Saturday, January 30, 2010

Match Preview: Liverpool vs. Bolton Wanderers

Defenders Fabio Aurelio and Philipp Degen will both miss the Barclays Premier League clash at home to Bolton.

Aurelio has missed the last two matches with a minor knock while Degen (calf) did not play in the midweek goalless draw with Wolves.

However, centre-back Daniel Agger returns to the squad after regaining fitness while captain Steven Gerrard has reported no after-effects from Tuesday night when he made his comeback after a hamstring problem.

A goalless draw against Wolves in midweek meant they fell three points behind fourth-placed Tottenham but Benitez agreed with captain Gerrard after the Wolves game when he said the side is heading in the right direction.

"All I can do is prepare my team properly, to analyse things and try to find solutions to the problems we have,'' said the Liverpool boss.

"Now we are not losing games and doing a little bit better we have to try to do the same.

"The players know we are improving. Like Stevie said before, maybe we have turned the corner.''

Bolton manager Owen Coyle could be tempted to name an unchanged side.

On-loan winger Vladimir Weiss may have to settle for a place on the bench while another new recruit Stuart Holden has a slight thigh strain.

Mark Davies remains absent with an ankle injury as Bolton look to build on the win against Burnley.

Since Coyle switched clubs, Bolton has chalked up successive victories against his former side Burnley and Sheffield United after two defeats by Arsenal.

He believes his team will face Liverpool, who had to settle for a point against Wolves, with confidence especially after two clean sheets.

Coyle said: "We need to repeat our performances in the last two games. It is match to look forward to.

"My team will be going toe to toe with some of the best players in world football but have a chance to show they can play a bit as well.

"I have been delighted with the quality and application of the players. What we have to do is add to it.

"You do not come in with a magic wand. You come in with a recipe for hard work. There are areas we can work on to make us better as a group.

"We have managed to move out of the bottom three but only just. We are not kidding ourselves.

"We are not getting carried away. The hard work is ahead of us. It is a challenge we are up for.''

Daniel Agger Warns Liverpool's Rivals: We'll Battle For Top Four Finish

Liverpool defender Daniel Agger thinks that the Reds' difficult season might now be about to turn for the better.

Following a 2-0 win over Tottenham last midweek, Liverpool stumbled again on Tuesday night, drawing 0-0 at Wolves.

However, Danish defender Agger believes Rafa Benitez's side can find the form that is necessary from now until the end of the season so long as they concentrate on one game at a time.

"It's a really tough challenge this year," the 25-year-old told LFC Weekly.

"There are more teams competing than normally. We have a lot of work to do if we want to finish in the top four. But that's our aim.

"I think things are starting to turn for us. We have to keep winning because there is a lot more work to do.

"There is no point looking too far ahead, all we have to do is concentrate on the next game."

Agger acknowledges that the Reds have been poor at times this season but is struggling to pinpoint exactly why.

"If I had the answers to why we haven't been as successful as last season it would be easy," he mused.

"Injuries haven't helped. But there are a lot of good players in this squad. If someone is out we should be able to cope.

"We have conceded more goals, but you can't just say 'the defence has played badly'. It's not that simple. In other years when we've done well it wasn't just the defence keeping clean sheets, it was the whole team.

"Also, if you look at previous years nobody ever mentioned zonal marking because we were winning. It is not a reason for us not winning.

"We haven't been good enough and we all know that. I don't think any of us here will ever hide from that or say it isn't true.

"What we are doing is giving our best to improve our position. We want to get back on the right track as soon as possible."

Greek Sotirios Kyrgiakos Has Big Boots To Fill

Boots do not come any bigger to fill: if Alberto Aquilani accepted mission impossible last summer, how must Sotirios Kyrgiakos have felt upon touching down at Anfield?

As the man bought to replace Xabi Alonso, a huge crowd favourite and Liverpool's play-maker supreme, Aquilani was always destined to be subjected to a succession of unfavourable and unhelpful comparisons with his predecessor.

When a player has enjoyed the kind of popularity that Alonso did on Merseyside, and been able to exert such an influence on the team, no matter what Aquilani does in a red shirt, he will be unable to stop certain sections of supporters hankering for the past.

Aquilani, however, was not in a unique position at the start of this campaign.

Kyrgiakos, after all, was drafted in to assume the role vacated by Sami Hyppia, a defender who had been a giant for Liverpool over 10 trophy-laden years, giving them phenomenal service.

So if Alonso’s departure to Real Madrid was mourned when results started to go askew in the autumn, the same could also be said of Hyppia – particularly when Liverpool found it impossible during that ruinous spell to keep a clean sheet.

Having been recruited for a nominal transfer fee, Kyrgiakos was, rather unfairly, immediately deemed not good enough to play for Liverpool, with cynics wondering what someone who had spent their career predominantly in Greece could contribute.

Happily, though, Kyrgiakos has shown during the course of the past month why Rafa Benitez felt he should come on board and play in the games that might have been reserved for the Big Finn, who is now plying his trade with Bayer Leverkusen.

