Sunday, February 28, 2010

Match Preview: Liverpool vs Blackburn

Liverpool return to Premier League action on Sunday against Blackburn aiming to boost their bid to finish in the top four.

The Reds dropped down to sixth spot following last weekend's draw at Manchester City and they will be determined to keep pace with their rivals for a top-four finish.

Blackburn goes into the game on the back of last weekend's win over Bolton and they will be seeking their first Premier League win at Anfield since 1993.

Liverpool could hand Fernando Torres his first start since his return from knee surgery after he made a late substitute appearance against Manchester City and was then an unused substitute in the Europa League win over Unirea Urziceni.

Maxi Rodriguez is available again after being ineligible against Unirea and he could start as Rafa Benitez is expected to freshen up his side after the long trip to Romania.

Benitez could be forced into a reshuffle at the back with Martin Skrtel set to miss out with a broken toe picked up against Unirea and Sotirios Kyrgiakos serving the final game of his three-match ban.

With Glen Johnson still sidelined Jamie Carragher is likely to revert to central defence alongside Daniel Agger with youngster Martin Kelly set to step into right-back.

Meanwhile, Blackburn make the trip to Merseyside without influential captain Ryan Nelsen.

The New Zealand international suffered a knee injury in last week's defeat of Bolton and could be out for several weeks.

Christopher Samba is likely to take his place having served a suspension while Brett Emerton (Achilles) is also available again.

David Dunn is pushing for a recall having had a run-out in the reserves this week.

However, Sam Allardyce could stick with the side that performed so well against Bolton last time out.

Possible starting XIs:
Liverpool: Reina, Kelly, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Lucas, Mascherano, Kuyt, Gerrard, Maxi, Torres.

Blackburn: Robinson, Salgado, Givet, Samba, Olsson, Diouf, Andrews, Grella, Nzonzi, Pedersen, Kalinic.

Benitez Has No Defensive Concern

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez insists his side is more than well-equipped to deal with everything Blackburn will throw at them.

During a nervous half-hour in Bucharest it seemed the Reds' old defensive frailties had crept back in as Europa League opponents Unirea Urziceni threatened to score from virtually every set-piece.

It is something which will not have gone unnoticed by Rovers boss Sam Allardyce, especially after a free header from centre-back Bruno Fernandes put the Romanian champions ahead from a 19th-minute corner in Bucharest.

But Benitez has no concerns - even in the absence of broken metatarsal victim Martin Skrtel - about his defence, which has improved immeasurably in recently weeks.

"We did not do badly. We conceded a goal [against Unirea] and it was more difficult but we showed character," he said.

"They were good deliveries and the Europa League ball is very difficult for goalkeepers because it changes direction.

"But you can see the last few games we have had a lot of clean sheets, I think 13 games and nine clean sheets, so the team is very strong in defence.

"We were really good at set-pieces. We are at the same level as we were in the past but the team is stronger in everything.

"We will try to have control of the game and not give them too many chances to play corners or free-kicks.

"It will be tough because it is the Premier League but we are confident and this team is stronger.

"We are solid in defence and we just have to improve the creativity in attack and we will have the balance we are looking for."

Liverpool's Barclays Premier League record, in isolation, is even more impressive.

They have conceded just one goal (to Arsenal) in their last six games and two in their last nine.

That has brought them 18 points from a possible 27 and kept them in the hunt for Champions League qualification, despite last week's goalless draw at Manchester City allowing Tottenham to return to fourth.

Benitez has long-been convinced it will be a four-horse race which will probably go down to the wire and nothing has changed his mind.

"We have to fight for being in the top four and that will be very difficult because there are three or four teams very close," said the Spaniard.

"My message two months ago was that it will be a long race and now it has proved true.

"Anything can happen, it is the Premier League, so we take on Blackburn and then see."

Benitez defended his decision to take striker Fernando Torres, whose substitute appearance last Sunday was his first for five weeks after a knee operation, to Romania but not play him at all.

