Saturday, January 16, 2010

Match Preview: Stoke City vs. Liverpool

Stoke boss Tony Pulis has defended under-fire Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez as he prepared for a Reds backlash.

Liverpool's shock FA Cup exit at the hands of Reading on Wednesday night has placed Benitez firmly in the firing line of his critics, who are demanding he be sacked.

Ahead of Saturday's Premier League clash with Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, the scenario for Benitez could not be worse after losing influential skipper Steven Gerard, star striker Fernando Torres and key midfielder Yossi Benayoun to injury following the game with the Royals.

With Liverpool out of the Champions League, FA and Carling Cups, and 12 points behind leaders Chelsea in the title race, Benitez's season is fast crumbling around him and the knives are out.

Yet Pulis feels Benitez is being harshly criticised due to extenuating circumstances which any manager would struggle to counter.

"With the result on Wednesday there's added speculation about what's happening and what's not happening at that football club,'' assessed Pulis.

"But I think Rafa has been a little unfortunate this year in the respect that his best players have either been injured or not really on top form. They've not performed like they can do.

"Against Reading, (Pepe) Reina didn't play, and he is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League.

"(Javier) Mascherano was missing, and he's the best holding player in the Premier League, and then you've Gerrard and Torres who have played with injuries and who have come off. You also had a quality right-back in (Glen) Johnson who didn't play through injury.

"So there are five players who, if they were available and playing to their maximum, would make Liverpool a completely different team.

"Do you make the excuse that because it's Liverpool they should have enough back-up? I don't know.

"There are all these arguments for why they should be doing better, but I don't think he has been as lucky as he could have been with his team and the selection he could have made all season.''

Despite the calls for Benitez's head, as a manager Pulis knows much now depends on how all within Liverpool rally, on and off the pitch.

"Because Liverpool are one of the biggest clubs in world football, not just this country, the spotlight is naturally on them,'' added Pulis.

"He (Benitez) understands that, he's been there long enough to understand that.''

Pulis had been hoping to sign former Liverpool goalkeeper David James in time, but has now pulled out of the potential loan deal for the 39-year-old currently with Portsmouth.

Thomas Sorensen, who has been linked with a move to Bayern Munich that will not go through unless Pulis finds a replacement, looks set to return after a finger injury saw him miss the club's last outing 10 days ago, a 3-2 home win over Fulham.

Striker Tuncay Sanli remains Pulis' only doubt with a hamstring injury sustained against the Cottagers.

A defiant Rafael Benitez vowed to fight on as Liverpool manager despite the club's season hitting a new low this week.

Co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are not minded to make a change of manager midway through the season and in the wake of the Reading defeat club sources have stressed Benitez's job is safe.

"We are not playing well and everyone here feels sorry for our fans,'' said Benitez, who insists he is focusing all his efforts on the must-win match at Stoke.

"This is a bad moment, we are not doing well during the season and we now have to improve and we have the belief we can do it.

"How can we improve? Winning on the pitch. How can we be sure we win on the pitch? By training well.

"If I'm worried about my position or the future of the club at this moment I will lose my focus.

"Stoke is the most important game now and we have to prepare properly.

"I cannot be worried about the other things. My future is Stoke now.''

Benitez last season signed a new long-term deal worth anything between £3million and £4million a year.

He stressed he is a fighter and is determined to get through Liverpool's recent difficulties.''

Liverpool will be without their most influential trio of players in striker Torres, captain Gerrard and midfielder Benayoun.

All were injured in the midweek FA Cup exit, with Torres requiring knee surgery which will keep him out for six weeks, Benayoun sustaining a broken rib likely to sideline him for a month and Gerrard out for a fortnight with a hamstring problem.

Defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano returns after a four-match suspension and new signing Maxi Rodriguez is expected to figure provided he receives international clearance - but manager Rafael Benitez has limited options in attack.

Aquilani Issues Rallying Cry

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani has called on his team-mates not to dwell on the injuries to Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

Rafa Benitez's star duo face a combined eight weeks' absence as Liverpool's season of woe continues to plumb new depths, with Saturday's opponents Stoke preparing to add to it.

But Aquilani, who has struggled to make an impact since his £20million move from Roma, insists the squad cannot afford to let the blow affect their game ahead of the Britannia trip.

"We don't think, 'We haven't got these players, we've lost already'," he told the club's official website.

