finish in the top four.

The Reds dropped down to sixth spot following last weekend's draw at Manchester City and they will be determined to keep pace with their rivals for a top-four finish.

Blackburn goes into the game on the back of last weekend's win over Bolton and they will be seeking their first Premier League win at Anfield since 1993.

Liverpool could hand Fernando Torres his first start since his return from knee surgery after he made a late substitute appearance against Manchester City and was then an unused substitute in the Europa League win over Unirea Urziceni.

Maxi Rodriguez is available again after being ineligible against Unirea and he could start as Rafa Benitez is expected to freshen up his side after the long trip to Romania.

Benitez could be forced into a reshuffle at the back with Martin Skrtel set to miss out with a broken toe picked up against Unirea and Sotirios Kyrgiakos serving the final game of his three-match ban.

With Glen Johnson still sidelined Jamie Carragher is likely to revert to central defence alongside Daniel Agger with youngster Martin Kelly set to step into right-back.

Meanwhile, Blackburn make the trip to Merseyside without influential captain Ryan Nelsen.

The New Zealand international suffered a knee injury in last week's defeat of Bolton and could be out for several weeks.

Christopher Samba is likely to take his place having served a suspension while Brett Emerton (Achilles) is also available again.

David Dunn is pushing for a recall having had a run-out in the reserves this week.

However, Sam Allardyce could stick with the side that performed so well against Bolton last time out.

Possible starting XIs:
Liverpool: Reina, Kelly, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Lucas, Mascherano, Kuyt, Gerrard, Maxi, Torres.

Blackburn: Robinson, Salgado, Givet, Samba, Olsson, Diouf, Andrews, Grella, Nzonzi, Pedersen, Kalinic.

Benitez Has No Defensive Concern

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez insists his side is more than well-equipped to deal with everything Blackburn will throw at them.

During a nervous half-hour in Bucharest it seemed the Reds' old defensive frailties had crept back in as Europa League opponents Unirea Urziceni threatened to score from virtually every set-piece.

It is something which will not have gone unnoticed by Rovers boss Sam Allardyce, especially after a free header from centre-back Bruno Fernandes put the Romanian champions ahead from a 19th-minute corner in Bucharest.

But Benitez has no concerns - even in the absence of broken metatarsal victim Martin Skrtel - about his defence, which has improved immeasurably in recently weeks.

"We did not do badly. We conceded a goal [against Unirea] and it was more difficult but we showed character," he said.

"They were good deliveries and the Europa League ball is very difficult for goalkeepers because it changes direction.

"But you can see the last few games we have had a lot of clean sheets, I think 13 games and nine clean sheets, so the team is very strong in defence.

"We were really good at set-pieces. We are at the same level as we were in the past but the team is stronger in everything.

"We will try to have control of the game and not give them too many chances to play corners or free-kicks.

"It will be tough because it is the Premier League but we are confident and this team is stronger.

"We are solid in defence and we just have to improve the creativity in attack and we will have the balance we are looking for."

Liverpool's Barclays Premier League record, in isolation, is even more impressive.

They have conceded just one goal (to Arsenal) in their last six games and two in their last nine.

That has brought them 18 points from a possible 27 and kept them in the hunt for Champions League qualification, despite last week's goalless draw at Manchester City allowing Tottenham to return to fourth.

Benitez has long-been convinced it will be a four-horse race which will probably go down to the wire and nothing has changed his mind.

"We have to fight for being in the top four and that will be very difficult because there are three or four teams very close," said the Spaniard.

"My message two months ago was that it will be a long race and now it has proved true.

"Anything can happen, it is the Premier League, so we take on Blackburn and then see."

Benitez defended his decision to take striker Fernando Torres, whose substitute appearance last Sunday was his first for five weeks after a knee operation, to Romania but not play him at all.

And he dispelled any suggestions the club's record signing was only currently fit enough for a place on the bench.

"I think it was the right decision. It was a bad pitch and the injury to Skrtel changed the plans we had," said the Liverpool boss.

"We will see how he trains and after we will see [whether he can start]."

Blackburn will have had the benefit of a full week without competitive action by the time they arrive at Anfield on Sunday.

That is in contrast to their opponents, who did not get back from eastern Europe until the early hours of yesterday morning, having played 90 minutes on a wet, energy-sapping pitch.

But Benitez said they were issues the players had to adapt to, stressing it was not that different to when they were playing in the Champions League.

"It is always more difficult when you play two matches in a week and especially when you do not have too much time," he said.

"But we have some experience of this and hopefully we can do well. Everyone understands it is a massive game and the players need to do well."

Allardyce: Reds Have Gone Physical

Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce thinks Liverpool have adopted the same physical style which Reds boss Rafael Benitez used to criticise his old club Bolton for.

Allardyce claims the Spaniard sent a DVD of what he saw as Bolton's rough play to referees' chief Keith Hackett, but now sees elements of that same physical approach in Liverpool's play as they bid to salvage their season and qualify for next season's Champions League.

Allardyce, whose Rovers side face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, told the Daily Mirror: "(Benitez) has used all that stuff that he says he doesn't like. It's ironic isn't it?

"They have had to go back to basics and the pretty stuff goes out the window until you start winning matches.

"I watched them play at Manchester City and they got six players booked, so it shows he's brought the physical side out in them.

"If it's a good physical challenge on Sunday, then I'd be more than happy to go down that route, although I don't really have the players here to do that like I did at Bolton."

Allardyce said Benitez was so riled by Bolton's tactics that he compiled a DVD and sent it to referees' chief Hackett.

"He's had a bee in his bonnet for a while. He's entitled to have his opinion as everyone is and it's nice to have someone complaining about you when you are beating them.

"Because he didn't like it, he found an excuse about how we played. Wenger did it, Mourinho did it, they all do it when they get their backside kicked."

Benitez was criticised by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson last season for what he saw as a mark of "disrespect" towards Allardyce, when he appeared to gesture that the game between Blackburn and Liverpool at Anfield was over as a contest when Fernando Torres scored their second goal in a 4-0 win.

Allardyce added: "I didn't get an explanation for that. He's his own man and he does things his own way. I didn't particularly like it."

John Aldridge: Liverpool Can’t Afford More Slip-Ups

Blackburn is the first of what you would assume are three very winnable league games for Liverpool.

With Wigan and then Portmsouth ahead of the trip to Old Trafford, we’ve got a great chance to pick up points in the league and put pressure on fourth place.

We can’t lose our concentration or focus in any of these games.

We can’t afford many more slip ups.

With Torres back, we’ll be more creative going forward, but if we can also capitalise on set-plays, we’ll give ourselves an even better chance of winning these games.

Sam Allardyce plays percentage football. He’ll know our strengths and weaknesses and will come to Anfield looking to counteract anything we throw at them.

I imagine they’ll put men behind the ball similar to what Unirea did at Anfield recently.

They’ll probably come looking for a point but if we can nick the first goal it will be a different game.

Five Given Lease Of Life By Liverpool In Europe

Liverpool dropping out of the Champions League into the Europa League might not have been good news but for those at Channel Five it has been manna from heaven.

Normally you do not get too many tuning in to listen to the erudite and enlightening views of Stan Collymore and the equally articulate Colin Murray but the Reds’ first meeting with Unirea Urziceni attracted an audience of 3.1 million.

Clearly, the longer Liverpool stay in the competition, the better it will be for Five and with that in mind, it is no surprise they have launched an amusing advertising campaign to sit side-by-side the games that are scheduled to be played.

It features the thoughts of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez during a training session before a big game – or does it? Without giving too much away, ace impersonator and Reds fan Darren Farley has a part to play.

Keep your eyes peeled for the advert in the next couple of weeks, before the Reds face Lille in the last 16 – you will know it is light-hearted when you hear how many ‘keepy-ups’ Carragher believes he can do.

John Aldridge: Liverpool Responded To Unirea Goal Fright

After Manchester City last weekend, it was important we produced a decent performance in Romania.

Our often conservative play tends to change as soon as we concede, as was the case when Unirea Urziceni took the lead on Thursday night.

When we have to come out and play, we look much more dangerous. Istanbul was a prime example.

Sometimes you’re almost willing a team to score against us to spark us into life.

That’s what happened in Bucharest where Urziceni gave us a wake-up call.

Thankfully we had creativity with the likes of Yossi Benayoun, Steve Gerrard and even Ryan Babel to a certain degree, who did well for his goal.

I still expect him to leave in the summer and believe the only reason he’s still here is probably because the banks would have swallowed any transfer fee and it’s better for Rafa to utilise an extra body in the squad.

Either way, this was one of Babel’s better games for Liverpool. His goal was superb. He displayed a bit more energy than usual, plus he did well in the first leg, creating the goal when he came on.

If Benayoun doesn’t play we struggle on the left. Babel blows hot and cold but, on Thursday’s showing, could be worth using until the end of the season.

I can’t work out why David Ngog is still playing as a lone striker though.

I’ve mentioned it before in recent weeks but he simply can’t play up there on his own.