And he dispelled any suggestions the club's record signing was only currently fit enough for a place on the bench.

"I think it was the right decision. It was a bad pitch and the injury to Skrtel changed the plans we had," said the Liverpool boss.

"We will see how he trains and after we will see [whether he can start]."

Blackburn will have had the benefit of a full week without competitive action by the time they arrive at Anfield on Sunday.

That is in contrast to their opponents, who did not get back from eastern Europe until the early hours of yesterday morning, having played 90 minutes on a wet, energy-sapping pitch.

But Benitez said they were issues the players had to adapt to, stressing it was not that different to when they were playing in the Champions League.

"It is always more difficult when you play two matches in a week and especially when you do not have too much time," he said.

"But we have some experience of this and hopefully we can do well. Everyone understands it is a massive game and the players need to do well."

Allardyce: Reds Have Gone Physical

Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce thinks Liverpool have adopted the same physical style which Reds boss Rafael Benitez used to criticise his old club Bolton for.

Allardyce claims the Spaniard sent a DVD of what he saw as Bolton's rough play to referees' chief Keith Hackett, but now sees elements of that same physical approach in Liverpool's play as they bid to salvage their season and qualify for next season's Champions League.

Allardyce, whose Rovers side face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, told the Daily Mirror: "(Benitez) has used all that stuff that he says he doesn't like. It's ironic isn't it?

"They have had to go back to basics and the pretty stuff goes out the window until you start winning matches.

"I watched them play at Manchester City and they got six players booked, so it shows he's brought the physical side out in them.

"If it's a good physical challenge on Sunday, then I'd be more than happy to go down that route, although I don't really have the players here to do that like I did at Bolton."

Allardyce said Benitez was so riled by Bolton's tactics that he compiled a DVD and sent it to referees' chief Hackett.

"He's had a bee in his bonnet for a while. He's entitled to have his opinion as everyone is and it's nice to have someone complaining about you when you are beating them.

"Because he didn't like it, he found an excuse about how we played. Wenger did it, Mourinho did it, they all do it when they get their backside kicked."

Benitez was criticised by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson last season for what he saw as a mark of "disrespect" towards Allardyce, when he appeared to gesture that the game between Blackburn and Liverpool at Anfield was over as a contest when Fernando Torres scored their second goal in a 4-0 win.

Allardyce added: "I didn't get an explanation for that. He's his own man and he does things his own way. I didn't particularly like it."

John Aldridge: Liverpool Can’t Afford More Slip-Ups

Blackburn is the first of what you would assume are three very winnable league games for Liverpool.

With Wigan and then Portmsouth ahead of the trip to Old Trafford, we’ve got a great chance to pick up points in the league and put pressure on fourth place.

We can’t lose our concentration or focus in any of these games.

We can’t afford many more slip ups.

With Torres back, we’ll be more creative going forward, but if we can also capitalise on set-plays, we’ll give ourselves an even better chance of winning these games.

Sam Allardyce plays percentage football. He’ll know our strengths and weaknesses and will come to Anfield looking to counteract anything we throw at them.

I imagine they’ll put men behind the ball similar to what Unirea did at Anfield recently.

They’ll probably come looking for a point but if we can nick the first goal it will be a different game.

Five Given Lease Of Life By Liverpool In Europe

Liverpool dropping out of the Champions League into the Europa League might not have been good news but for those at Channel Five it has been manna from heaven.

Normally you do not get too many tuning in to listen to the erudite and enlightening views of Stan Collymore and the equally articulate Colin Murray but the Reds’ first meeting with Unirea Urziceni attracted an audience of 3.1 million.

Clearly, the longer Liverpool stay in the competition, the better it will be for Five and with that in mind, it is no surprise they have launched an amusing advertising campaign to sit side-by-side the games that are scheduled to be played.

It features the thoughts of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez during a training session before a big game – or does it? Without giving too much away, ace impersonator and Reds fan Darren Farley has a part to play.