"It is true they (Torres and Gerrard) are among the best players in the world, but we have to be focused and try to play without them.

"It's very hard for us at the moment but we have to carry on, keep trying. The game this weekend is very, very important for us, and we have to do something to ensure we finish in the top four.

"This season is not going as well as we'd like but if we're focused we can play well. We have won the last two games in the league and now Stoke is important, very important.

"They have some difficult tactics like the long throws. They have tall players and get them in the box for free-kicks. It's important for us to remain focused if and when they use these tactics."

New signing Maxi Rodriguez, who scored a wonder goal for Argentina against Mexico at the 2006 World Cup, could be drafted in at the Britannia Stadium and Aquilani has welcomed the move.

"He is an important player who can help us - he can help the team," said the Italian.

"I know him as a player but haven't played against him. I remember him playing for Argentina. We are going through a difficult time but if we work together we can get through it."

Rafa Hopeful Over Reina

Rafael Benitez is hopeful of having Pepe Reina available for selection at Stoke City on Saturday.

The Liverpool goalkeeper missed the midweek Cup defeat to Reading with a back injury, but trained with his teammates on Friday.

"Pepe did some light training today and we will make a decision tomorrow," said Benitez.

The Reds' boss, who is now without Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun following the Reading clash, has revealed Albert Riera will return to the squad for the trip to the Britannia Stadium.

But Martin Kelly and Nabil El Zhar are both still sidelined with injury problems.

With the injuries mounting at Melwood, Benitez says the club is still looking into the possibility of adding another new face to the squad before the transfer window closes.

He said: "We have Maxi now and we are really pleased. We are still working hard to find good players.

"In this market it is very difficult but we have to keep looking to see if we can find someone."

Is Maxi Rodriguez Good Enough To Get Liverpool Winning Again?

In a difficult week for Liverpool, which say the team crash out of the FA Cup to lowly Reading, fans have taken a crumb of comfort from the one piece of good news to come out of Anfield.

Maxi Rodriguez sealed his free transfer from Atletico Madrid on Wednesday afternoon, after completing a medical on Merseyside.

The 29-year-old Argentinian has signed a three-and-a-half year deal, and becomes the first signing of what could be a busy month for Rafa Benitez - on and off the field.

So what can Liverpool fans expect from their new number 17? We asked International's Chief Editor, Ewan Macdonald, for his expert opinion.

So Ewan, Maxi has signed. What type of player can Liverpool supporters expect?

Liverpool can expect, in the short term, a player competent at the top level with plenty of hunger and much to prove. Maxi was, for the bulk of his career both, in Argentina and Spain, a talismanic figure, adept both on the right and up front, and isn't shy when faced with goal.

However, he is also a player who has had problems with injury, which is why this three-and-a-half year deal has raised plenty of eyebrows in Spain. He is no stranger at all to the operating table. Given that he'll be the wrong side of 30 in a year's time, one has to wonder about the long-term nature of this deal

Rafa Benitez is known for adhering to a rather rigid 4-2-3-1 system, how do you see Maxi fitting in tactically at Liverpool?

Actually, Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 is not so drastically different to the 4-4-2 Atletico Madrid operated during his time there. For Gerrard and Torres, read Aguero and Forlan. The latter two are both more strike-minded, of course, but the line-ups are still united by a double pivot of defensive midfielders that permits the wide players to get forward.

Obviously Rafa will hope that Maxi offers a better touch and a better mode of support to Torres than Kuyt, but the Dutchman, for his flaws, is hard-working and understands the positioning of this Liverpool side well.

In other words, Maxi can slot in perfectly in an attacking sense, but it might take a while for the team to find balance.

Maxi played alongside Fernando Torres at Atletico Madrid, how was their relationship? Do you think he is the kind of player who will supplement Torres when he eventually returns from injury?

It was from Torres that he inherited the captaincy at Atletico. They were both at the club for two seasons, but in the second one Maxi spent the vast bulk of it on the sidelines, and in the first (05/06) Maxi was often playing a lot more centrally than he does these days.

Certainly they both enjoyed excellent campaigns and seemed to work well together but Maxi is generally playing out wide a lot more these days so there's not too much we can take from it.

Then again Rafa could surprise us all and put him up front!

Benitez spoke about Maxi's "character" and "strong mentality", are these attributes for which he is renowned?

