Sunday, January 31, 2010

Match Report: Liverpool 2 - 0 Bolton

A first-half strike from Dirk Kuyt and an own goal from Kevin Davies saw Liverpool maintain their top four push with a 2-0 victory over Bolton on Saturday afternoon.

The Dutchman's close range finish eight minutes before the interval put the Reds in the driving seat before Emiliano Insua's deflected shot sealed the points to stretch our unbeaten run in the Barclays Premier League to six matches.

For Wanderers boss Owen Coyle, the traditional 3pm clash saw him take his place in the visiting dugout for the second time this season, having previously led Burnley in their 4-0 defeat in in September.

The home faithful would have arrived at the ground hoping for a similar result against the Scot, as the Reds went up against a side that had kept just one clean sheet in their previous 21 matches on the road. The inclusion of Alberto Aquilani and David Ngog in the Liverpool starting Xi suggested the hosts were geared up to attack too and there was a confidence in the air that the statistic would be stretched to 22.

As the game got underway there was a noticeable difference in the Reds' formation with skipper Steven Gerrard alternating the right wing position with its usual occupant, Kuyt.

However, it was at the other end where the first threat occurred with Tamir Cohen seizing on a mistake by Martin Skrtel, only to see Pepe Reina deny him a goalscoring opportunity by gathering well at his feet.

As expected, Benitez's side began to take charge of the possession but despite some nice touches from Gerrard and Aquilani in particular, Jussi Jaaskelainen had remained largely untested as we approached the midway point in the first-half.

Murmurs of frustration began to echo around the stadium and although Gerrard and Ngog threatened to get in behind the visitors' rearguard, attempts on goal continued to be elusive.

A delightful run down the left from Emiliano Insua threatened to change that, but Kuyt could not stretch enough to apply the finish to his exquisite cross.

Reina had been a virtual bystander up until this point but he could so easily have been picking the ball out of an empty net, just seconds later.

Chung-Yong Lee broke through the middle of the Liverpool defence and rounded the Reds' stopper, only to see his low shot from a tight angle brilliantly blocked by the legs of Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

It was a warning for Benitez's men and they responded in the perfect way, by taking the lead with their first clear-cut opportunity of the match on 37 minutes.

A raking ball from Albert Riera found the unmarked Insua on the far left of Bolton's penalty area. The Argentine had the time to deliver a chipped cross to the far post where Aquilani rose to knock it down to Kuyt, who made no mistake from six yards out.

It was the Dutchman's ninth goal of the season and Liverpool's 50th of the campaign in all competitions; proving to be the perfect lift for the home side as they went in a goal to the good at the interval.

However, as if stung by the blow of conceding after looking comfortable for long periods, it was the away side that made the livelier start to the second 45.

A series of long throws and set pieces were hurled into the heart of the Liverpool penalty area, with Kyrgiakos imperious against the threat of Kevin Davies in the air.

On the counter, the hosts were putting some nice moves together and after a couple of nearly moments, only Ngog will know how he didn't double the advantage on 53 minutes.

Riera was given the freedom of Anfield to race clear down the left flank. With teammates arriving at pace, he cut the ball into the path of Gerrard whose low shot was beaten into the Frenchman's path by Jaaskelainen. It seemed inevitable the net would bulge, but the no. 24 got it all wrong inside the six yard box and skewed wide will the goal gaping.

The pattern of player continued as the half progressed, but it was now the home side who were creating the opportunities. Ngog saw a shot from inside the area well blocked while Jamie Carragher could have chipped in with a rare goal when he side-footed into a huddle of Bolton bodies after a corner was cleared to the edge of the box.

By now a second goal seemed inevitable for the Reds and it duly arrived 20 minutes from time.

The visitors cleared a short corner only as far as Ngog, whose lay-off set-up Insua to crash a 20 yarder into the left-hand corner courtesy of a massive deflection off Kevin Davies.

The home side could have extended their winning margin in the dying embers of the game through substitutes Lucas Leiva and Maxi Rodriguez, but it wasn't to be on a day that saw us clock up a landmark 50th league win over Bolton.

Rafael Benitez: Liverpool Can manage Without Further Signings

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has alluded to the possibility that the club will be unable to add to the signing of Maxi Rodriguez during the current transfer window, but believes his squad can still fulfil their ambitions.