Keep your eyes peeled for the advert in the next couple of weeks, before the Reds face Lille in the last 16 – you will know it is light-hearted when you hear how many ‘keepy-ups’ Carragher believes he can do.

John Aldridge: Liverpool Responded To Unirea Goal Fright

After Manchester City last weekend, it was important we produced a decent performance in Romania.

Our often conservative play tends to change as soon as we concede, as was the case when Unirea Urziceni took the lead on Thursday night.

When we have to come out and play, we look much more dangerous. Istanbul was a prime example.

Sometimes you’re almost willing a team to score against us to spark us into life.

That’s what happened in Bucharest where Urziceni gave us a wake-up call.

Thankfully we had creativity with the likes of Yossi Benayoun, Steve Gerrard and even Ryan Babel to a certain degree, who did well for his goal.

I still expect him to leave in the summer and believe the only reason he’s still here is probably because the banks would have swallowed any transfer fee and it’s better for Rafa to utilise an extra body in the squad.

Either way, this was one of Babel’s better games for Liverpool. His goal was superb. He displayed a bit more energy than usual, plus he did well in the first leg, creating the goal when he came on.

If Benayoun doesn’t play we struggle on the left. Babel blows hot and cold but, on Thursday’s showing, could be worth using until the end of the season.

I can’t work out why David Ngog is still playing as a lone striker though.

I’ve mentioned it before in recent weeks but he simply can’t play up there on his own.

He can’t hold the ball up well enough and perservering with him will only knock his confidence in the long run.

Having Fernando Torres back is a massive plus.

Rafa didn’t play him in Bucharest and rightly so. He’s wrapping Torres in cotton wool but I’d expect him to figure against Blackburn tomorrow.

It’s another week down the line in terms of match fitness but I wouldn’t expect too much from him yet.

100 Up For Daniel Agger

Another European night, another reason for Liverpool's statisticians to scribble another entry into their books.

While, inevitably, the focus was on Steven Gerrard after he took his tally of European goals to 33, surpassing Alan Shearer as Britain's all-time leading scorer in continental competition, there was another significant foot note.

Four years and one month after joining Liverpool from Brondby, Daniel Agger made his 100th appearance for the club; only when you fully consider the date he actually arrived on Merseyside can you begin to put that achievement into context.

By rights, Agger should be closer to a double ton than just getting the single to notch his maiden century but, as the figure would suggest, things have not always gone according to plan for the Denmark international.

Injuries, of course, have been a source of enormous frustration, both for him and Rafa Benitez, a series of problems that have led him to spend months rather than weeks on the sidelines; in the worst case scenario, they have written off seasons.

So frustrating. On more than one occasion, the effortless way Agger can cover the ground moving forward or spirit the ball off an opposing forward's foot have led him to be likened to Alan Hansen.

Agger is one of those players to whom everything about the game comes easy, a terrific, natural talent whom it is a privilege to watch in close quarters, as he has skills that many attacking players don't possess.

Before Liverpool played Debrecen in Budapest last November, Benitez was overseeing a training session the night before at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium, looking for those who would press their claims for a starting place.

The longer the session progressed, the more the individual who was wrapped up in a rain jacket and a woolly hat to combat the elements stood out; all feints, quick passes and subtle movement, at first glance it was easy to assume it was Alberto Aquilani.

Not so. Agger was the man stealing the show, proving why so many clubs wanted to sign him when it became clear that Brondby, where he started his career under the guidance of the Danish legend, Michael Laudrup.

"Daniel is a very good player and if he can put his injury problems behind him and play at a high level in the next few years, then maybe you will be talking about him in the same breath," Laudrup said recently, when asked to compare Agger with Hansen.

"To play 100 times for a top club like Liverpool is something to be proud of. But he will be frustrated that the injuries have restricted his appearances. It's important that he now goes on to enjoy a spell free from injury.

"He's only 25 and there is still much more to come from him. Ask any player in the world, even the greats - you can't hit top form if you have niggling injuries. If he can stay fit then I think he can definitely be one of the best central defenders in the game."