Outstanding in the games against Stoke City, Tottenham Hotspur and, most recently, Tuesday night’s draw at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the rugged Kyrgiakos is a no-nonsense defender, someone who simply loves to head and tackle.

Those qualities will, more than likely, serve him well tomorrow, when Bolton Wanderers – a side who have traditionally employed primitive tactics – arrive at Anfield, looking to make life difficult for the Reds.

Hyppia, of course, excelled in such physical battles but while it would be wrong to try and compare the two as players, Kyrgiakos is doing his best to show he, too, can be relied upon to shine when the going is tough – and his manager is delighted.

“Everyone here knows that he is a good professional, a really good lad and his team-mates can see that he is someone who will do anything for them,” said Benitez, who signed Kyrgiakos from AEK Athens on a two-year deal in August.

“Even when he doesn’t play, you know he will work very hard. Soto knew when he came here that he was only going to play specific games but he wanted to improve and when he has come in, he has done the job that we have needed him to do.”

Kyrgiakos might be new to the Premier League but, with 55 caps for his country and being able to number Glasgow Rangers and Eintracht Frankfurt among his former employers, he is clearly streetwise and knows how to defend.

“He is good in the air and he is tough,” Benitez continued. “You have to remember Sami was amazing for us. At the end, he was not playing too many games but he was just as important because of his personality and the role he had within the squad.

“On the pitch, he wasn’t getting too much time because of Martin (Skrtel), Daniel (Agger) and Carra. When he left and we replaced him with Soto, he knew exactly what kind of situation he was coming in to. He’s doing really well.

“Sami was terrific on the ball, he could use both feet and pass really well. He also knew the Premier League inside out. But Soto has his own qualities; he has had to adapt but he is learning now and he is doing the job we were looking for.”

The job Benitez will be looking for collectively tomorrow is an efficient, clinical performance – with a vast improvement in terms of creativity – to extend their recent unbeaten run in the Premier League to a sixth game.

“We will have to be strong and it will be very tough but we have to keep showing character,” said Benitez. “I know everyone was expecting us to get six points from these two fixtures but you just have to keep approaching one game at a time.

“It’s important to show that the team has strength. You can win games and lose games but do things very differently. OK, we only drew with Wolves but the team has shown they are very strong.”

That new found strength has led to Liverpool only conceding once in the last five league fixtures and the steady succession of clean sheets suggests that, perhaps, normal service is close to being resumed.

Steven Gerrard, for one, is certainly happy to seize upon that information and he is convinced that the fight and resolve they are showing to stay in the race for a Champions League spot will soon blossom into something more easy on the eye.

“We know we have got quality but everyone is rolling their sleeves up and battling well,” said Gerrard. “That gives me a great belief because you just know with that kind of attitude, a quality performance is just around the corner.

“Yes, of course we were disappointed not to take three points but we are really happy with how we are playing defensively.”

Keeper Happy To Extend Stanley Stay

Dean Bouzanis plays the last game of his current loan spell at Accrington Stanley tomorrow, but the goalkeeper says he is keen to stay for the rest of the season as he bids to earn a new deal at Liverpool.

Bouzanis joined Stanley from Liverpool in late November but the 19-year-old's loan is currently due to expire this weekend.

Stanley are making attempts to extend the deal until the end of the season - as they are with Blackburn Rovers defender Johnny Flynn and Leicester striker Billy Kee - with Ian Dunbavin their only other senior keeper at the moment.

Bouzanis is due to be out of contract at Anfield in the summer so he is more than happy to remain with Stanley until May and prove himself to Rafa Benitez.

"I'd like to stay until the end of the season and then my contract is up, but I'm hoping to re-sign with Liverpool," said Bouzanis, who got his wish by getting the jersey of fellow Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer after the Fulham game.

"I know Liverpool have someone at virtually every game watching me."

Bouzanis moved to Liverpool from Sydney at the age of 16 and admits he took time to settle.

"I really struggled with homesickness for the first couple of months and I didn't think I'd get through it," he said.

"I was just looking forward to going back home at Christmas.

"But my family comes over every three or four months, people over here helped me and I adapted to the English lifestyle."

David Prentice: Is Rafael Benitez A Good Manager Or A Lucky One?

Napoleon’s famous quote about preferring lucky generals to clever ones has been directed at Rafael Benitez before.

Some critics have used the ‘lucky boss’ argument to suggest that fortune has somehow favoured his haul of two La Liga titles, a UEFA Cup, an FA Cup and a Champions League.

They even claim that because his two Liverpool trophies came via the lottery of a penalty shoot-out, they are somehow devalued.

Nonsense, of course.

I prefer Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy: “A bit of luck and government are good, but you’d be a fool to trust in either of them.”

But there’s no doubt that this week Rafael Benitez has got lucky.