He can’t hold the ball up well enough and perservering with him will only knock his confidence in the long run.

Having Fernando Torres back is a massive plus.

Rafa didn’t play him in Bucharest and rightly so. He’s wrapping Torres in cotton wool but I’d expect him to figure against Blackburn tomorrow.

It’s another week down the line in terms of match fitness but I wouldn’t expect too much from him yet.

100 Up For Daniel Agger

Another European night, another reason for Liverpool's statisticians to scribble another entry into their books.

While, inevitably, the focus was on Steven Gerrard after he took his tally of European goals to 33, surpassing Alan Shearer as Britain's all-time leading scorer in continental competition, there was another significant foot note.

Four years and one month after joining Liverpool from Brondby, Daniel Agger made his 100th appearance for the club; only when you fully consider the date he actually arrived on Merseyside can you begin to put that achievement into context.

By rights, Agger should be closer to a double ton than just getting the single to notch his maiden century but, as the figure would suggest, things have not always gone according to plan for the Denmark international.

Injuries, of course, have been a source of enormous frustration, both for him and Rafa Benitez, a series of problems that have led him to spend months rather than weeks on the sidelines; in the worst case scenario, they have written off seasons.

So frustrating. On more than one occasion, the effortless way Agger can cover the ground moving forward or spirit the ball off an opposing forward's foot have led him to be likened to Alan Hansen.

Agger is one of those players to whom everything about the game comes easy, a terrific, natural talent whom it is a privilege to watch in close quarters, as he has skills that many attacking players don't possess.

Before Liverpool played Debrecen in Budapest last November, Benitez was overseeing a training session the night before at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium, looking for those who would press their claims for a starting place.

The longer the session progressed, the more the individual who was wrapped up in a rain jacket and a woolly hat to combat the elements stood out; all feints, quick passes and subtle movement, at first glance it was easy to assume it was Alberto Aquilani.

Not so. Agger was the man stealing the show, proving why so many clubs wanted to sign him when it became clear that Brondby, where he started his career under the guidance of the Danish legend, Michael Laudrup.

"Daniel is a very good player and if he can put his injury problems behind him and play at a high level in the next few years, then maybe you will be talking about him in the same breath," Laudrup said recently, when asked to compare Agger with Hansen.

"To play 100 times for a top club like Liverpool is something to be proud of. But he will be frustrated that the injuries have restricted his appearances. It's important that he now goes on to enjoy a spell free from injury.

"He's only 25 and there is still much more to come from him. Ask any player in the world, even the greats - you can't hit top form if you have niggling injuries. If he can stay fit then I think he can definitely be one of the best central defenders in the game."

The question now, however, is when does his potential become consistently fulfilled? With Sami Hyppia long gone and Martin Skrtel facing a lay-off after cracking a metatarsal, Liverpool need another centre-back to ease the pressure on Jamie Carragher.

There is absolutely no doubt that Agger has the talent for the job; it is difficult to think of a centre-forward that has ever given him the run around, while there are not many defenders who can strike a ball as sweetly as he.

Quite simply, he has the lot; athleticism, skill, strength and speed but, until he puts together a lengthy sequence of games without breaking down, his talents, quite possibly, will not get the recognition they deserve.

Agger knows this better than most.

He has spent hours at Melwood trying to combat the ailments that keep holding him back and, granted some good fortune, Agger will be able to get through to the end of the season with trouble.

Few would begrudge him a change in fortune and if that happens, it is a certainty that he will reach 200 Liverpool appearances in far less time than it took to get to that milestone that was clocked up on a squally night in Bucharest.

Youngsters Held By West Brom

Liverpool under-18s were left hugely frustrated after being held to a goalless draw with West Brom at the Academy on Saturday afternoon.

Rodolfo Borrell's side followed up their impressive display at Manchester City last week with another good showing but could not find that elusive winning goal as the Baggies escaped with a somewhat fortuitous point.

Despite the disappointment of their recent FA Youth Cup exit, the Reds began the match in confident mood and were almost gifted an opener inside 60 seconds but Lauri Dalla Valle was thwarted by a last-ditch challenge from Ashley Malcolm after the Finn had seemed set to capitalise on Luke Connolly's poor touch.

West Brom responded and carved out a superb chance of their own just two minutes later when Kayleden Brown's improvised volley flew over the top following a clever run and cross from Lateef Elford-Alliyu's on the left.

Back came Liverpool and Kristzian Adorjan saw a left footer from the edge of the box well blocked before Dalla Valle somehow contrived to stab wide after a flick-on from Chris Oldfield's long kick had sent him clear.

The away side certainly had an air of vulnerability about them at the back but continued to play good, intricate football in the final third, with Akil Grier and then Mantom almost finishing off slick passages of play with shots from distance.

As an entertaining first-half came to a close the hosts stepped it up a gear and pressed for the goal their approach play deserved. A rampaging run from Michael Ngoo saw him leave three Baggies players in his wake, but when he slipped the ball across the six yard box it was just behind the waiting Tom Ince.

The young winger was visibly frustrated not to have been able to convert but given the open nature of the game, the Reds would have been convinced more opportunities would present themselves in the second 45.

They didn't have long to wait either, with Ngoo once again getting to the byline on 47 minutes, only to see his cut back to Dalla Valle cannon back off his strike partner's foot and away to safety.

Liverpool continued to look the more likely and the lively Ngoo added to his series of nearly moments on 58 minutes when his stabbed shot from inside the six yard box was blocked by the legs of Ryan Allsop in the West Brom goal.

Ngoo and Dalla Valle were proving to be a real handful for the visiting defence and they almost combined to tee up Ince for the opener on the hour mark, but the winger saw his shot brilliantly saved by Allsop.

The away side had been almost extinct as an attacking force following the restart, but could have stolen ahead on 65 minutes when Elford Alliyu forced a smart save out of Oldfield following a clever turn inside the Reds' penalty area.

It seemed to inspire a late rally and substitute Saido Berahino was a lick of paint away from securing an unlikely victory with a rasping 25 yarder before Elford Alliyu stung Oldfield's fingertips with a thumping volley from distance.

As the clock ticked down it was West Brom who should have won it, but Berahino smashed wide of a gaping net in the last minute to ensure both sides would share the spoils.

Purslow Dragging Liverpool Into The Modern Age

Real Madrid are the biggest club in the world. According to them. They can base this on their glorious history, their relatively glorious recent one, and pretend all the stuff in the middle doesn’t really matter.

Manchester United are also the biggest club in the world. According to them. They can base this on their slightly less glorious history, their slightly more glorious recent one, and pretend all the stuff in the middle doesn’t really matter.

AC Milan are similarly the biggest club in the world, according to Silvio Belursconi, and so on and so forth and you already get my drift on this.

What all 3 clubs – and Barcelona and a couple more to boot – have in common, is that they’ve all made lots of money off being the biggest, or one of the biggest clubs in the world of football. They’ve marketed themselves brilliantly to fans, players, investors, sponsors and any old whoshemebob who knows a thing or two about football. And good for them.

Most of all that “stuff in the middle” of Manchester United and Real Madrid’s success however, was Liverpool’s success. United like domination of the League and a greater return in the European Cup during the 70s and 80s means that Liverpool have just as much claim to the glorious history title and – even despite relatively less successful recent seasons – should still have almost as much potential appeal to the whoshemebobs as the aforementioned trio. And yet they don’t, or they certainly didn’t until recently.

Liverpool’s failure to win the league during the Premiership era is a stumbling block their marketing people can’t neglect. However as worldwide brands go, they’ve still been a hugely undervalued one. Manchester United may be sitting pretty with them “on the perch” now, but when the Premier League first took off, they were no where near. Yet on the back of their first success in ‘93, they ran with it, like a demon (or perhaps a devil) possessed, maximizing every link, every romantic connection, every possible sponsorship or Stadium expansion and every opportunity until they dwarfed Liverpool in global appeal and profit. And yet even now, as Liverpool start to take advantage themselves with Christian Purslow, their managing director, clearly aware of the mine of worldwide support and potential to tap, they still sit fairly equally in standing as football clubs historically despite United’s greater value.

Liverpool’s failure to take advantage of this potential is better assessed when compared to clubs not their equal in success. Arsenal and Chelsea for example (though Arsenal clearly the more historically grand of them) have similarly capitalized on the Premier League’s appeal by increasing their worldwide profile, support and profit dramatically since their recent era success. Great players want to play for them, sometimes regardless of where they stand in the table. Winning the Premier League certainly helped, yet still neither can boast a single European Cup triumph whilst Liverpool can boast not just a recent one, but 5 in total.

Barcelona, before 2006, had only 1 paltry success in the competition, and even that coming in the 90s. Until their league success that year they couldn’t even match Liverpool’s domestic achievement of 18 titles, even in a league historically far less competitive (only 9 teams have ever won La Liga, and only 5 more than twice). And yet they remained the more glamorous club. Famous players wanted to go to Barcelona, and still do, as they do Madrid, United, Milan and Chelsea. If Madrid are the kings of aggrandizing their history then Liverpool are the paupers. They might roll out the 18-5 banners when United come to Anfield, but they don’t parade all their replica trophies on special velvet plinths when presenting new signings.