The question now, however, is when does his potential become consistently fulfilled? With Sami Hyppia long gone and Martin Skrtel facing a lay-off after cracking a metatarsal, Liverpool need another centre-back to ease the pressure on Jamie Carragher.

There is absolutely no doubt that Agger has the talent for the job; it is difficult to think of a centre-forward that has ever given him the run around, while there are not many defenders who can strike a ball as sweetly as he.

Quite simply, he has the lot; athleticism, skill, strength and speed but, until he puts together a lengthy sequence of games without breaking down, his talents, quite possibly, will not get the recognition they deserve.

Agger knows this better than most.

He has spent hours at Melwood trying to combat the ailments that keep holding him back and, granted some good fortune, Agger will be able to get through to the end of the season with trouble.

Few would begrudge him a change in fortune and if that happens, it is a certainty that he will reach 200 Liverpool appearances in far less time than it took to get to that milestone that was clocked up on a squally night in Bucharest.

Youngsters Held By West Brom

Liverpool under-18s were left hugely frustrated after being held to a goalless draw with West Brom at the Academy on Saturday afternoon.

Rodolfo Borrell's side followed up their impressive display at Manchester City last week with another good showing but could not find that elusive winning goal as the Baggies escaped with a somewhat fortuitous point.

Despite the disappointment of their recent FA Youth Cup exit, the Reds began the match in confident mood and were almost gifted an opener inside 60 seconds but Lauri Dalla Valle was thwarted by a last-ditch challenge from Ashley Malcolm after the Finn had seemed set to capitalise on Luke Connolly's poor touch.

West Brom responded and carved out a superb chance of their own just two minutes later when Kayleden Brown's improvised volley flew over the top following a clever run and cross from Lateef Elford-Alliyu's on the left.

Back came Liverpool and Kristzian Adorjan saw a left footer from the edge of the box well blocked before Dalla Valle somehow contrived to stab wide after a flick-on from Chris Oldfield's long kick had sent him clear.

The away side certainly had an air of vulnerability about them at the back but continued to play good, intricate football in the final third, with Akil Grier and then Mantom almost finishing off slick passages of play with shots from distance.

As an entertaining first-half came to a close the hosts stepped it up a gear and pressed for the goal their approach play deserved. A rampaging run from Michael Ngoo saw him leave three Baggies players in his wake, but when he slipped the ball across the six yard box it was just behind the waiting Tom Ince.

The young winger was visibly frustrated not to have been able to convert but given the open nature of the game, the Reds would have been convinced more opportunities would present themselves in the second 45.

They didn't have long to wait either, with Ngoo once again getting to the byline on 47 minutes, only to see his cut back to Dalla Valle cannon back off his strike partner's foot and away to safety.

Liverpool continued to look the more likely and the lively Ngoo added to his series of nearly moments on 58 minutes when his stabbed shot from inside the six yard box was blocked by the legs of Ryan Allsop in the West Brom goal.

Ngoo and Dalla Valle were proving to be a real handful for the visiting defence and they almost combined to tee up Ince for the opener on the hour mark, but the winger saw his shot brilliantly saved by Allsop.

The away side had been almost extinct as an attacking force following the restart, but could have stolen ahead on 65 minutes when Elford Alliyu forced a smart save out of Oldfield following a clever turn inside the Reds' penalty area.

It seemed to inspire a late rally and substitute Saido Berahino was a lick of paint away from securing an unlikely victory with a rasping 25 yarder before Elford Alliyu stung Oldfield's fingertips with a thumping volley from distance.

As the clock ticked down it was West Brom who should have won it, but Berahino smashed wide of a gaping net in the last minute to ensure both sides would share the spoils.

Purslow Dragging Liverpool Into The Modern Age

Real Madrid are the biggest club in the world. According to them. They can base this on their glorious history, their relatively glorious recent one, and pretend all the stuff in the middle doesn’t really matter.

Manchester United are also the biggest club in the world. According to them. They can base this on their slightly less glorious history, their slightly more glorious recent one, and pretend all the stuff in the middle doesn’t really matter.