All of these claims are true. It is easy to forget, given his rather hasty and unceremonious departure from the Calderon, that he was club captain for the better part of two seasons. It just so happened that these campaigns were also generally successful ones for Atleti - 2007-08 saw them enter the Champions League for the first time since their title-winning days of the mid-nineties.

Of course he's been sent off for Argentina in undignified circumstances... but then again who hasn't?!

The 2010 World Cup is fast approaching, is Maxi likely to go to South Africa with Argentina?

Well there was recently released a list of 14 players that Diego Maradona had allegedly already settled on for his World Cup squad - Maxi's name was not present.

This doesn't mean too much. Maradona changes his squad on a match-by-match basis - but it's true that Maxi was not in favour towards the end of qualification.

His main competition on the right comes from Jonas Gutierrez, but it is more likely to be tactical reasons that keep him out. A roaming Messi backed up by Veron seems to be Maradona's choice right now, and that means no traditional right-winger.

Still, if Maradona wants options, and Maxi's playing well, he will probably go due to his versatility and experience, if not as a starter.

Maxi Rodriguez Ready To Work Hard For Liverpool FC

New Liverpool FC signing Maxi Rodriguez has pledged to "put himself on the line" to help lift his new team-mates out of their current slump.

The Argentina international joined from Atletico Madrid in midweek on a three-and-a-half-year contract.

He is a welcome addition to the club’s attacking ranks at a time when they have just lost trio Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun to injury for a number of weeks.

Liverpool FC are having their worst season for several years, with Wednesday’s FA Cup exit to Reading following an early end to their Champions League campaign and a significant drop off the pace in the Barclays Premier League.

However, Rodriguez said he considered the long-term picture when he decided to leave Spain.

"If you decide to come to a club you don’t look at recent form and whether results are going for or against you," said the midfielder, who is in the squad for Saturday’s must-win match at Stoke.

"They are a great club with great tradition and you don’t change your mind on something like that because of a short period of results.

"The important thing is to come here with that desire to win, work hard, make the team even more competitive and first of all try to win my place in the side.

"By hard work we will turn things around. I will be putting in lots of hard work, putting myself on the line for my team and team-mates because that is important."

Rodriguez said he had spoken to Torres, a former Atletico team-mate, and Mascherano, his national team captain, about the difficulties facing the club.

"It wouldn’t be the start everyone had dreamed of but the thing about it is all the players are convinced we can turn things around," added the 29-year-old.

"The main thing is to have a strong belief and mentality. In football you can get a bad start or a bad run in the middle of the season but the important thing is to stop concentrating on the negatives and think positively.

"They are convinced as much as I am that it can be turned around and with a couple of victories you can get the confidence back and results will improve."

Rodriguez said he did not feel the absence of Torres, Gerrard and Benayoun placed additional expectation on him.

"I don’t see it as any added pressure on me because although they may be considered the backbone of the side I don’t play in the same role as them," he said.

"It is up to me and the rest of the squad, working as a block of players, to make up for their absence and work hard and see that as an incentive to deliver results."

Manager Rafa Benitez is confident his new recruit can have a positive influence on the team.

"Maxi is a player who understands the game. He has quality. He’s not a proper winger who’ll pass players and dribble all the time but he can pass the ball and get in good positions," said the Spaniard.

"He can give to us more competition on the right side but he can play in three positions - right winger, second striker or left winger."

Serbian Hitman Confirms Liverpool Contact

Standard Liege striker Milan Jovanovic has revealed that Liverpool are battling AC Milan for his signature and that another big European club have also made contact.

The 28-year-old forward is out of contract with Les Rouches at the end of the season and is fully expected to move on a free during the summer with Rafael Benitez monitoring the situation.

Voted the Jupiler League’s Player of the Year for 2009, Jovanovic played a major role in his side’s second consecutive league title last season and has been Standard’s stand out player this term, notching 10 goals in 19 appearances.

"News that I have already said yes to AC Milan are not correct," Jovanovic is reported to have said this week. "I am still waiting, I haven't decided.

"Also because AC Milan are not the only club interested in me. There is also Liverpool and another big European club.

"I repeat - my options are still very open."

Liverpool have been linked with a number of possible attacking recruits in recent weeks and with news of Fernando Torres’ latest injury setback it is expected that Rafael Benitez will act quickly to secure back-up.

Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh is another possible target, while former Liverpool forward Emile Heskey has also been touted as a short-term option for the Anfield outfit.

Liverpool In For Dazzling Turkish Star

According to reports in the Turkish press, Rafa Benitez rejected the recent bid from Birmingham for Ryan Babel as they are in negotiations with Turkish giants Galatasaray for a swap deal plus cash for their captain and star man Arda Turan.

The player was widely expected to leave Galatasaray last summer with the club finishing a highly disappointing 5th in the Turkish league, 10 points behind champions Besiktas.

However, it would seem this will now be Arda's last season with the club before moving abroad although Benitez is trying to push through a deal this month as he looks to claw back a Champions League place by the end of the current campaign.

An added bonus for potential suitors of Arda is the player's versatility as he can play on either flank or even in a more central role.

It's no surprise that Liverpool are so strongly linked to the golden boy of Turkish football as Rafa Benitez has been looking to add some much needed flair to his strong outfit.

The injuries to Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun have led Liverpool to attempt to push through a deal as soon as possible with the team lacking its most creative and goal scoring talent.

The 22-year-old Galatasaray midfielder enjoyed an excellent season individually last season even though the team ultimately struggled after scoring 7 goals in 29 league appearances (27 starts).

In the 2007/08 season he also weighed in with 7 goals in 30 league appearances (29 starts) which led to interest from England, Spain and Italy. As new captain of the side, Arda has scored 4 goals in 16 league appearances this season as the club sit 2nd in the league, 1 point behind leaders Fenerbahce.

Arda is a team-mate of former Liverpool star Harry Kewell and reports suggest the Australian has given a glowing report about life at Anfield.

Since breaking into the first team he has scored an impressive 23 goals from 102 (90 starts) league appearances and has become a mainstay of the team that won the 2007/08 Turkish title.

His match-winning performances in Turkey's superb Euro 2008 displays also intensified the growing interest in the exciting winger as well as increased his price tag.

The player is expected to cost around £13m which may not be too much of a gamble for Liverpool if he can realise his amazing potential in England.

Rafa Benitez is reported to have offered £3m and Ryan Babel for the Turkish star which would be good business with the sales of Andrey Voronin and Andrea Dossena comfortably covering that outlay.

Arda has won 35 caps for his country (4 goals) despite his tender age after progressing from the U19 and U21 sides. The youngster is both quick and two footed and has been likened to former Galatasaray legend Gheorghe Hagi in his home country so should give you an idea of how highly he is rated.

If Arda was to join Rafa Benitez' team then the amount of creative attacking talent at the Spaniard's disposal would be hugely increased following the arrival of Maxi Rodriguez this month.

Arda fits the bill in terms of creativity and technical ability but we will have to wait and see if Liverpool can indeed secure the golden boy of Turkish football.

Babel Tracked By Marseille

Olympique de Marseille have been credited with an interest in Liverpool attacker Ryan Babel by both radio station RTL and local newspaper La Provence.

With a move for Inter wideman Amantino Mancini seemingly stalling, the Ligue 1 club are reportedly looking to Merseyside for the 23-year-old Dutch international. Babel's career has stalled somewhat at Anfield, where he has struggled to gain regular first team football.

The arrival of Maxi Rodriguez to the Reds would seem to reduce the chances of Babel featuring further, and with just three Premier League starts to his name this season, the World Cup hopeful may depart England so as to strengthen his claim for a place in his national squad for South Africa.

It has been suggested by La Provence that Babel has been in OM's thoughts for some time, though the former Ajax man was not seriously followed by the club due to the financial aspect of the deal.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has stated that he wishes to keep the Amsterdam-born player, who burst onto the scene in emphatic style during the Under-21 European Championships of 2007, so a loan deal may not be out of the question.

Babel has already enjoyed success against French opposition this season, finding the net in spectacular fashion against Olympique Lyonnais in the Champions League group stage before Liverpool's exit.

King Kenny And Hiddink Favourites To Succeed Benitez

Bookies up and down the country are tipping former Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish or former Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink to takeover from under pressure manager Rafa Benitez.

Liverpool crashed out of the FA Cup last night at Anfield at the hands of Championship side Reading, which now sees the reds fighting for fourth place having been knocked out of the Champions League and League Cup.