But their signings are rarely that big enough to require it anyway. Whilst Madrid can get stuffed by Liverpool themselves in the Champions League, embarrassed by Barca in their own stadium and become a Schadenfreude pleasure to rival fans the world over, they can still tempt the World Player of the Year away from a club that’s the reigning World Champions and have just reached 2 Champions League finals on the trot. Their profile supercedes their success at any given time. They can tempt the Zidanes the Kakas and Ronaldos whilst Livepool can only tempt Torres, the one and only truly global foreign star that has ever signed for Liverpool at his peak.

Purslow know this. As a Liverpool fan himself and a veteran of over 500 matches (apparently) he knows better than most how undervalued the brand is. In his first interview after replacing Rick Parry as the clubs managing director he stressed the need to expand the brand. Whilst United have megastores and cafes around the world Liverpool have virtually no club sanctioned businesses outside of the city itself. However the 3 way power struggle currently embroiling Anfield ends up, the need for Liverpool to start making some serious bucks off their name alone remains. But whilst the support base and potential is there, success off the field needs to be supplemented in at least a small way on it. If Liverpool really are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or even the tail end of the 20th) they need a platform to jump off. In short, like with everything else at the club, it’d really help things if they eventually won the league.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lee Praise For Tireless Torres

Sammy Lee paid tribute to the tireless determination of Fernando Torres to regain fitness and insisted the Spain star's return has given everyone connected with the club a timely boost.

After spending five weeks on the sidelines due to a knee injury, Torres made his first-team comeback as a late substitute in the goalless draw with Manchester City on Sunday.

Though it's likely El Nino will have to settle for a place on the bench against Unirea Urziceni this evening, Lee believes the 25-year-old deserves recognition for the hard work he's put in at Melwood in recent weeks.

"It was nice to see him on the bench against Man City," the Reds assistant manager told

"It gave us a lift, gave all of the supporters a lift and I know for a fact it certainly took Man City by surprise.

"His recovery has been excellent and it's down to him and the medical staff. He's been working very hard.

"He's worked tirelessly coming in very early in the morning and staying very, very long hours. He has had good people working with him.

Gerrard Revels In Surpassing Newcastle United Legend's European Record

Liverpool FC talisman Steven Gerrard admitted he was extremely proud to surpass Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers legend Alan Shearer’s European scoring record during Liverpool FC’s 3-1 win in Unirea on Thursday night.

The Liverpool FC star scored the 33rd European goal of his career in the second half against Unirea Urziceni in Budapest last night, to better Newcastle United hero Alan Shearer’s tally and in doing become England’s all-time leading scorer in European competitions.

Gerrard suggested the feat, which helped Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool FC side to a 4-1 aggregate win in the Europa League, was all the more special because of the respect he retains for the once prolific Newcastle United striker, Alan Shearer.

The Liverpool FC captain told the club’s official television channel: “I wasn't aware before the game about a record and it's always nice to break them, especially someone like Shearer's, who I have a lot of respect for, so I'm really pleased.”

“It's always nice to break records but the main thing is to get into the next round - and the most pleasing thing is to do that.”

Liverpool Confirm Martin Skrtel Has Broken Metatarsal

Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez has suffered another injury blow after it was confirmed defender Martin Skrtel has broken his foot.

The Slovakian centre-back was injured in last night’s 3-1 victory over Romanians Unirea Urziceni, which helped Liverpool FC reach the last 16 of the Europa League.

Benitez feared the worst last night and x-rays at the club’s Melwood training ground on Friday have confirmed he has fractured a metatarsal in his right foot.

"We were really disappointed after the game because it was a good result but then we had the bad news about Martin," said the Liverpool FC manager.

"He’s had x-rays today and they confirmed he has a broken metatarsal.

"We have to check over the next couple of days how long it will take to recover."

Skrtel's absence, however long or short it turns out to be, comes just as Benitez thought he finally had a full-strength squad with which to tackle their remaining 11 matches as they bid to secure Champions League football next season.

Striker Fernando Torres and midfielder Yossi Benayoun, both so important to Liverpool FC’s attacking options, have both returned in the last week after more than a month on the sidelines with injury.

Even £17million summer signing Glen Johnson is nearing a comeback, having not played since late December because of a knee injury.

"He’s doing well. He was training today with the team - a light training session," said Benitez.

"I was watching him and he was quite sharp but Sunday will be too soon."

Jamie Carragher has been filling the England international’s spot on the right of defence in the interim but with Skrtel now ruled out of Sunday’s Barclays Premier League clash at home to Blackburn and Sotirios Kyrgiakos suspended, Liverpool’s vice-captain is likely to switch back to the centre.

That leaves an opening which could be filled by Philipp Degen, Martin Kelly or Stephen Darby.

Gerrard Demands 'Bottle' From Reds

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has called on the side to show "a bit of bottle" when it comes to attacking.

Despite improving what was a poor defensive record by their standards over recent weeks, critics still complain the Reds do not have enough going forward to really hurt sides.

The 3-1 victory over Europa League last 32 opponents Unirea Urziceni in Bucharest on Thursday night was the first time since the 6-1 win over Hull on September 26 they had scored more than twice in a match.

Gerrard hopes the players can draw some inspiration from that in their bid to secure Champions League football next season, starting against Blackburn at Anfield on Sunday.

"It was slightly worrying that we were not creating enough," said the England international.

"To win football matches you have got to create a lot of chances and we did that.

"That's what made Thursday night so pleasing. Now we've got to get the balance right between now and the end of the season.

"We haven't been good enough going forward and we haven't been creating enough, so it was nice to get three goals.

"It does play on your mind. The most important thing is to defend well and keep clean sheets but it is also important that you do well going forward.

"I think we have shown over the last few games that we are back to defending well and are more solid and are working harder and results have improved.

"We've still got to be good defensively but have a bit of bottle and be a bit risky in the final third as well. You have got to keep making chances."

Gerrard scored the third goal against the Romanian champions at the Steaua Stadium to set a new record.

He has now struck 33 times in European competition, taking him past Alan Shearer as the leading British scorer.

"From a personal point of view, it's always great to break records," added Gerrard, who scored his first goal since January 2.

"Some of my goals have come against easy opposition, so I don't think it's fair to put me above the likes of Alan Shearer.

"To be mentioned in the same breath as that great man is always a pleasure.

"But what is more pleasing is to progress into the next round (to face Lille)."

Despite struggling at times against Unirea the Reds captain believes Liverpool have what it takes to reach the Europa League final in Hamburg in May.

"Every competition is very important to this football club, especially when you've gone out of other tournaments," he said.

"This is our last hope of silverware, and it would be terrific if we could go all the way to the final for the fans that have supported us this season.

"There is a long way to go but we want to go all the way to Hamburg but we need to keep improving and working hard."

Ryan Babel Shines As Reds Find Their Shooting Boots

For eleven first-half minutes, Rafael Benitez must have feared the worst. Thankfully the Spaniard's attack-minded approach paid off and Liverpool move on to the Europa League's last 16 with relative comfort, after a 3-1 win over Unirea Urziceni in rain-soaked Bucharest.

It had looked worrying for Benitez and his side when Ricardo Gomes was allowed to rise unchallenged to meet an 18th-minute corner and draw Unirea level in the tie, but Liverpool's response was as clinical as it has been all season. Javier Mascherano, Ryan Babel and Steven Gerrard struck the decisive blows as the Reds set up a clash with Lille in the last 16.

Benitez sprung a few surprises in his starting XI. Both Babel and David Ngog were deployed from the outset, with Dirk Kuyt joining Fernando Torres and Alberto Aquilani on a strong-looking bench. But Liverpool looked as cohesive an attacking threat as they have for some time, even minus their two top scorers and their £17 million midfielder. That Benitez was not forced to throw his big guns into the fray is testament to those who started the game.

Babel in particular seemed to revel in the Bucharest rain. The Dutchman has been lurking dangerously close to the Anfield exit door since a promising debut campaign in 2007/08, but has enjoyed an upsurge in form over the past few weeks, and here he got his reward.

He was involved in the equaliser, his presence at the front post forcing a rushed clearance from Marius Onofras which Mascherano smashed into the net from 25 yards, and put his side ahead before half-time with the type of clinical finish which adds weight to the belief that the former Ajax man deserves a prolonged run in the starting line-up.

Gerrard's right-wing free kick was not an especially good one, yet when it flashed off the head of Sorin Paraschiv, it was Babel who reacted instantly to control and finish on the half-volley, all in one movement. It was a superbly taken goal, and effectively killed the tie as a contest, just 20 minutes after it looked like Unirea were ready to cause an upset.

