Monday, March 08, 2010

Match Preview: Wigan vs. Liverpool

Wigan will hope that a change of playing surface brings with it a change of fortunes when top-four chasing Liverpool visit the DW Stadium and some newly-laid turf on Monday night.

Wigan were forced to act after seeing their pitch begin to resemble a quagmire that inhibited their passing game. With Rafael Benitez sarcastically claiming Barcelona would be envious of Blackburn's style in a stormy clash between the two sides recently, the Liverpool boss will no doubt welcome the chance to challenge his fellow Spaniard, Roberto Martinez, to a contest of artistic impression on a surface fit for purpose.

Indeed, Martinez is beginning to resemble Tony Mowbray in his unyielding approach to the beautiful game. West Brom, of course, were relegated when sticking to their aesthetic principles last season and Wigan are on a downwards trajectory themselves, having won only one league game since November.

Whether consciously or not, Liverpool's own predicament has resulted in Benitez's team abandoning any such aspirations of silky football and as the battle for fourth has become ever more intense, their football has become more pragmatic. The return of Fernando Torres could correct that trend, however.

Wigan player in focus: James McCarthy. The young midfielder made his international debut for Republic of Ireland against Brazil last week and is beginning to blossom into the talent that so many anticipated. Indeed, McCarthy actually turned down a £1 million move to Liverpool when impressing a number of scouts as a 16-year-old at Hamilton in 2007. After starting Wigan's past eight league games, Ireland's next big hope could be the key to unlocking the visiting defence.

Liverpool player in focus: Steven Gerrard. So often Liverpool's inspiration, Gerrard is in the midst of an unusually mediocre season and has scored only eight goals in all competitions. While he failed to impress for England against Egypt on Wednesday night, Gerrard has scored in back-to-back games for Liverpool, against Unirea Urziceni and Blackburn, and will hope his mini-revival continues on Monday night.

Key Battle: Hugo Rodallega v Sotirios Kyrgiakos. The Colombian striker is arguably Wigan's most effective player and has troubled many a Premier League defender this season. He is without a goal in 12 games, but with his physical attributes remains a real threat and Wigan will focus their attacking play around his big frame. Kyrgiakos has impressed of late but if he affords Rodallega any time or space, Liverpool could be punished.

Tactics: The key tactical decision for Martinez will be whether to start with two strikers up front. That is Wigan's default setting at the DW Stadium and served them well when beating Chelsea, but a 3-0 defeat to Tottenham may see the Spaniard questioning the wisdom of such an attacking approach. Liverpool will field just one striker in Fernando Torres, with three men spread across the pitch in support. If Daniel Agger is not fit, then Jamie Carragher will move into the centre and Javier Mascherano will need to drop into right-back, meaning Gerrard will play in a withdrawn midfield role and Dirk Kuyt will play in behind Torres. If Liverpool can interrupt Wigan's passing game and get a grip on midfield, they will be well placed to exploit space on the counter-attack.

Quotes: Titus Bramble looks forward to a change of playing surface: "The old pitch was doing no one any good. It might have looked bad from the sidelines, but I promise you it was much worse to play on - absolutely terrible. The new pitch should help, and will hopefully suit our passing game."

Lucas on overcoming some early difficulties at Liverpool: "I've learned a lot more about myself and become a stronger person and player. It made me desperate to prove people wrong. There have been times when I thought I may have made the wrong decision but now I am sure that I have made the right one."

In the news: Martinez may have accused Liam Ridgewell of making a "leg-breaking challenge" on McCarthy in the club's previous Premier League outing, but the Wigan boss is pleased the Birmingham defender avoided punishment from the FA as he is no fan of retrospective action. "What you need is the punishment for the action to be handed out in the game," Martinez told the Wigan Evening Post. "It would have been ridiculous to look back at it now and punish the team by taking out one of their best players for a game against another team who could be fighting for the same aim that we are. That would make Birmingham weaker for a game against a team who might be one of our rivals, and the whole thing would make no sense to me at all."

Wigan team news: McCarthy was on the receiving end of a firm challenge from Birmingham's Ridgewell in the club's last Premier League game but was fine to feature during the international break. Martinez is therefore likely to have a fully-fit squad at his disposal.

Liverpool team news: Fernando Torres has returned to action and played 45 minutes for Spain on Wednesday, but Liverpool have renewed selection problems in defence. Glen Johnson is fit again but has not played since December due to a knee problem, while Martin Skrtel (broken toe) could miss as much as eight weeks. Fabio Aurelio is also sidelined for three weeks with a muscle problem, meaning Emiliano Insua will come back in to the side, but Benitez is hopeful Daniel Agger will overcome a knee injury to feature and Sotirios Kyrgiakos returns from suspension.

Probable Wigan team (4-4-2): Kirkland, Melchiot, Bramble, Caldwell, Figueroa, N'Zogbia, Diame, Thomas, McCarthy, Rodallega, Moreno.

Probable Liverpool team (4-2-3-1): Reina, Carragher, Agger, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Lucas, Mascherano, Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun, Torres.