Just as Liverpool’s roller coaster season reached the dizzying height of a home win over Spurs, then took another sickening lurch downwards at Molineux, Italian newspaper La Stampa announced Juventus’ desire to lure the Spanish manager to Turin.

A little reminder of Rafa’s stock throughout Europe – Real Madrid have tried to lure him three times to the Bernabeu – doesn’t do his standing any harm amongst wavering Reds fans.

While American owners who know next to nothing about ‘soccer’ surely can’t fail to be impressed.

Don’t for a second think the link has somehow been stage-managed. La Stampa is owned by the Agnelli family, who also own Juve.

If Marca is the Spanish media mouthpiece for Real Madrid, La Stampa is the Italian equivalent.

So should Reds fans be concerned or offering to carry Senor Benitez’s bags to JLA?

There’s no doubt that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong at Anfield this season – and it’s not just a question of swapping an injured Italian for a Spanish playmaker.

But it’s hardly irretrievable.

Liverpool are still well placed for a fourth place finish, still have the best striker in Europe to come back and still have England’s first choice right-back to return.

They also have a manager who wants to prolong his stay as Liverpool manager until this summer and far beyond.

Managerial stability is a crucial quality in a successful football club, and Liverpool are lucky that despite their boardroom upheaval, they have a manager who wants to sick around.

In football, you make your own luck – and Benitez has made plenty of his own.

Which is why clubs of Juventus’ stature want him.

Is Rafa Benitez a good manager or a lucky one?

I’d suggest he’s both – which makes Liverpool lucky to have him.

Benitez Happy With Liverpool Despite Link With Juventus

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez said on Friday he was aware he had been linked with Serie A club Juventus but maintained he was happy to stay in England.

Benitez has been under increasing pressure at Liverpool with his team effectively out of contention for the Premier League title and also out of the Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup.

Juventus replaced coach Ciro Ferrara with Alberto Zaccheroni on Friday after five defeats in six matches.

At a news conference on Friday ahead of Saturday's Premier League game against Bolton Wanderers, Benitez said he did not plan to comment on speculation linking him with Juventus.

"I know that they (Juventus) were interested but that is part of the game now in football but I am just preparing for the Bolton game," he said. "I think when you are a manager and clubs ask then you have to be proud because they are a big club and a top side in Europe.

"But I am really pleased here and really happy and I want to do my job as best as I can."

Barnes Hopes Benitez Stays With Reds

John Barnes hopes Rafael Benitez rejects any overtures from Juventus and stays at Liverpool.

The former Reds winger does not blame Benitez for Liverpool's current struggles, saying that the club over-achieved last season with the players he had available.

Barnes also insists that it will not be a disaster for Liverpool if they do not qualify for next season's Champions League.

Barnes, speaking from Angola where he has been promoting England's bid for the 2018 World Cup, said: "It would be no surprise to me if Juventus are interested in Rafa Benitez because he's a great manager.

"I would like him to stay at Liverpool and I believe he can stay around.

"On the pitch things are not going particularly well and they still need better players, but they over-achieved last year and it was always going to be harder this year.

"They are still good players but they played to their maximum last year while Chelsea and Manchester United can be not at their best and still win.

"That's where Liverpool have fallen down this year."

Barnes admitted that Liverpool are up against it in the contest to finish in the top four but still believes they can achieve it - and rejects suggestions it would be a disaster if they do not.

He added: "It's going to be very tight and particularly with Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City improving and getting stronger.

"If they don't qualify for the Champions League it makes it even harder financially next year and would be very disappointing but it would not be a disaster. What's happening in Haiti - that's a disaster."

Fernado Torres and Didier Drogba Ready To Play For Same Team

Liverpool FC striker Fernando Torres and Chelsea forward Didier Drogba will team up this weekend, with both men set to appear in Pepsi Max's new music video, as Pepsi begins its Fifa World Cup-related marketing.

Pepsi Max's charity song, 'Oh Africa', has been recorded by Akon, Keri Hilson and the Soweto Gospel Choir. Torres and Drogba, two of the biggest stars of English soccer's Premier League, will line up together in the accompanying music video.

Both men have been unarguable successes since their respective arrivals in English soccer. Torres marked his first season at Anfield, 2007/08, by becoming the first Liverpool player to pass the 20-Premier League goal mark in a season since Robbie Fowler. In December, Torres scored against Aston Villa to become the fastest player in Liverpool history to score a half century of league goals - also securing his side a vital three points in their race to finish in the top four and qualify for the Uefa Champions League.

Drogba, meanwhile, moved to Chelsea in 2004 for a fee of £24 million. He promptly helped fire the club to two Premier League titles under former coach Jose Mourinho, and his goals this season have been a vital part of the Stamford Bridge club's Premier League title challenge. Drogba has also won two FA Cups and two Carling Cups in his time at Chelsea.

The proceeds from the sale of Pepsi Max's single will be donated to a range of charities, including Akon's Konfidence Foundation, created to help underprivileged African children.