For many, the main criticism of Babel is a perceived lack of effort. Certainly the Dutchman can give the impression he is drifting through games with minimum fuss, promising plenty but delivering little. Tonight though, he was very much in the mood. On a pitch more suited to rugby, the 23-year-old was a constant menace with his direct running power. Having created the only goal at Anfield last week, here he was the Reds' star performer.

Fittingly it was Gerrard, on his 515th appearance for the club - equalling Kenny Dalglish - who finished matters. His 33rd European goal - a record for an English club side - was hardly his most important, or spectacular, but it capped a vastly-improved display from the Liverpool captain, as he inspired a more attacking approach from his side.

There will be a few points of note for Benitez, a renowned perfectionist. The marking for Gomes' opener was, in a word, shambolic, with the 6ft 2in defender given the freedom of Bucharest to head past Pepe Reina. Liverpool's improvements in defending set-pieces have been plain for all to see, but of the six goals conceded by the club since Christmas, five have come from crosses into the penalty area that have not been defended well enough.

Thursday night was the first time Benitez's side had scored three times in a game since a 6-1 rout of Hull City in September, and the first time they had scored more than a single goal in Europe all season. The standard of opposition will be highlighted, but Unirea were unbeaten at home in a Champions League group containing Sevilla, Rangers and Stuttgart earlier this season.

Nothing ever seems to be perfect with Liverpool this season - there is always room for improvement - but having witnessed the colourless first leg of this tie, Benitez must be pleased that his side is making progress as they approach a tense finale to the season.

Rafa Praises Character After Euro Win

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez hailed the character shown by his side in their 3-1 victory over Unirea Urziceni in Romania, which sealed a 4-1 aggregate win and a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

Shaky defending from set-pieces in the first half saw them fall behind to Bruno Fernandes' header in the 19th minute, and for a while they looked rattled.

However, goals from Javier Mascherano from long range, and Ryan Babel from close in, turned things around before the interval and Steven Gerrard's 33rd European goal after the break ensured any potential Liverpool embarrassment was avoided.

"We showed character. It was a difficult game because of the pitch. We needed to be calm and do the job properly," Benitez said.

"To play better we needed to score our goal as they were dangerous at set-pieces.

"I think once we scored a goal everything was easier and the second and third goals made things better.

"Still we had some problems but the main thing was to score; we did it and we had more control of the game."

Meanwhile, Gerrard's goal took him past Alan Shearer (with 30 goals for Newcastle and two for Blackburn) as Britain's leading scorer in Europe.

Benitez felt it was an honour well deserved.

"It is really positive for him and the club - it also means we are playing a lot of games in Europe so hopefully we can play a lot more and he can score more goals," said the Spaniard.

"It is very good news for the club. This is a historic club with a lot of records so to have a new record is massive for him and very important to the club.

Unirea coach Roni Levy admitted even when his side opened the scoring he did not consider there could be a potential upset.

"I knew it was an early goal and we had a long time until the end of the game," he said.

"The equaliser came very early so I did not have much time to think about what our goal meant.

"What was important was that we were organised and looked like a serious team - irrespective of the result.

"From my opinion we deserved a better result."

David Prentice: Liverpool Have Made The Liver Bird Their Own

Mersey football fans are used to rows about football. But when it’s a row over a bird, well things can get messy. In case you missed it, a passionate, enthusiastic and well meaning Evertonian is urging his club to start using the city’s Liver Bird symbol on club merchandise and memorabilia again.

And before Red fans cry fowl (sorry!), he points to a clutch of pre-War medals awarded to Everton footballers which all clearly carry a Liver Bird at its heart. There’s no doubt that the Liver Bird belongs to the City, not the football club of Liverpool. It’s a civic rather than a footballing crest.

But you ask any number of individuals chosen at random worldwide what that strange looking creature with the seaweed in its beak conjures up, and I’ll wager you’ll get Liverpool Football Club in reply. The reasons are clear. Liverpool’s achievements throughout three decades of remarkable football dominance seared that image into a worldwide public consciousness.

It might not belong to the Reds, but they have made it their own. Any Everton attempt to reclaim it will surely be doomed to failure. Besides, I rather like Prince Rupert’s Tower with the laurel wreaths.

That club crest has a history all of its own. Created by Theo Kelly in 1938 to be included on a club neck-tie, he explained: “I was puzzling over it for four months, then I thought of a reproduction of the ‘Beacon’ which stands in the heart of Everton” – a Beacon which has stood on Everton Brow since 1787.

The Liver Bird has undoubtedly brought good luck to Liverpool – Wikipedia claims the club first started using it in 1901, the year of their first title success. But Everton’s new crest – accompanied by the motto Nil Satis, Nisi Optimum, was worn by Kelly and chairman Mr. E. Green on the first day of the 1938/39 season. Everton won 2-0 at Blackpool with goals by Lawton and Stevenson.

That was on the 27th August, 1938 – and four days later the ties and the crest made their first appearance at Goodison. Everton triumphed again … 3-0 over Grimsby Town. Indeed, the ties and the crest were proclaimed lucky, as Everton raced to six consecutive wins in their opening games … and in May, the League title!

Both club crests have their own heritage and history. Perhaps it’s best to let sleeping dogs, and birds, lie.

Yossi Benayoun Incident Shows Players Must Dive Or Pay The Penalty

Yossi Benayoun won praise if not a spot-kick for his decision to stay on his feet after being fouled by Vincent Kompany in Manchester City's penalty area on Sunday.

However, the outcome only served to demonstrate why so many footballers choose to dive.

Under the laws of the game if an attacking player is illegally impeded in the box – as Benayoun was when knocked out of his stride by Kompany's clumsy challenge – a penalty should be awarded.

When I suggested in this column last November that David Ngog was right to dive to win a spot-kick against Birmingham at Anfield it prompted scores of angry e-mails and letters from Birmingham fans and moral guardians, with one reader even suggesting I should stick to reporting on netball.

The theme of their complaints was that Ngog's actions set a poor example for young players.

But referee Peter Walton's decision not to grant a penalty for the infringement on Benayoun only served to enforce the opinion that you are punished for not tumbling.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Match Report: FC Unirea Urziceni 1 - 3 Liverpool

Liverpool FC came from behind to beat FC Unirea Urziceni 3-1 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate to book a place in the UEFA Europa League round of 16.

Though Rafael Benítez's charges did ultimately ensure the natural order, they did so the hard way. The first-leg advantage handed to them by David Ngog's late strike at Anfield was quickly wiped out by Bruno Fernandes, but Javier Mascherano's first goal of the season restored parity in Romania. Ryan Babel and Steven Gerrard then gave the Reds a three-goal cushion that proved enough for the Premier League side to cruise through to a last-16 date with LOSC Lille Métropole or Fenerbahçe SK next month.

Unirea were not cowed by their visitors' European pedigree, deservedly going in front inside 20 minutes. Liverpool's defence were caught flat-footed by Răzvan Pădureţu's corner and Bruno Fernandes climbed highest to ignite the tie. Gerrard had already chanced his arm from range, to no avail, by the time Mascherano showed his captain how to do it, rifling in from 20 metres to draw the Reds level.

Unirea were unbowed, however, Pădureţu's artistry and set-piece delivery continuing to cause trouble. Gerrard, though, came to the fore five minutes before half-time, delivering a free-kick that found its way to Babel, who controlled with aplomb, swivelled and finished.

Another Gerrard set piece prompted Unirea goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis into action soon after the break, but it was from open play that the England midfielder put the tie to bed once and for all. Yossi Benayoun did the legwork, snaking his way through the Unirea defence before cleverly feeding his midfield colleague, whose finish spun in via Arlauskis' legs. Marius Ioan Bilaşco was somehow denied by Pepe Reina late on but the damage had long since been done.

Liverpool Face New Fight To Land Spanish Starlet

Liverpool could face a transfer battle with Manchester City this summer in the race to land Spanish youngster Javi Martinez.

The Athletic Bilbao youngster has been on Rafael Benitez's for some time, and the Liverpool boss was reportedly considering a bid for the player last summer.

Martinez welcomed the interest back in the summer of 2009, saying: "Any player would want to be part of such a good squad."

A deal never materialised however, and now other clubs are reportedly showing an interest in Los Leones' talented youngster.

Signed for €6 million in 2006, Martinez made the switch from Osasuna to the Basque club without playing a senior game at the Reyno de Navarra stadium in Pamplona. He became a regular in his first season at San Mamés, and has since made well over 100 league appearances for the La Liga side.

The Spanish U21 international helped Bilbao to the Spanish Cup final in 2009, and his form on that run played a large part in the speculation of a move to Anfield.

Valued at £10 million in the summer, it has recently been reported that City are considering preparing a £26 million bid to meet the buy-out clause in Martinez's contract.

If Mancini does make the move, the Reds will be unable to match the financial muscle at City and lose out in the race to sign one of the hottest properties in Spanish football.

However, the player's previous admission about playing football for Liverpool will leave the Reds with half an eye on a potential summer move. With the additional interest, a bid in the region of £15 million might be needed to prize this starlet from his homeland.