Martinez: Fourth Is Reds' To Lose

Wigan manager Roberto Martinez believes fourth place in the Barclays Premier League is Liverpool's to throw away.

The Reds travel to the DW Stadium on Monday night looking for a victory that will take them back above Tottenham and Manchester City into the much-coveted final Champions League spot.

With Aston Villa also still very much in the running, the battle for fourth looks set to go right down to the wire, but Martinez feels that, having qualified for Europe's premier club competition so many times before, Liverpool's know-how should ultimately give them the edge over their rivals.

"They have got great experience in trying to achieve the aim they are looking for and, whoever is going to have that composure and calmness in the next 10 or 11 games, which they have got, it's going to make a big difference," Martinez said.

"Looking at the Liverpool squad and the other squads around them, that position is theirs to lose.

"Looking at the quality of their individuals, you are talking about world-class players, and the experience and know-how of those players, playing together for a long time, and the knowledge of their manager - I think it is for Liverpool to lose, the fourth spot."

A host of disappointing results has made it a testing season for Reds boss Rafael Benitez and he seemed to increase the pressure on himself midway through the campaign when he gave a "guarantee" his team would finish in the top four.

Martinez, meanwhile, is having to deal with the stresses of a relegation dogfight at the other end of the Premier League table, and the Latics boss can see similarities between his own position and that of his fellow Spaniard.

"Every football club has different expectations and, in that respect, you have the same pressure to achieve that aim," Martinez said.

"We all know Liverpool is a glamorous football club, it's got a great history and that brings added expectation. In that way, it is always going to be very demanding.

"But, in our situation, we have been through a huge transitional period in terms of the way to play and the way to try to win football games.

"Wigan are in a position now where we have to be successful in our aim of staying in the Premier League to allow us to go onto another level.

"I'm sure, at Liverpool, in a way, they are fighting for the same aim - to try to get into that Champions League spot but then making sure that they can progress onto a different level next campaign.

"It's going to be a game where, for different reasons, the importance of the points is huge. It is vital for both sides that they are on top of their game."

Wigan are without a win in their last seven league outings but, having seen Chelsea defeated 3-1 at the DW Stadium back in September, Martinez believes his side are capable of producing a result tomorrow night.

"We all know about Liverpool's quality and players and how strong they are as a team, and we'll have to be at our best," Martinez added.

"But we are playing at home, we have done it against Chelsea before and we need to make sure we feel confident about ourselves and take advantage of playing a home game."

Wigan Won't Be Easy, Warns Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will warn his players against complacency when they face Wigan on Monday night by pointing to December's defeat at Portsmouth.

Having beaten the Latics three days previously, the Reds travelled to Fratton Park to face the Barclays Premier League's bottom side only to be beaten 2-0.

Liverpool have lost just once since then - at Arsenal - to haul themselves back into the race for Champions League qualification.

A win at the DW Stadium on Monday would lift them back into fourth as FA Cup action means none of their major rivals have league fixtures this weekend.

At the other end of the table Wigan are embroiled in a relegation battle after just one win in 13 matches, but Benitez is wary of reading too much into that statistic.

"In the Premier League you don't have too many easy games. Wigan are a club fighting for relegation so it will be very difficult for us," said the Spaniard.

"Because Wigan are at the bottom of the table people will say 'You have to win this game', but we know it is not just this one.

"It will be Portsmouth, United or someone else so we have to be ready for every game.

"If you analyse the position in the table you maybe say it is easy, but we have the experience of [going to] Portsmouth so we know we have to be ready and concentrate for this game and be really focused.

"You never know. Sometimes there is more determination in a team fighting against relegation but maybe they will be more anxious and will make more mistakes, it depends on the character of the players.

"It also depends how the game is going. If we score early on I am sure they will be under pressure but if they have more determination it will be more difficult."

Nothing less than a victory at Wigan will suffice, however, as Liverpool would then have played one more match than Tottenham - whom they would have a two-point advantage over - two more than Manchester City and three more than Aston Villa.

Benitez feels there are plenty more twists and turns to come, but knows Liverpool have to take care of their own issues first and foremost.

"We have to see the situation in the table every week because you cannot change what other teams do," he said.

"It depends on the other teams too. No-one was expecting the top teams to lose so many games.

"Last season we lost just two and couldn't win the title. This year teams are losing four or five games so you do not know.

"The main thing for us is to concentrate on our games and try to win every one.

"It is very clear you cannot lose too many games or points so you more or less have to win every game if you want to be sure you will be there.

"You can see Tottenham are doing well, Aston Villa are doing well and City are doing well so we need be sure that we cannot make any mistakes and need to keep working until maybe the last game.

"There is not more pressure, it is something you have to accept when you are a top side.

"Last year we were fighting to be first. It was different, but more or less the same.

"The only thing different is you have three more teams now and it is always more difficult because everyone can win."

Injury-Prone Aurelio Set To Go

Fabio Aurelio is unlikely to extend his Liverpool stay following his latest injury setback.

The Brazilian is sidelined with a thigh problem and is out of contract in the summer.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez admits he is concerned by the fitness issues that have dogged the defender as recurring problems make it difficult for him to justify sanctioning a new deal.

