Sunday, January 17, 2010

Match Report: Stoke City 1 - 1 Liverpool

Rafael Benitez was denied a victory to lift the intense pressure on him when Stoke grabbed a last-ditch equaliser at the Britannia Stadium.

It was never pretty, but this much-derided Liverpool outfit stood up to be counted in a physical showdown.

And they went ahead when Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos scrambled home his first goal for the club early in the second period of a bitterly contested battle.

But Stoke's relentless aerial assault produced an equaliser from Robert Huth in the 89th minute.

It was a terrible blow for a Liverpool side facing pressure from all quarters, and they were even denied a winner in injury-time when Dirk Kuyt's diving header hit a post.

If under-fire Benitez believes the whole world is against him, he had plenty of evidence to support that theory here.

Benitez made six changes from the side humiliated in the FA Cup in midweek by Reading for a difficult away trip.

Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Daniel Agger are all injured, while Alberto Aquilani and Diego Cavalieri were dropped to the bench.

Jose Reina, Kyrgiakos, Martin Skrtel, Javier Mascherano, Fabio Aurelio and David Ngog all returned in a side that was dreadfully short of fire-power.

Stoke had Tuncay available after a hamstring scare while Salif Diao came in against his old club, with Liam Lawrence reverting to the bench.

This game was all about Benitez's future. His club are at an all-time low and the vultures are demanding his head.

Liverpool needed to do something to arrest an alarming plunge in form, with the manager and the club's status on the line.

Stoke fans were holding up giant P45s aimed at Benitez as this crucial game started, with Liverpool's fans belting out 'You'll Never Walk Alone' in open defiance of the position their team have got themselves into.

But Liverpool are a nerve-racked team these days, and that showed when Aurelio had the chance to send Mascherano away on his own but tried a ridiculous 40-yard attempt to expose an out-of-position Thomas Sorensen that sailed miles wide.

Liverpool struggled against Rory Delap's long throws from the start, Reina failing to get a positive punch on them, while at the other end the raw Ngog was being left on his own in an uneven battle with Stoke's giant defenders.

Lucas had two efforts blocked from the edge of the box, but too much of Liverpool's possession was wasted with woeful passing.

Stoke, though, always looked dangerous when the ball was in the air, or at Tuncay's feet.

Stoke lost Delap with a groin strain, Lawrence sprinting into the action, and a minute later Abdoulaye Faye also went off with a recurrence of a back problem to be replaced by Andy Wilkinson.

The half's only real flashpoint came when Liverpool had Lucas booked by referee Lee Mason for diving in the box, although replays suggested he was caught by Danny Higginbotham's challenge.

But without their star men, and way short on confidence, Liverpool's attempts to play a passing game constantly disintegrated against a combative Stoke.

The Potters' renowned attritional long ball game is always likely to be successful against any team in such a state and Liverpool constantly looked stretched under the barrage.

Stoke started the second period intent on taking control, and Lawrence saw a 20-yard free-kick deflected wide.

But then Liverpool took a leaf from Stoke's book, going ahead from a free-kick after 57 minutes.

Aurelio curled the ball towards the near post and Sorensen did not gather cleanly under pressure from Kyrgiakos, the Greek defender getting the final touch on the line to score his first goal for the club.

Stoke responded when Tuncay nodded over after Ryan Shawcross flicked on a Diao throw. Stoke replaced Mamady Sidibe with Ricardo Fuller after 66 minutes to freshen up their attack.

Diao was booked for dissent before Fuller tested Reina with a flicked header at the near post after 75 minutes.

Liverpool then sent on new boy Maxi Rodriguez for his first taste of English football after 78 minutes in place of Philipp Degen.

Stoke hurled their big men forward for every corner and Liverpool were forced into desperate defence at times, with Skrtel and Kyrgiakos giving everything.

Liverpool brought on Aquilani for Ngog after 87 minutes, Stoke piling on the pressure now with constant, dangerous set-plays.