Teenage Keeper Trains With Reds

Teenage Swindon goalkeeper Jamie Stephens is to spend next week training with Premier League side Liverpool.

The 16-year-old has been invited for a stint at the Reds' Kirkby Academy after impressing scouts from the Anfield outfit.

Stephens' potential was spotted during his appearances for the Robins' youth team and he will now rub shoulders with Liverpool's emerging talent.

Swindon manager Danny Wilson has agreed for the youngster to head to Merseyside, but the club have stressed that there are no plans in place for a transfer.

"We had an approach for Jamie to spend a couple of days training with Liverpool," youth team boss Paul Bodin told the Swindon Advertiser.

"They had heard about his potential, invited him up, and the gaffer agreed to let him go up there.

"It is a great opportunity for everyone - this gives Jamie a fantastic experience and also helps us build links with a huge club like Liverpool.

"There is nothing at the end of it though - it is purely a week's training.

"We don't want to go overboard about it, but it's great that a club like Liverpool is showing a bit of interest in our players.

"It's a nice little pat on the back and a bit of recognition, not just for myself and Jeremy Newton (Centre of Excellence director), but for everyone else who has had an input in to Jamie's development during his time at Swindon."

Liverpool Protestors Latest Plan Revealed

Liverpool fans protesting against Hicks And Gillet have a public relations wall.

The Liverpool Echo they claim, isn’t doing enough. The reality is that in a city divided by only two clubs they will never get it right. Everton could win 8-0 and if they Echo run a match report they get a trail of telephone calls from disgruntled Reds bemoaning bias.

The reality for Liverpool is that Man Yanited’s scheme to infiltrate Old Trafford with Norwich City scarves is a hard act to follow. Whatever you may say about it, it has the media’s attention.

The latest report into The Tavern is a mass unfurling by hurling of toilet rolls.

Benitez: Stevie Role Good For Us

Rafa Benitez believes captaining England next week will bring the best out of Steven Gerrard.

With new skipper Rio Ferdinand injured, Gerrard is expected to take the armband in the friendly against Egypt.

Benitez thinks the occasion could boost Gerrard's confidence - benefiting both club and country.

The Reds boss said: "I think captaining England will be good for his confidence and could also have a good effect on him.

"We know he is important for us, and also important for England. I think he has to take the responsibility as a positive sign."

Aquilani: A Man With A Point To Prove

All eyes turned to the Europa League last night, and many Kopites gazed towards Romania as Liverpool took a trip to Unirea for their second leg clash. As Rafael Benitez draws away the pressure from his team using banter with the press, his £19m+ summer signing from Roma, Alberto Aquilani, knows he has to show what he is capable of.

At least Aquilani has acknowledged his failings during his short stay at Anfield. It has been reported in the English press that the midfielder has admitted he needs to prove himself, and that the support and banners made by the Liverpool faithful are all that he needs to spur him on to adapt to life in the Premiership.

Sure he has the talent, and starting off injured does not help his cause. Neither does the fact that he is seen as the ideal replacement for Xabi Alonso. However, when Aquilani has been picked, his performances have been lackluster to say the least. Misplaced passes, sloppy first touches, and a lack of strength have all been visible when he has taken his role of central midfielder. It is true that it takes time to adapt, particularly in the Premier League. But, I believe that Aquilani has the ability – and even more so, the character – to be a success at Anfield.

As already stated, the talent is there, and we have seen glimpses of his excellent passing ability and direct vision. You don’t just become an Italian international without having the ability. He has proved at Roma the threat he poses to other teams, and it is now time to show this at Liverpool.

Obviously, he hasn’t had much playing time and when he does get a decent run in the team he needs to grasp it with both hands – he is going to have to learn the hard way.

Liverpool Must Take Europa League A Game At A Time - Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is optimistic that his side can win the Europa League this season.

However, the Spaniard is refusing to get carried away and has insisted that his players focus on beating Unirea Urziceni on Thurdsday night and reaching the last 16 of the competition rather than dream of glory.

"For us it is an opportunity to bring silverware here so we will try to do our best," Benitez told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

"People are talking about me saying we will win the final, but we have to win against Unirea in this game to progress.

"Again, it is one step at a time, so we cannot talk about wining the final - we have to win the next game."

Benitez is not underestimating his team's Romanian opponents. Unirea performed well in the group stages of the Champions League this season, collecting the scalp of Scottish giants Rangers at Ibrox.

"As a team we are doing better now. Unirea are a good team and I am sure they are really focused on our game. It will be difficult and tough," the Reds' manager continued.

"They did well at home in the Champions League, so we know that we will have to work very hard if we want to progress.

"We will take it one game at a time. Now we want to progress in the Europa League and afterwards we will think about Blackburn.

Europa League Run Can Help Liverpool Make Champions League - Javier Mascherano

Javier Mascherano believes Liverpool's continued progress in the Europa League can boost their hopes of a top four finish.

The Reds midfield dynamo, echoing the sentiments of boss Rafa Benitez, is confident Liverpool will finish the job they started at Anfield last week and knock Unirea Urziceni out of the competition.

Should that happen, it will set up a clash with Lille or Fenerbahce in the last 16 and Mascherano thinks the more Liverpool play, the better they will become as they pursue a Champions League spot.

Mascherano said: “We know that we have got some good games coming up.

"It is important for us to keep playing and keep improving our confidence. Before we lost to Arsenal, we had a seven game unbeaten run and we want to win against Unirea to get on another similar run.

“This is a really important game for us, we have been talking about it for the last few days and it is important we get to the last 16.”

Romanian Journalists Berate Liverpool Boss Rafael Benitez Ahead Of Europa League Tie

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez became embroiled in a bizarre pre-match press conference when Romanian journalists appeared to berate the Spaniard over his weight, according to a report in the Daily Mail.

The Reds boss was fielding questions relating to the club's concluding Europa League tie with Unirea Urziceni, yet reporters from Romania sought to get a rise out of the unswervingly diplomatic Benitez.

When probed as to whether Liverpool were underestimating Unirea, he said: "Not at all. I just had to work out what would be the best preparation for the team, and I just felt that working on formations and set-pieces at Melwood before, rather than after, a three-hour flight would be the right option.

"As for after the game, if it goes to extra-time, the plane will wait, because it is a charter. Don't make the mistake of thinking we are taking anything for granted," he warned.

He was then asked for his thoughts about chants from the terraces predicting his sacking in the morning.

"I don't listen to them. When you are on the sidelines, watching your team, you are not aware of anything else. You are in the zone and concentrating only on what is happening on the pitch. Anyway, I don't always understand. My English still isn't all that good."

Towards the end of the conference, one reporter opted for a more personal approach.

"The last time I saw you, Mr. Benitez, was at the 2005 Champions' League final, and your, erm, silhouette seems to have changed since then. Why is that?" One bold journalist asked.

"It is the stress of having to answer so many questions from the press. Thank you and goodnight."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Match Preview: Unirea Urziceni vs. Liverpool

Liverpool will look to press home a one-goal advantage as they visit Unirea Urziceni in the second leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie.

Rafael Benitez's men scraped a narrow victory in the reverse clash at Anfield last week, thanks to a late strike from French youngster David Ngog.

The Reds' performance in that game was roundly criticised, however, as was their showing against fellow Champions League chasers Manchester City in Sunday's 0-0 draw at Eastlands.

Nevertheless, the Merseyside giants have the upper hand heading into this week's cup date in the Romanian capital.

Unirea could be considered unfortunate to have left England with nothing to show for what was a determined and disciplined display on their return from the winter break, but now they must pick themselves up after also losing their top-of-the-table clash with domestic rivals Cluj.

Unfortunately for Ron Levy's side, the statistics are firmly against them: they have won just once at home in European play, while Liverpool have only lost once on the road in their last nine continental outings.


Unirea Urziceni

Feb 22: Unirea 0-1 Cluj (Romanian League)
Feb 18: Liverpool 1-0 Unirea (Europa League)
Dec 12: Unirea 2-0 Iasi (Romanian League)
Dec 9: Stuttgart 3-1 Unirea (Champions League)
Dec 4: Ceahlaul 2-3 Unirea (Romanian League)


Feb 21: Manchester City 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 18: Liverpool 1-0 Unirea Urziceni (Europa League)
Feb 10: Arsenal 1-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 6: Liverpool 1-0 Everton (Premier League)
Jan 30: Liverpool 2-0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)


Unirea Urziceni

Pablo Brandan is suspended after picking up a yellow card at Anfield last week, while Iulian Apostol, Marius Ioan Bilasco, George Galamaz and Ricardo Vilana are all a booking away from a ban.

Last starting XI (vs. Cluj): Arlauskis, Maftei, Galamaz, Fernandes, Brandan, Paraschiv, Onofras, Marinescu, Apostol, Frunza, Bilasco.


Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun are both available for selection after their substitute appearances at Eastlands over the weekend, but Glen Johnson is still out of action.

Last starting XI (vs. Manchester City): Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Maxi, Gerrard, Babel, Kuyt.


