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.