And eventually Liverpool cracked. Matthew Etherington's corner was headed back across goal in the 89th minute for Huth to score from close range.

Reina was booked for time wasting but Kuyt's near miss almost provided a final dramatic twist in injury time.

Rafa Feels Reds Were Robbed

Rafa Benitez felt Liverpool were given a rough ride by the match officials during their 1-1 draw with Stoke.

The Reds were desperate to take maximum points from their trip to the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, having crashed out of the FA Cup to Reading in midweek.

Their season now rests on their ability to secure a top four finish in the Premier League, and they know they cannot afford to drop points unnecessarily.

Liverpool appeared destined to ease the pressure on their under-fire boss against the Potters, with Sotirios Kyrgiakos bundling them in front early in the second half.

However, a late leveller from Robert Huth, and a costly miss from Dirk Kuyt in the dying seconds, meant Benitez was forced to settle for a point at the final whistle.

"I think that it was a difficult game. We showed great character," the Spaniard told Sky Sports.

"The players were fantastic, you could see the fans were really happy with their efforts.

"Two or three incidents could have changed everything, so 27,000 people in the stadium saw the incidents and three people in the stadium didn't."

The incidents Benitez refers to concern two penalty shouts from Liverpool which fell on deaf ears.

Lucas Leiva appeared to have been tripped by Danny Higginbotham during a turgid first half, while the Reds also felt they should have been awarded a spot-kick following the dramatic events which saw Kuyt hit the woodwork with the last kick of the game.

Benitez fended off all questions about the appeals after the game, but was clearly frustrated that both decisions went against his side.

"I will not talk about the incidents. They were so clear," he said.

"I think we had chances in a very difficult game, against a very difficult team. It is not easy, they are very physical.

"We have five key players who were not here, so we are really pleased with the attitude and character from our players.

"Everyone was very disappointed, because we were very close, but you have to say congratulations in terms of the effort."

Benitez also hailed those supporters who made the trip to Stoke and showed their support for their manager throughout the 90 minutes.

"The fans know this is a bad moment but they know the way to change things is to support the team," he added.

Steven Gerrard Set To Quit LiverpooL

Steven Gerrard is ready to quit Liverpool in his desperate search for trophies.

The Kop captain is considering leaving this summer for a £30m move – with Real Madrid the likely destination – as the team struggles under Rafa Benitez.

Steven Gerrard is increasingly concerned at the direction his club is moving and is worried they are losing touch with major clubs at home and abroad. And the big fear is that staying at Liverpool for the rest of his career would damage his chances of clinching more silverware.

Gerrard is driven by a desire to win trophies in his career rather than chase big-money deals, and it is that ambition which has turned his head elsewhere.

The England star has ruled out joining any other Premier League club, and is eyeing a move to Madrid instead.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League this season could be the deciding factor with an already cash-strapped club having to do without the £20m-plus netted by playing in Europe.

That would see Rafa Benitez – or whoever else is in charge at Anfield in the summer – struggle to find the cash to bring in the world-class players Liverpool desperately need.

Real would have no trouble finding the £30m it would take to tempt Liverpool into selling and have never hidden their admiration of the midfielder.

The Spanish giants believe his non-stop drive and determination, coupled with his undoubted quality on the ball, is just what the team needs to turn them into La Liga and Champions League winners.

AC Milan are also keeping tabs on the situation and could make their move if Liverpool fail to make it into the top four. And Liverpool might have no option but to sell their natural leader if Gerrard forces this issue after the World Cup.

A source close the player said: “Stevie turns 30 at the end of the season and knows time is running out for him if he wants to win more honours.

“And he also feels he is at the eve to Spain, and the chance to link up with the stars at Real is one that excites him.

“The big fear is that it will take at least a couple of years before Liverpool can build a team able to challenge for the title again, and that there may not even be enough money around for them to do that. “He loves the club, but he is frustrated at the way things have gone this year.

“But he doesn’t want to play for another side in the Premier League. If he did move, then he would prefer it to be abroad and a club like Real or Milan would be ideal.”