The mid-season market ceases trading on Monday, and Liverpool - despite being linked with a multitude of Europe's big names including Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, David Silva and Milan Jovanovic - are yet to seal a second deal this month.

"We have been working and we are still working trying to find players in different positions, but it's not easy to find a good player or a player at the level of our team," Benitez explained to the club's official website.

"We have to keep going until the end, and if we cannot [sign anyone else] we will have to manage."

The club's physios are currently nursing four first-team players back to full health. Dan Agger, Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Glen Johnson are all sidelined with respective groin, knee, rib, and knee ligament problems.

The former three are expected to return in February, while Johnson is pencilled in for a March recovery.

The Spainiard added: "We are quite happy with the squad and have players coming back from injuries.

"To find better players than our own and ones that are available in the market is not easy.

"If we need to do something, we have sold some players, so we can manage."

Reds Reject New Babel Bid understands Liverpool have rejected a new bid from Birmingham for Ryan Babel.

The Blues have been tracking the Reds winger since the opening of the January transfer window but saw a reported £9 million bid rebuffed by the Merseyside giants at the start of the month.

Liverpool chief Rafael Benitez claimed Babel still had an integral to play at Anfield, but the 23-year-old has made just one substitute appearance since City's offer.

Babel, who announced his displeasure at being left out of a recent Liverpool squad on Twitter before apologising personally to Benitez, was originally not keen on a move to St Andrews.

But the player's agent has since revealed the Dutch international had a change of heart, with the World Cup on the horizon, but it appears Alex McLeish's latest bid to lure the former Ajax star to the West Midlands has been shunned.

Rafa Benítez Wants To See Investment At Liverpool If He Is To Snub Juventus

Liverpool’s long-running search for investors to inject £100 million of capital and break the club’s financial paralysis must bear fruit before the end of the season if Rafael Benítez is to resist overtures from Juventus, the Spaniard admitted.
The Liverpool manager refused to be drawn on whether the Italian side, who has appointed Alberto Zaccheroni as caretaker until the end of the season, had made a formal offer for his services but revealed he is aware of Juventus’s “interest” and stated his “pride” at being linked with a “top club”.

Benítez retains the staunch support of the club’s board, and Liverpool formally reminded Juventus that he is under contract, warning they would pursue legal action if it transpired the Italian side had made an illegal approach.

Benítez insists he is “happy” on Merseyside and determined to “continue fighting” as Liverpool attempt to retain their Champions League status, but he acknowledged that fresh funding – boosting his transfer coffers and enabling work on the club’s planned new stadium — was an “important” factor in deciding his long-term future.

“It is important for everyone at the club and for all the fans to see these things happen,” he said. “Everyone wants to see the team and the club progress. I think we’re going in the right direction but we have to move forward. We know the key at the end is the stadium and the new investors.

“I think we have a new investor or maybe more [investors] coming this year, and the possibility of a new stadium would be a big boost for everyone here. All of these things are on the agenda. We have to trust and have the belief that they will happen.”

Christian Purslow, Liverpool’s managing director, has been tasked with selling a 25 per cent stake in the club for £100 million in a bid to provide the equity infusion which would bring to an end more than two years of financial stasis at Anfield.

Purslow is confident of presenting an offer to the club’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, in the coming weeks, though Benítez’s suggestion that it is now time for action to commence and talking to stop is understandable.

Rumours of imminent investment have swirled around Anfield almost since the day the two Americans took charge, and yet Benítez has continually found his ambitions hampered by an ongoing need to service the £237 million debt laden on to the club by its absentee owners.

He has signed just one player, Maxi Rodriguez, on a free transfer this month, despite selling Andrea Dossena and Andriy Voronin for a combined £6.2 million. Barring a major change of tack at Anfield in the next 72 hours, Benítez will have been condemned to spending only what he raises for four consecutive transfer windows.

The Spaniard is already planning for a fifth, attempting to land the likes of Marouane Chamakh and Milan Jovanovic on free transfers, a policy he insists is not affected by the doubts over his own future. “Players know I have four years of contract and if they want to come they will come because it is Liverpool, a club with fantastic fans and a fantastic team,” he said.