"We have to analyse the situation because he's had too many injuries," said Benitez.

"If he comes back early we can look at it again."

However, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano are both on the brink of signing new contracts.

"Mascherano realises the club is going forward. With Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard also committed here, the future is good," added Benitez.

Torres Kops Bumper Liverpool Deal

Fernando Torres will be offered the chance to become 'the face of Liverpool' to fend off mega bids from Manchester City and Barcelona.

The Merseysiders are in talks with the striker's advisors to massively enhance Torres' commercial earnings as they try to kill off speculation about his future.

Torres signed a £100k a week four year deal last summer, but the terms will be made much more lucrative following this summer's World Cup.

Liverpool want to provide substantially greater rewards on Torres' image rights as he's marketed as a Kop icon around the world.

It would be the most profitable player specific commercial deal in Anfield history, recognising Torres' hero status as critical to Liverpool's enduring global popularity.

Liverpool know they can't compete with the kind of wages City are prepared to offer the 25-year-old, which is why they've devised a similar strategy to that Manchester United are adopting to retain Wayne Rooney.

The Kop's commercial profits have been on the rise in recent seasons, and it's the fame and pulling power of Anfield which will allow the club to maximise Torres' financial rewards.

Although the club is confident Torres won't quit Liverpool as early as this summer, they're braced for massive bids, especially if they fail to qualify for the Champions League.

Manchester City's hopes of luring the striker have always looked slim regardless of their wealth, but Barcelona have also recently registered an interest.

Chelsea also tried to sign Torres last summer and Liverpool know they face a serious battle to keep the player if they don't get their act together on and off the pitch.

Torres is known to have been anxious for reassurances about the direction of the club following a disappointing season, but Liverpool hope their proposals prove that any suggestion they'd cash in on the player are ill-founded.

There have been fears the cash problems of co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr would make them vulnerable to £80m offers, but their joint reign is entering its final months.

They know it's in the club's interest to keep their most prized asset on Merseyside as it makes Liverpool more attractive to investors.

The talks with Torres' advisors underline the determination to not only resist all bids, but to ensure that financially he'll be rewarded as handsomely at Anfield as anywhere else.

Big Sam Hits Back In Rafa Row

Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce has hit back at Rafa Benitez in a war of words following Liverpool's recent victory over Rovers.

The Reds manager was caustic in his assessment of Rovers' performance after Liverpool struggled to a 2-1 win at Anfield last weekend.

But Allardyce, who has never seen eye to eye with Benitez since the Reds tactician came to England in 2004, believes the Spaniard personally criticised him to deflect attention away from his own team.

Allardyce told The Mail on Sunday: "Blackburn's performance was the best any of my teams have played there.

"Benitez knows his team played poorly and were lucky to get a win so he deflected any criticism by personally criticising me.

"That covered the true facts that we had better opportunities than them and came extremely close to beating what is supposed to be an outstanding Liverpool team.

"Being able to wind up a manager is satisfying, even if it doesn't quite work your way in terms of results."

He continued: "It just galls him that we make things difficult for him when he plays against my teams.

"There's no love lost between us.

"The truth is Liverpool are having to dig out results when they are not playing well.

"They didn't particularly earn the win last week but they dug it out.

"My reputation has been a perception for some time rather than a reality.

"It's a great shame for the Blackburn players because it's not their fault the manager is tagged by a so-called long-ball style.

"It's just not factual."

Jamie Carragher Looking Assurance Of Starting Role Before Signing New Deal

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher wants to make sure his spot in the Rafa Benitez’ starting XI is secure before he inks a new deal with his hometown team, according to the Daily Mail.

The 32-year-old centre-back, who has performed well while filling in at right back for the injured Glen Johnson, has one year left on his current deal.

Benitez spoke of his centre-back’s contract situation, saying: “'I told Carra that he's been fit and doing well this season so we will see.”

“It is not the same for players who are over 30 than a player who is 25.”

The England international has made 424 appearances for Liverpool since 1996, winning the Champions League in 2004-05.

Benitez has stressed patience with Carragher, saying: “We will wait and Carra is fine with the situation. I think he prefers it.”

Jamie Carragher Would Have No Difficulty Leaving Liverpool

Jamie Carragher says he will have no difficulty leaving Liverpool if the club where he has spent his whole career chooses not to extend his contract, which expires at the end of next season.

"The club will give me a new contract if they want to," he told the Sunday Times. "If not, it doesn't matter, I'll still play my best and if I have to move then I'll move, no problem. It wouldn't bother me."

The 32-year-old defender would like to stay at Anfield but said his decision to retire from England duty in 2007 showed he was not afraid of bold decisions.

"I made the England decision quickly and didn't dwell on it and I'm not scared of making big decisions. It's a club thing. It's down to them. I'll keep playing and see where it takes me."

Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benítez, said there are no talks planned with the defender. "We're happy to wait," the Spaniard said. "When you talk about players over 30 it's not the same as those who are 25 or goalkeepers, who will have a long-term contract. With Carra, we will wait and see."