Rafa Benitez: Even Bill Shankly Had Tough Times

Rafael Benitez has pledged to fight on as Liverpool manager despite a disastrous season to date, drawing parallels between his current plight and a trophy drought suffered by Anfield great Bill Shankly.

Benitez is under real pressure following an FA Cup exit at the hands of Reading in midweek as the Reds are only realistically challenging for the Europa League having been knocked out of three cup competitions and slipped off the pace in the Premier League.

Such is their predicament ahead of a tricky trip to Stoke City on Saturday, a crucial top-four finish looks in jeopardy as Manchester City, currently in fourth place, are five points away and in impressive form under new manager Roberto Mancini.

But despite intense media scrutiny and growing frustration from supporters, Benitez has appealed to the club's glorious history to remind critics that even Shankly, regarded as Liverpool's greatest manager, went without a trophy from 1966 to 1973.

"Clearly I want to fight," Benitez said. "If I signed a contract for five years it is because I want to fight. And I will fight because I'm a fighter.

"Our fans, they are very clever. They know Bill Shankly, our most famous manager in the history of the club, was a lot of years without winning. They know that the club has had good moments and bad moments.

"The proper fans, they know for years this club is a massive club and that we have won things and lost things. We are frustrated because we want to do well. Because the last year was so good, we wanted to be closer.

"I have to believe we can finish in the top four. I have the belief that we can do it, but we have to win the next game and that is what I am concentrating on. I have said before that top four is the target, but I have changed a little bit the message. We cannot be talking about long term, we have to be talking about the next game.

Jose Mourinho Is Punters’ Choice For Next Liverpool Manager

Jose Mourinho would appear to be the man Liverpool fans would like to see take over from Rafa Benitez, reports bookie Paddy Power.

Whilst Kenny Dalglish, the 11/4 favourite, is also proving popular given the ease in which he could move across from his current role at the club, it is Mourinho that punters and fans appear to want to see taking over from Benitez.

The Inter Milan boss, currently 9/2 second favourite, accounts for 1 in 5 of the bets placed to date in Paddy Power’s next Liverpool manager betting as the rumour mill is yet to kick in for any name being officially lined up.

Jurgen Klinsmann, who appears to be openly courting for such a move in recent years, is the third most popular name in the running by bets placed and currently 8/1.

Darren Haines, spokesman for Paddy Power, said: “Rafa clings on but for how long? Punters are already looking to life post Rafa at Liverpool and Mourinho seems to be the name they are either expecting or wanting to see take over.”

Meanwhile, following Fernando Torres’ plea for new players to boost Liverpool’s malfunctioning squad Paddy Power are betting on the first likely name to arrive in the transfer market.

Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh is the 9/2 favourite with the recently linked Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Emile Heskey at 8/1.

Other Premier League strikers in the running include Kenwyne Jones at 10/1 with Carlton Cole at 12s – the same price as a return for former red Peter Crouch.

The much missed Xabi Alonso is 25/1 with Wayne Rooney the 100/1 outsider.

Inter Boss Jose Mourinho Would Consider Liverpool Job If Owners Sold Up

According to ESPN, Inter coach Jose Mourinho will put his hand up to succeed Rafael Benitez at Liverpool - but only if the current owners relinquish control of the club.

Benitez's future at Anfield is more uncertain than ever following Wednesday's FA Cup exit at the hands of Championship strugglers Reading. That result has effectively left the Reds with only the Europa League to play for this season.

However, it is believed that no review of the Spaniard's position will be taken until the summer, by which point Tom Hicks and George Gillett - the club's owners - hope to be well advanced in takeover talks.

The potential arrival of new investors with inexhaustible funds will be crucial to luring Mourinho, who has made no secret of his desire to return to English football.

An unnamed source is quoted as saying: "From the people I know close to Jose, he will not join a financially unstable club.

"If Liverpool got themselves into a solid, stable financial condition with the funds to invest in new players then Jose wouldn't think twice of joining Liverpool if the opportunity arises. But not in the current conditions.