Unirea Urziceni - Vasile Maftei

The right-back was Unirea's star outfield player in the first leg, stifling Albert Riera and using the ball well going forward. More of the same will be required this time around if the Romanians are to advance.

Liverpool - Daniel Pacheco

The young Spaniard's cameo last week showed just why he is so highly rated at Anfield, and it was his knockdown which led to the winning goal. Expect to see him get another run in Bucharest.

Riera Seeks Europa League Redemption

The memory of losing the 2007 UEFA Cup final with RCD Espanyol is driving Liverpool FC's Albert Riera in the UEFA Europa League: "The goal is to win a trophy – we have no other option."

Albert Riera needs no convincing of the merits of the UEFA Europa League. For the Liverpool FC winger, the tournament not only represents his team's sole remaining hope of avoiding another trophyless season but it also provides an opportunity to remove the lingering "bad taste" of the defeat he suffered with RCD Espanyol in the 2007 UEFA Cup final.

Riera came tantalisingly close to holding the cup that year, scoring Espanyol's first goal in a 2-2 draw with Sevilla FC in the all-Spanish final at Glasgow's Hampden Park that his old team eventually lost on penalties. He told "I will always remember that final, in truth it was great but finals are there to win and if you lose it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. People talk about third time lucky but let's hope it will be second time for me."

The 27-year-old Spanish international is keen to make amends now with a Liverpool side whose entry into the UEFA Europa League followed their elimination from the UEFA Champions League. If there were dark skies over Anfield following that failure, Riera believes the Merseysiders could yet find a silver lining. He said: "We weren't very good in the Champions League. We made mistakes there, and we paid for them. You have to keep looking forward and we are in this competition now and we want to win it.

"The goal is to win a trophy – we have no other option – and also to finish fourth in the league. If we can't win the league, then finishing in the top four is the objective. This season we didn't start well, we can give a lot more and we are trying to do that."

A definite cause for optimism looking ahead to Thursday's second leg against round of 32 opponents FC Unirea Urziceni in Romania is Liverpool's defensive improvement in recent weeks. Rafael Benítez's side conceded costly last-minute goals in three of their UEFA Champions League ties but they have kept clean sheets in six of their last seven outings, including the 1-0 first-leg victory against Unirea last week and Sunday's goalless draw at Manchester City FC.

Riera said: "It's important to end a game with a clean sheet. If you do that you have a big chance of winning games. We know with the quality of the players we have, we'll always have opportunities. We had problems defending earlier in the season, especially in dead-ball situations, but it's something we've improved on. We were conscious of this and now we're reaping the rewards."

While Liverpool are excelling defensively, they struggled at the other end of the pitch against Unirea at Anfield until David Ngog made a belated breakthrough with nine minutes remaining. Yet Riera believes they may find it easier in Bucharest, given Unirea will have to commit men forward in search of a goal.

"They will have to come out and attack more, and can't defend as much or as deeply as they did so there will surely be more opportunities for us," he said. "We won't go there just to defend the result we got here, we will try to go there to win the game the same. We will surely get more chances, because they will be forced to play a bit more."

Lucas Thrilled By Torres Return

Liverpool midfielder Lucas recognises that Fernando Torres' return to fitness is a "massive boost".

The striker made his first appearance for several weeks when he came on as a substitute in Sunday's goalless draw against Manchester City.

He had been sidelined with a knee problem picked up in the FA Cup defeat to Reading, the latest of several injuries to blight his progress this season.

It has been a frustrating campaign for Liverpool as well as Torres but Lucas believes the Spaniard can inspire his team-mates to a strong finish.

"Having Fernando on the pitch is not only a massive boost for us but it is also a great advantage against the opposition," Lucas told the club's official website.

"Fernando is our main goalscorer and defenders know they can't give any chances away to him because he will take them.

"He gives us confidence because he scores a lot of goals and wins us games.

"Unfortunately he has been injured, but we hope he will be fit between now and the end of the season and help us finish in the top four."

Yossi Benayoun also returned to action at the weekend and, with Glen Johnson nearing full fitness as well, Lucas is looking forward to the next couple of months.

He said: "We know how important they are for us. Yossi creates a lot of chances for us. He has great skill and ability and we are happy to have them back.

"We will also have Glen back in the next couple of weeks which is another great boost for us.

"When we have our full squad available again I think we will be even stronger and that will be important between now and the end of the season."

Liverpool's immediate focus is Thursday's Europa League clash with Unirea Urziceni in Romania.

The Reds have a slender 1-0 advantage from the first leg at Anfield and Lucas is confident of finishing the job.

"We have the advantage and we didn't concede an away goal, which is so important in Europe," he said.

"We know it will be difficult as I thought they were well organised at Anfield, but they know they have to score and the game will be open. We hope to take advantage and score goals to take us through to the next stage.

"They have to attack us because if they don't we will qualify and be in the last 16 of the Europa League. Hopefully we will have more space to attack them and finish the game off."

Saric Uncertain Over Debut

Teenage striker Nikola Saric is uncertain when he will make his Liverpool debut, but he is remaining positive.

The talented Danish striker has yet to feature for the Reds after being plagued by injuries since his arrival at the club in 2008.

But the 19-year-old is remaining positive, believing he will eventually make Rafa Benitez's first-team if he is good enough.

Saric told "My plans were spoiled a lot when I was injured for eight months.

"The first year, you have to adopt to the playing style and get to know the team-mates, that is still new for me.

"I don't think so much about the first team. In case I am good enough, I will get there, but right now there are some players ahead of me."

Johnson 'Very Close' To Return

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has admitted Glen Johnson is close to a return, but he will not be rushed back.

The Reds defender has been sidelined since suffering medial knee ligament damage in December, missing his side's poor run of form this year.

The England international was a mainstay in the Liverpool team before his injury suffered against Aston Villa, making 17 appearances in the Premier League this season, scoring twice.

And like returning striker Fernando Torres, Benitez says he will be eased back into contention.

"Johnson is very close," he said. "I think next week he will be training with the team, or maybe at the end of the week, but it will be the same situation we have with Torres.

"He will need time and we will introduce him little by little."

The Reds travel to Romania on Thursday to face Unirea Urziceni in the Europa League.

Taking a lead into the away leg after a 1-0 win at Anfield, Liverpool will be favourites to progress, and Benitez hopes there will be more opportunities to attack.

"We have to believe that the away leg will be different because they will have to attack and that will leave more spaces, and maybe we can create more clear chances," he added.

"If they have to attack, they have to be higher (up the field) and the game will be totally different.

"The main thing now is that we know them. It will not be a surprise the next game and we have to be ready. We have to think about attack.

"If you play in the Champions League or Europa League - in a knockout competition - you can see a clean sheet is very important and not to concede away is the main thing because then you can manage at home."

Ryan Babel Reveals Heart-To-Heart With Rafa Benitez

Ryan Babel has revealed the heart-to-heart chat with Rafael Benitez he hopes can help salvage his Anfield career.

Babel has endured a hugely disappointing campaign to prompt talk of an exit from Liverpool in the summer, with the player the subject of a £9m bid from Birmingham City last month.

Sunday’s goalless draw against Manchester City was his first Premier League start since lining up against the same opposition at Anfield back in November.

Babel was hauled off in the second half after an ineffective display, meaning the Dutchman has still only played the full 90 minutes once this season.

But the 23-year-old has held talks with manager Benitez aimed at bringing out his best as he attempts to prove he has a future at the club.

“I have had a good talk with the manager and I know what I have to do,” said Babel. “That is what I am going to concentrate on.

“I just have to try to be patient, keep working hard and doing my best.”

Babel will be part of the squad that flies to Romania this afternoon ahead of tomorrow’s Europa League return clash against Unirea Urziceni.

Benitez’s side will defend a slender one-goal lead from the first leg as they look to progress to the last 16 and a tie against either Lille or Fenerbahce.

And Babel believes Liverpool’s improving defensive form can bolster their only chance of silverware this season.

“Unirea may not be a well known team but the fact they are playing in Europe at this stage shows they are a good team,” he said. “I think it’s all about how you prepare yourself and as long as we do that then we should be fine.

“We have definitely improved over the last few weeks with a lot of clean sheets. The defence has been the basis of our better results.

“Slowly it gives more confidence and that is something that we have to try to keep hold of and hopefully we can be positive as we look forward.”

Alberto Aquilani Keen To Repay Liverpool Fans' Support For Him

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani is proud that the Reds fans seem to have taken him to their hearts so soon after his summer arrival from Roma.

One expression of that affection has been the banner which was unfurled at Anfield not long after his arrival bearing the legend 'Il Principino - A Hero has Arrived'.

Now the Italian, who has struggled to find full fitness all season, wants to repay the support he has received from the Kop.

"It filled me with incredible pride. I was already accustomed to the Roma supporters saluting me with their own songs and banners, but for the Liverpool fans to do the same, even though I had not proved myself in the Premier League, was amazing," Aquilani told his club's official website.

"It is now my job to repay their support and love."

Aquilani believes that the supporters of the Reds and Roma share a lot in common.