While his departure is not imminent, that Juventus remain confident of luring Benítez to Turin in the summer – he heads a four-man shortlist including Fiorentina’s Cesare Prandelli, Italy coach Marcello Lippi and the Cagliari manager Massimiliano Allegri – suggests a sea-change in the nature of the debate over his future.

For much of a dispiriting campaign, Liverpool’s fan-base has been split over whether Benítez is the manager to satisfy the club’s ambitions. Given Anfield’s parlous financial state, though, Benítez would not be alone in asking whether Liverpool, without the cash infusion provided by investment, is the club to fulfil a manager’s desire to succeed.

Juventus Lawyers On Case As Italian Giants Keen To Lure Rafael Benítez

Juventus have instructed their lawyers to examine Rafael Benítez's Liverpool contract as the Italian side attempt to put together a package to tempt him to Serie-A in the summer.

Ciro Ferrara, the manager at the Olympic Stadium, is likely to be dismissed today after a run of eight defeats in 11 games prior to last night's Coppa Italia tie against Inter Milan. Claudio Gentile, the former Juventus player and Italian Under-21 coach, is expected to replace him until the end of the campaign.

The club's directors, though, are believed to have identified the Liverpool manager as their favoured replacement on a long-term basis after interest in Guus Hiddink, the former Chelsea coach, cooled because of the Dutchman's wage demands and his inability to speak Italian.

Juventus's power brokers met the club's lawyers on Tuesday to assess the likelihood of Benítez being convinced to end his six-year reign at Anfield in the summer. The club had considered attempting to lure Benítez to Italy this month but believed the Spaniard would not contemplate leaving Liverpool in the middle of the season.

The Spaniard earns £4.8 million a year before tax under the terms of his Liverpool contract, agreed until 2014 after protracted negotiations just 10 months ago. It is a salary Juventus would not be able to match, though more relaxed tax laws would allow the Italian side to offer Benítez a net salary of £2.5 million a year.

The prospect of Benítez demanding his substantial coaching staff accompany him to Italy presents a further obstacle, though Juventus have been informed the Spaniard would only wish to bring three or four key lieutenants with him.

Juventus believe Benítez would be willing to appoint an Italian assistant manager, an important nod to the club's tradition and identified as a key negotiating point when Jose Mourinho joined Inter in 2008.

Indeed, so determined are the Italian side to land Benítez that they are prepared to bid for Dirk Kuyt, the Dutch international forward, should the Spaniard want him to move as well. He would join Mohamed Sissoko, the former Liverpool player, in Turin.

Benítez, who signed Sissoko for both Valencia and Liverpool, had identified him as his favoured replacement for Javier Mascherano, when the Argentinian was close to leaving for Barcelona last summer.

Confidence Will Help Liverpool FC Regain Attacking Edge

Rafael Benitez has spent so much time on the defensive lately that perhaps it’s no surprise his team seem intent on following suit.

Those unfortunate enough to be present at Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday night will no doubt be nodding in agreement after a turgid encounter in which Liverpool’s attacking shortcomings were at their most painfully evident.

While a fourth clean sheet in five Premier League games extended his team’s unbeaten top-flight run, even Benitez was forced to lament the lack of forward threat from his players.

Small wonder. With Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard both struck by ongoing fitness concerns, Liverpool have struggled to find their way to goal since September.

The statistics say it all. Having netted 24 times in the opening nine games of the season, their subsequent 25 fixtures have seen them score just 25 goals.

Liverpool have not scored more than twice since the 6-1 thrashing of Hull City in September, and with Fulham the only team to score more than two times against Benitez’s side since then, the Anfield outfit have not exactly been an attractive prospect this season.

It’s a far cry from their thrilling, goal-laden run-in to last season in which they scored 43 times in their last 14 games.

But Benitez believes a sprinkling confidence and return to form and fitness of a number of players could see Liverpool replicate that expansive form.

“We didn’t change the tactics last season,” says the Spaniard. “It was just that the team was doing well, we had confidence and sometimes you create chances and score.

“I think we can do the same as last season it if we fix two or three things. You talk about Gerrard, but he was 10 days without training. He can available, but he is not ready. After you have to improve your match fitness.

“It is the same situation for Riera and Maxi has just arrived. You can see that he knows what to do with the ball. We are unbeaten for five games in a row and have some clean sheets we are moving in the right direction.”