"The Liverpool owners have been trying to sell the club for two years, now they are seeking investment of £100 million. They'll be lucky. Who in their right mind is going to invest that amount for a minority stake with no control and no say?

"Anyone coming will want control, at least 51% at the very minimum. No one is going to hand over big sums with Hicks and Gillett calling the shots. It's dysfunctional as it is, and it would only be shuffling the deck chairs around the Titanic, and make no real difference.

"The club have been out there now for several months seeking investors without any joy, and I cannot imagine much will change in the next few months."

Kop legend Kenny Dalglish and ex-Chelsea boss Guud Hiddink have also been linked with the Liverpool job.

Liverpool Boss Rafael Benitez Enraged At Ryan Babel's Twitter Gaffe

The Daily Mail claims that Ryan Babel's days at Liverpool are numbered, after he complained about his exclusion from Saturday's clash with Stoke City via his Twitter account.

The Dutch forward has struggled to make an impact at Anfield since his £11.5 million move from Ajax in 2007, and his standing in Rafael Benitez's ranks has just become more precarious than ever.

Babel revealed on his Twitter page: "Hey people, I got some disappointing news, I am not travelling to Stoke. The Boss left me out the squad. No explanation."

It is said that Benitez reacted swiftly in ordering the post to be removed. The player's account has since been deleted.

The 23-year-old's exclusion is perhaps surprising considering that Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun are all out injured, and it is claimed that his outburst could spell the end of his Liverpool career.

Birmingham City offered around £9m for the Amsterdam native earlier this month, but no move materialised due to Benitez's supposed reluctance to offload a player he may not be able to replace until the summer.

However, with Besiktas, Galatasaray and Marseille also interested in Babel, the Spanish tactician is allegedly ready to re-evaluate his stance - particularly after his latest miss in the transfer market.

It has come to light that Liverpool attempted to bring in Roque Santa Cruz on loan from Manchester City, but the Eastlands outfit refused to let go of their Paraguayan striker.

Hodgson Plays Down Liverpool Link

Roy Hodgson has played down rumours linking him with the Liverpool manager’s job.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez’s position at Anfield is under threat after their poor season took another dip following an FA Cup exit at the hands of Championship Reading.

Hodgson has worked wonders at Fulham, transforming the Cottagers from relegation candidates and guiding them into the Europa League.

And he has been mentioned as a possible successor to under-fire Benitez.

Hodgson said: “I certainly don't look beyond the end of the season with Fulham. We have done pretty well so far.

“We are still in the Europa Cup, and are in a decent position in the league. My focus will be 100 per cent on that.

“It's nice I'm being linked here and there, but it's not something I was aware of.

“We all know it's part of football. We also know the sword has two sides. One minute the sword is tapping you on your shoulder and asking you to arise, the next thing it's being used to cut your head off.”

Kop In Kenwyne Swap Shock

Rafa Benitez plans to land hitman Kenwyne Jones in a stunning swap with Ryan Babel.

The Liverpool chief hopes to agree a deal with Sunderland as he desperately needs cover for crocked hotshot Fernando Torres.

And it will see out-of-favour Dutchman Babel head for the Stadium of Light.

But Benitez faces a fight with Aston Villa for unsettled Trinidad and Tobago ace Jones, 25.

The Kop boss has been chasing a back-up striker to Torres for months with the Spaniard plagued by injury this season.

That hunt became an urgent priority on Wednesday when Torres damaged a cartilage in the shock FA Cup defeat to Reading.

He needs surgery and will be out for six weeks.

Babel, 23, has been an £11.5million Mersey flop since moving from Ajax 2½ years ago, starting just 24 league games.

Benitez will need some hard bargaining for Jones after Sunderland boss Steve Bruce claimed he was worth £40m on his day.

Villa manager Martin O'Neill is plotting a £12m move for the Black Cats forward.

Bruce has already knocked back an £11m offer from Birmingham while Stoke are also keen.