"Giallorossi fans are extraordinary and unique, the best in Italy for sure," he added.

"There are no more passionate fans in the country. But from what I have seen in England, Liverpool supporters come from the same mould.

"They have a great reputation in the world of football and I now know exactly why."

Liverpool Boss Benitez To Turn Down Real Madrid

According to Spanish newspaper 'Sport', Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez will turn down any move by Real Madrid to become coach at the Bernebeu.

'Sport' claims that the Spanish club sounded out Benitez several weeks ago when he was being linked with the Juventus job and urged the Liverpool manager to delay any decision on his future. Real Madrid’s interest in Benitez has reportedly intensified with current coach Manuel Pellegrini under pressure to deliver a successful Champions League campaign.

However, Benitez will reportedly turn down any approach by Real Madrid in favour of remaining at Anfield. 'Sport' claims that Benitez will not break his contract with Liverpool and if he were to take the reins at the Bernebeu, he would demand total control over footballing decisions – a condition likely to be unacceptable to Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. It would likely be equally unpalatable for sporting director, Jorge Valdano, who 'Sport' claims has a sour relationship with Benitez which "will not improve over time."

The only way that Benitez might end up at Real Madrid, according to 'Sport', is if Liverpool fail to qualify for next season's Champions League and Benitez is consequently sacked by the Anfield hierarchy.

Tommy Smith: Liverpool Need More Options In Attack

After all the hype about the impact Sunday’s game would have on fourth place it was no great surprise when it didn’t live up to expectations.

It was a poor, poor game and neither team deserved to win.

In fact, it looked as if they’d made some kind of pact not to encroach in each other’s half.

It confirmed what I’ve been saying for some time now, that we need somebody else up front.

That’s not in case Fernando Torres gets injured. It’s because we simply need someone else.

While Torres reminds me of a Roger Hunt; the one who puts the ball in the back of the net, we need a player who can go for the ball with big centre-halves and take a battering.

Some people say the game has changed and we have new formations and systems now.

But whether it’s today’s or yesterday’s game, whatever is going on at Liverpool is evidently not working.

Years ago we had John Toshack taking the onus off Kevin Keegan. Before that there was Ian St John and Roger Hunt. Later there was Rush and Dalglish.

At the moment we’ve got nothing up there without Torres.

Just two goals in our last four games says it all.

I’ve heard people saying Steven Gerrard has not been playing well. Maybe that’s because he’s got no-one to play up front with.

If Torres is up there, Gerrard plays a lot better. But if he doesn’t get any balls laid off to him when Torres is missing then what’s he supposed to do?

It’s all well and good keeping clean sheets but Liverpool teams have always been sent out to play and score goals not to defend, as appeared to be the case at City.

You’ve got to score goals to win games. I’d rather see us win 4-3 than draw nil-nil.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Torres Set For Euro Bench Duty

Rafael Benitez will resist the temptation to throw Fernando Torres back into his starting line up for the second leg of Liverpool's Europa League tie with Unirea Urziceni.

The Spanish striker made his comeback after six weeks out with a knee injury when he played the final 15 minutes of Sunday's dour stalemate at Manchester City.

Torres came through unscathed and is set to be part of the squad who fly off to Romania tomorrow.

However, he is likely to only be named among the substitutes for Thursday night's clash in Bucharest.

Liverpool, who have scored just two goals in their last four games, are in desperate need of more firepower.

But Benitez is determined to take no risks with his 12-goal top scorer and he is confident Spain manager Vicente del Bosque will do the same.

Torres is set to be part of the Spain squad for their high profile friendly against France on Wednesday, March 3.

Daniel Agger And Martin Skrtel Will Be Vital For End Of Season Run-In - And Beyond

It is hardly surprising to see defensive issues topping the list of positives from Liverpool's uninspiring, but still rather useful, goalless draw at Manchester City on Sunday. After all, a game featuring just three shots on target was hardly likely to provoke much talk of attacking verve or creative class.

For Rafael Benitez, clean sheets are the bedrock of Liverpool's success. Sunday's shutout was their seventh in their last nine league fixtures, which considering the Reds' generosity at the start of the season - where they let in 25 goals in their first 18 fixtures, having conceded just 27 in the whole of the last campaign – is pretty impressive.

And with just a point separating the Reds, Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa, defensive solidarity is likely to be a key factor in the battle for the top-four. Certainly Villa, statistically the league's meanest team with just 22 goals conceded, will be dependent on their back-four if they are to sneak a place in the Champions League next season.

Liverpool's vast improvements in defence should not be downplayed, given the disruption caused to Benitez's team through injuries this season. Already this season Liverpool have used 12 different defenders - hardly conducive to any kind of consistency, and a stark contrast to last season, when just 8 were used through the whole league campaign.

This current run alone has seen Glen Johnson absent for seven games with a knee injury, Daniel Agger miss three with a back strain, and Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos - surprisingly impressive when drafted in last month - serve a ban after being sent-off in the Merseyside derby.

Johnson's absence is perhaps more keenly felt than any other. The England man offers a purpose and athleticism matched by few full-backs in the country - and it is no coincidence that Liverpool's attacking threat from wide areas has diminished since the 25-year-old was carried off at Villa Park in December, though Benitez is confident that the former Portsmouth man will be available for selection in a fortnight's time.

In his absence, Jamie Carragher has provided proof that he is still a top-class Premier League performer. Carragher has made no secret of his aversion to playing at right-back, but his performances have, on the whole, been excellent.

The other problem created by Johnson's injury is that Carragher, so often the talismanic figure at the heart of the Reds defence, is no longer there. And with Sami Hyypia having departed for Bayer Leverkusen last summer, the need for a dominant central defender was obvious.

Step forward Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. The Dane and the Slovak at the heart of Liverpool's defensive renaissance.

On paper, it seems a perfect partnership, and with both just 25 years of age, the potential for longevity is there. But Liverpool's season thus far has been anything but perfect, and the side has struggled defensively as a result. Skrtel in particular has found life tough in a transitional side, whilst niggling injuries have restricted Agger to just 14 league starts.

Indeed, Skrtel and Agger have started together just eight times all season - and one of those games, against Manchester City at Anfield, saw the Dane depart injured within twenty minutes. That said, they have conceded just six times in those eight fixtures which is proof enough that a partnership is blossoming.

Liverpool have a fine tradition of central defensive pairings. Bill Shankly attributed plenty of his success at the club in the 1960s to the hard-as-nails duo of Ron Yeats and Tommy Smith, whilst his successor Bob Paisley cultivated a more technically gifted pair in Phil Thompson and Emlyn Hughes, as the Reds conquered Europe in the 1970s.

Perhaps the finest partnership seen at Anfield came in the 1980s, when Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson forged an understanding that should amaze anyone who has seen the pair together on Match of the Day recently, whilst recently Hyypia and Carragher have been the benchmark for defensive stoicism on Merseyside.

Style-wise, Agger and Skrtel perhaps best resemble Hansen and Lawrenson. Aesthetically, the pair could not be further apart. Agger is a relaxed, ball-playing left-footer who likes to bring the ball from defence a la Thomas Vermaelen at Arsenal or Ricardo Carvalho at Chelsea (or, indeed, Hansen in his heyday).

Skrtel, meanwhile, is a no-nonsense brute of a defender, happier in a scrap than a battle of wits. He may lack the searing acceleration and faultless timing of Lawrenson, but the tools are there to become a top-level defender nonetheless, his 80th minute tackle on Emmanuel Adebayor at Eastlands was a match-saving one, and may just have helped cement his spot in the team following a difficult start to the season.

Carragher of course will have something to say. The Bootle boy will almost certainly move back into the centre of defence once Johnson is fully fit, and it is true that neither Agger nor Skrtel boast his organisational and leadership skills.

But at 32, age is against Carragher; he may never have been especially quick, but in a team which is crying out for attacking full-backs, his lack of pace on the turn can occasionally be exposed - as seen against Michael Owen and Bobby Zamora this season. Carragher is still good enough to be first choice, but Skrtel and Agger are the future.

For Benitez, it is a happy dilemma to have. The immediate priority for the Spaniard is ensuring the Reds finish this season in the coveted top-four spaces, and the fact that Liverpool are not conceding goals should ensure that they stay very much in the hunt, especially with a decent set of fixtures to come.

But whilst the Reds may have only conceded twice in nine, they have only managed to score a goal-per-game in that spell. Fernando Torres' return should help alleviate that problem, but Benitez now needs to get the top-end of the pitch in order, as he has at the back. If he can do that, then Liverpool will be in business.

Martin Kelly Hands Rafael Benitez A Fitness Boost

Martin Kelly handed Rafael Benitez a transfer window boost last night when he completed his comeback from injury.

The Liverpool defender came through 45 minutes of the reserves’ 2-0 win over Bolton to help book a place in the Senior Cup semi-final.

It was Kelly’s first appearance since his impressive performance against Lyon in the Champions League back in October and could solve Benitez’s problems at right-back.