Dalglish and Hiddink have been placed at 5/2 by Sky Bet while next in line is a return to the Premier League for Jose Mourinho, who has been placed at 5/1, alongside another former Anfield boss Gerard Houllier to takeover from the Spaniard.

Rafa Benitez has more problems this morning with injuries to key forward Fernando Torres and captain Steven Gerrard.

However on a brighter note for the Spaniard Liverpool have announced that they have completed the signing of Atletico Madrid and Argentinean star Maxi Rodriguez on a free transfer on a three and a half year deal.

Rafael Benítez Given A Temporary Reprieve At Liverpool But Loses Star Trio

Liverpool have not altered their view that Rafael Benítez is the man to revive their fortunes despite yesterday's dismal FA Cup defeat to Reading, but will review his position at the end of the season. The manager's task of delivering the top-four finish that would save his job was made more difficult when Steven Gerrard, Yossi Benayoun and Fernando Torres all returned to the treatment table, the latter with a withering attack on the club's owners.

Torres's absence for six weeks will be the most damaging blow to Benítez, whose long-term future at Anfield is in serious doubt after the Championship strugglers inflicted the latest humiliation in a season in which the club have suffered early exits from the Champions League, the Carling Cup and now the FA Cup, and failed to challenge for the league title.

Benítez's immediate future remains at Liverpool, however, with the club's hierarchy unwilling to change managers during a season and at a time of deep uncertainty over the club's finances. They are also aware of the cost of sacking the Spaniard and installing a replacement, less than a year after the manager signed a five and a half-year contract worth more than £4m a season.

Despite the mounting pressure and the constraints on transfer budgets, the Liverpool manager has no intention of quitting and sparing Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club's co-owners, the compensation he would be owed for the remainder of his contract. Benítez is entitled to a full payout if relieved of his duties, a sum the club cannot afford.

For now, Hicks and Gillett are anxious to present a show of stability as the club's managing director, Christian Purslow, continues to pursue investors willing to join a divided boardroom, reduce Liverpool's debt and enable work on the stalled stadium project to begin.

A new investor would have a say on Benítez's future while increasing Liverpool's ability to agree a severance package should the Spaniard fail to deliver on his guarantee of a top-four finish. The Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish would be in the frame for a sensational return as manager should the opportunity arise; the Scot has an ambassadorial role at Anfield.

The uncertainty over Liverpool's finances partly explains the club's determination to give Benítez the chance to revitalise a sorry campaign. The club have now told the manager he can spend the proceeds should Ryan Babel be sold this month, having initially insisted minimal funds would be available, and are closing in on a pre-contract agreement for the Bordeaux striker Marouane Chamakh. There has been no indication that significant funds will be released as a result of the news that Torres, Gerrard and Benayoun are facing six, two and four weeks out respectively with injuries sustained in the 2-1 FA Cup third-round replay defeat.

The loss of the trio is a serious setback and the timing is appalling for Benítez as he seeks a reaction to the Reading defeat, with a trip to Stoke City on Saturday and a rearranged home game against their close rivals Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday. Gerrard will be absent for a fortnight as a result of the hamstring strain that forced his withdrawal at half-time against Reading, Benayoun is out for three to four weeks with a broken rib and Torres is not expected back until late February having torn cartilage in his right knee.

The Spain striker will undergo surgery this week and has launched an outspoken attack on Hicks and Gillett, whom he blames for Liverpool's woes as a result of their failure to back Benítez with significant transfer funds following last season's runners-up finish.

Torres said: "It's frustrating. We finished second last season; this season should have been a turning point for us – the chance for us to do something great. Manchester United sold Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, while Chelsea didn't sign anyone. But it hasn't been.

"It's now the owners' turn. They have to sign players so that this does not happen again. If we want to compete with United and Chelsea we need a much, much more complete squad. We need more genuinely first-class players and we can't let our best players leave."

Champions League qualification will have a greater bearing on Benítez's future but the Europa League now represents Liverpool's last realistic chance of silverware and Torres admits victory there is essential. The Liverpool striker added: "We didn't want to win the Europa League at the start of the season but it's a reality now. Now we have to win it. Anything less than winning the tournament would be terrible. If we do not win it then we have to say it's been a very, very, very bad season in Europe.

"We need to improve, to take responsibility and to get into the top four and win something. We have virtually no chance of winning the title now. Now we need to make the best of this situation."