AC Milan are similarly the biggest club in the world, according to Silvio Belursconi, and so on and so forth and you already get my drift on this.

What all 3 clubs – and Barcelona and a couple more to boot – have in common, is that they’ve all made lots of money off being the biggest, or one of the biggest clubs in the world of football. They’ve marketed themselves brilliantly to fans, players, investors, sponsors and any old whoshemebob who knows a thing or two about football. And good for them.

Most of all that “stuff in the middle” of Manchester United and Real Madrid’s success however, was Liverpool’s success. United like domination of the League and a greater return in the European Cup during the 70s and 80s means that Liverpool have just as much claim to the glorious history title and – even despite relatively less successful recent seasons – should still have almost as much potential appeal to the whoshemebobs as the aforementioned trio. And yet they don’t, or they certainly didn’t until recently.

Liverpool’s failure to win the league during the Premiership era is a stumbling block their marketing people can’t neglect. However as worldwide brands go, they’ve still been a hugely undervalued one. Manchester United may be sitting pretty with them “on the perch” now, but when the Premier League first took off, they were no where near. Yet on the back of their first success in ‘93, they ran with it, like a demon (or perhaps a devil) possessed, maximizing every link, every romantic connection, every possible sponsorship or Stadium expansion and every opportunity until they dwarfed Liverpool in global appeal and profit. And yet even now, as Liverpool start to take advantage themselves with Christian Purslow, their managing director, clearly aware of the mine of worldwide support and potential to tap, they still sit fairly equally in standing as football clubs historically despite United’s greater value.

Liverpool’s failure to take advantage of this potential is better assessed when compared to clubs not their equal in success. Arsenal and Chelsea for example (though Arsenal clearly the more historically grand of them) have similarly capitalized on the Premier League’s appeal by increasing their worldwide profile, support and profit dramatically since their recent era success. Great players want to play for them, sometimes regardless of where they stand in the table. Winning the Premier League certainly helped, yet still neither can boast a single European Cup triumph whilst Liverpool can boast not just a recent one, but 5 in total.

Barcelona, before 2006, had only 1 paltry success in the competition, and even that coming in the 90s. Until their league success that year they couldn’t even match Liverpool’s domestic achievement of 18 titles, even in a league historically far less competitive (only 9 teams have ever won La Liga, and only 5 more than twice). And yet they remained the more glamorous club. Famous players wanted to go to Barcelona, and still do, as they do Madrid, United, Milan and Chelsea. If Madrid are the kings of aggrandizing their history then Liverpool are the paupers. They might roll out the 18-5 banners when United come to Anfield, but they don’t parade all their replica trophies on special velvet plinths when presenting new signings.

But their signings are rarely that big enough to require it anyway. Whilst Madrid can get stuffed by Liverpool themselves in the Champions League, embarrassed by Barca in their own stadium and become a Schadenfreude pleasure to rival fans the world over, they can still tempt the World Player of the Year away from a club that’s the reigning World Champions and have just reached 2 Champions League finals on the trot. Their profile supercedes their success at any given time. They can tempt the Zidanes the Kakas and Ronaldos whilst Livepool can only tempt Torres, the one and only truly global foreign star that has ever signed for Liverpool at his peak.

Purslow know this. As a Liverpool fan himself and a veteran of over 500 matches (apparently) he knows better than most how undervalued the brand is. In his first interview after replacing Rick Parry as the clubs managing director he stressed the need to expand the brand. Whilst United have megastores and cafes around the world Liverpool have virtually no club sanctioned businesses outside of the city itself. However the 3 way power struggle currently embroiling Anfield ends up, the need for Liverpool to start making some serious bucks off their name alone remains. But whilst the support base and potential is there, success off the field needs to be supplemented in at least a small way on it. If Liverpool really are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or even the tail end of the 20th) they need a platform to jump off. In short, like with everything else at the club, it’d really help things if they eventually won the league.