The Liverpool manager had been looking to bring in cover for the injured Glen Johnson during the transfer window.

Benitez had been linked with a move for Greek defender Vasilis Torosidis with reports last night saying a deal was close.

However, Kelly’s return to fitness could fill the void left by Johnson’s continued absence as the England international recovers from medial ligament damage sustained in the 1-0 win at Aston Villa last month.

Jamie Carragher has deputised at right-back this season, as has Philipp Degen and Kelly’s felllow Academy graduate Stephen Darby who has made three first team appearances.

Nabil El Zhar also figured against Bolton reserves.

The Moroccan international replaced Kelly at half-time as he also marked a successful return from injury.

Rafael Benitez Wants To Reward Liverpool Fans With A Trophy

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes that his side must win a trophy soon in order to reward the club's supporters for their patience and devotion.

The Reds travel to Unirea Urziceni on Thursday night for the second leg of their Europa League knock-out phase tie. Far from seeing the competition as a distraction from his side's league campaign, Benitez feels that it represents a real chance to claim some silverware this season.

"When you win a European competition it is always very important," he told his club's official website.

"Stevie [Gerrard] and Carra [Jamie Carragher] have that experience; also it is something I know from Valencia.

"If you cannot be in the Champions League, you have to do your best in this tournament and we would love to give a trophy to our fans. We want to do something important.

"We have got to try to keep winning games, doing our best and you never know - we might be able to win the trophy.

"But first we know we are playing a good team. They are well organised, compact and they showed why they did well in the [Champions League] group stages last week."

Benitez also praised the attitude of his players in what has been a tricky and challenging season for his squad so far.

"We know it has not been a good season, but all teams go through periods like this," he added.

"You just have to carry on, keep working hard and move forward. This is a different and difficult situation but we have to manage.

"The attitude of the players has been fantastic. It was massive to see the way they reacted to going out of the Champions League."

Ian Rush Urges Liverpool To Go On The Offensive To Achieve Premier League Top Four Finish

Liverpool's former striking legend Ian Rush wants to see Reds manager Rafael Benitez adopt a more attacking approach in a bid to finish in a Champions League spot this season.

Whilst Benitez's team have looked more solid in recent weeks, they played out a dismal goalless draw at Eastlands on Sunday with Manchester City.

In order to ensure a top four finish, Rush feels that they must now look to start scoring more goals.

"Clearly, there is something missing from Liverpool’s play at the moment, a spark that would make us an infinitely more difficult proposition," he told The Liverpool Echo.

"Quite simply, we are not creating enough chances and until that changes, it is going to be a struggle for Liverpool to overpower teams.

"It was great to see Yossi Benayoun and Fernando Torres return to action and once they are up to speed, Liverpool will start to go through the gears and I would imagine they will get a few more minutes on the pitch when we play Unirea Urziceni on Thursday, to get them ready for Blackburn.

"Once they are fit, though, Liverpool will not be able to make excuses if their displays continue to lack such sparkle."

Nevertheless, Rush is optimisitic that the Reds will be playing Champions League football next season, and believes Sunday's point was more useful to the Merseysiders than it was for their Mancunian counterparts.

"I have said all along that I’m confident Liverpool will win the race for fourth place and nothing that happened over the weekend has made me change my mind," he added.

"Looking at the positives, a point was slightly more beneficial for Liverpool; City have a testing run-in and need to chisel out as many wins as they can, as quickly as they can, to stand any chance of qualifying for the Champions League."

Rafa Benitez To Ask Spain Coach Vicente Del Bosque Not To Strain Fernando Torres

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez will reportedly ask Spanish national team coach Vicente del Bosque not to strain his star striker Fernando Torres in La Roja's upcoming international friendly against France, according to Marca.

The match, which is set to take place on March 3rd, comes on the heels of Torres competing in just two matches with his club team, Liverpool's Europa League tie against Unirea Urziceni and a Premier League match against Blackburn Rovers.

Having spent six weeks out with an injury that saw Torres undergo an operation on January 16 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, Benitez will ask Del Bosque not to force his striker into playing so that the player is allowed to slowly regain his form and avoid falling back into injury.

Benitez reportedly has a good relationship with Del Bosque since their days together at Real Madrid in the early 1990s (Benitez was Los Blancos' reserve team coach while Del Bosque managed the first team). Torres currently ranks third in the Castrol Rankings, a ranking system that assesses players according to rigorous statistical analysis.

Del Bosque Denies Rafa Rift

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque insists there is no rift between himself and Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez over the use of striker Fernando Torres.

Torres has just returned from a knee complaint and could be called up by his country for the squad to play France on March 3, although Benitez would be keen to see the striker return fully fit after seeing him previously pick up injuries while on international duty.

"There's no truth in the fact that Benitez has complained. We have great relations with Liverpool," said Del Bosque at FIFA's Team Workshop in Sun City, South Africa.

"We just want to take care of the player like his club does and make sure he arrives at the World Cup fully fit."

Del Bosque also hopes speculation surrounding Cesc Fabregas' future at Arsenal does not affect Spain's World Cup this summer.

He said: "I just hope that nothing happens during the World Cup because we want him to concentrate on playing and not a transfer."

Mark Lawrenson: Manchester City Draw A Great Result For Liverpool

There was loads of negativity surrounding the quality of the Manchester City versus Liverpool game.

But what’s the problem? I certainly don’t see one for Liverpool in getting a goalless draw there – in fact, there were some major positives to emerge from the game for me.

When you avoid defeat against your rivals, you don’t give them a significant advantage.

Okay, Liverpool have dropped to sixth but you would have expected Spurs and Aston Villa to win yesterday – and I’d rather have the games we’ve got coming up than City have.

Also, the Eastlands pitch welcomed the return of Fernando Torres to the first team and that gives the team a completely different look going into the season’s climax.

So everyone stop moaning about the absence of free-flowing football.

Rafael Benitez has made Liverpool difficult to beat again. That’s the way it is and if it provides a platform for fourth that’s fine – even if Liverpool have to bore their way there.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rafael Benitez: Liverpool Have To Keep Going In Race For Fourth

Liverpool could only manage a draw with Manchester City this afternoon at the City of Manchester Stadium and Rafael Benitez said he thought it was a fair result.

“Both teams were working hard in defence trying to beat the team in attack and we couldn't so I think in the end it was fair,” he told Sky Sports.

The Reds boss admitted the race for fourth will be long and difficult but said he believes Liverpool will come out on top.

“They are a good team, they had good players before, they had [sic] good players now and I think that we knew that it would be difficult and we know that it will be a long race so we have to keep going,” he explained.

“We have to believe, no? If the manager doesn't have confidence it will be difficult for the players.

“We have enough quality and now Yossi [Benayoun] is coming back, [Fernando] Torres is coming back, hopefully [Glen] Johnson will come back in the next week.

“We are now bringing players back, the competition will be better for us and hopefully we can improve.”

On the fitness of his star striker Fernando Torres, Benitez said it was a matter of wait and see.

He added: “We will see how he trains during the week, we have a game in the Europa League on Thursday so we have to decide but I think it's still the same, he needs to keep working with the fitness coach.”

Assessing the game, the Liverpool manager thought his side could have nicked it at the end and were unlucky to be denied a penalty.

Benitez continued: “At the end we were more in control, passing the ball with Aquilani – we have plenty of possession. They could be a threat in counter attack but we have more control and also the situation with Yossi maybe could be a penalty so I think we were close at the end to win the game."

Benitez said he hadn't seen the incident but Benayoun had told him he was fouled.

He concluded: “I ask him because I couldn't see the replay, he told me that he thought it was a penalty so at the end you know it's good to see a player trying to not take advantage of this.

“You have to understand his decision and that's it.”

Yossi Benayoun Feels He And Fernando Torres Can Get Liverpool Scoring

Liverpool's midfielder Yossi Benayoun feels that his side's current failings are in attack but believes his own return and that of Fernando Torres can help to change things.

The Merseysiders have scored just once in their past three games and looked particularly lacklustre in front of goal during yesterday's goalless draw with Manchester City, when Benayoun and Torres both returned from five-week injury spells.

"For any player the worst thing that can happen to you is to be injured, so I'm just happy to be back," said Benayoun. "It was difficult but hopefully now I can keep working hard in training, try to improve and try to help the team.

"We know where we need to improve. We need to create more and do more up front. One point [against City] was not good enough but it wasn't bad either. We are still in the race for fourth place and that is the most important thing. Hopefully the defence will keep playing well. We have got the best defence in the league," he claimed, "now we need to create more and then the goals will come."

Torres is still Liverpool's leading scorer in the league, with 12 goals, despite his spell out after a knee operation and being troubled by a groin problem prior to that.

"Both players have been important in the past and hopefully both will be important in the future," said Rafael Benítez, the manager. "Fernando needs to improve his match fitness and Yossi has to do the same, but at least we have better competition and we can manage in a different way."

The draw with City saw Liverpool drop to sixth in the league, although they are only one point of Spurs in fourth spot.