Of the Wolves game, Benitez adds: “If you analyse the team the other day, we know that we were good in defence but we were not good enough in attack. If you analyse the team you will understand why.

“The players who were playing in attack, some of them were coming back from injury, it was Maxi’s first game and we had some players on the bench and only Ryan Babel could be a different kind of player.

“We needed to do something more in attack but the players we had on the pitch were the right ones for this game. If Gerrard is fitter then I am sure he would play better and this will make a massive difference for us in attack.”

Despite the travails going forward, Liverpool have engendered a stronger team spirit in recent weeks.

Benitez accepts that perhaps the team has raised its game in the absence of Gerrard and Torres, but has urged his players not to lower that work-rate with the skipper back in action.

“There has been a change in atmosphere, the players are sticking together,” he says. “I think that sometimes it is true that when you lose two key players, who can make a difference, players realise that they have to work harder because that is the only way.

“But if you say to me what do I prefer? I say I prefer them working as hard as they can but with the key players on the pitch.”

Remarkable Pepe Reina Is The Real Deal For Liverpool FC

Another weekend, another milestone – Pepe Reina’s enduring consistency will be recognised this afternoon when he makes his 100th consecutive Premier League start for Liverpool.

It is, of course, a feat achieved before in the club’s illustrious history – 15 others have done it since 1892, the most recent being David James – but, in an age when reliable keepers are needed like never before, it demonstrates the level at which Reina has been operating.

And this season, it’s safe to say he has never been better. During a campaign that has tested the patience of even the most understanding soul, Reina’s outstanding performances have ensured he – quite rightly – has been exempt from any criticism.

Yet that will come as no solace to this fiercely competitive individual. As well as he has been playing, to suggest Reina has taken any satisfaction from a string of top drawer displays is nonsense.

When Steven Gerrard revealed after Tuesday night’s draw at Wolves that “players were hurting in the dressing room” apart from talking about himself and Jamie Carragher, his phrase could easily have been coined with Reina and Fernando Torres in mind.

Such an attitude has helped him become a hugely popular figure on the terraces and a hugely influential presence in the dressing room; he, like Torres, might hail from Madrid but, in the same way as his compatriot, Reina has immersed himself in Liverpool’s ethos. He understands the way supporters are thinking.

That’s why it’s never a surprise after every big win to see a picture of him celebrating; it’s why Reina will charge 80 yards from his goal to join in celebration huddles or, as was the case on Boxing Day against Wolves, he will hurtle the length of the pitch if he feels Liverpool have been wronged.

He is, quite simply, the complete package – if he wasn’t, Rafa Benitez, a man not known for handing out lavish praise at the drop of a hat, would not have said what he did recently.

“Goalkeepers will make mistakes at some point – that is clear,” Benitez pointed out. “But when we talk about the value of Pepe here, you really have to think only about Ray Clemence.

“He was one of the best keepers in this country for years and years and you see that if you analyse his figures. But then you look at Pepe.

“Three Golden Gloves awards in three years, fantastic records, doing well with a very good mentality.

“In a top side you have to be a top keeper and have great character. He is always pushing his team-mates and he is a leader on the pitch too.”

With all that in mind, then, it is no wonder talks are on-going about signing a new long-term deal; when you have such a valuable commodity, the only sensible thing to do is protect it and Reina deserves any rewards that will come his way.

This has been a hugely exasperating transfer window; true, not much business has been done elsewhere but both Manchester City and Tottenham, Liverpool’s main rivals for a Champions League spot, are trying to spend.

To preserve the club’s place in the top four, you might have thought that, with a striker needed, Liverpool would have given Benitez some fiscal help – why, for instance, could a deal not have been struck with Bordeaux for Marouane Chamakh or with Standard Liege for Milan Jovanovic?

Both men are poised to become free agents and both want to come to Liverpool, so why no deal? After all, a Champions League place is up for grabs now, not in the summer.

Obviously, that is a completely different argument but if Benitez can’t recruit from outside, some comfort would be taken if he could do the deal he wants most of all.

Gerrard and Torres were both tied down on long-term contracts in the summer, likewise Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun.

Clearly Reina should be a part of Liverpool’s future as he is one of the best in the world – sooner rather than later, his must be the one signing the club has to make.