Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Match Report: Wigan 1 - 0 Liverpool

Wigan striker Hugo Rodallega's eighth Barclays Premier League goal of the season put a huge dent in Liverpool's top-four aspirations at the DW Stadium.

The Colombia international volleyed home Emmerson Boyce's 35th-minute cross after Dirk Kuyt had needlessly given away possession close to his own penalty area.

Liverpool showed little of the quality required for a place in the Champions League once Fernando Torres had hit a post in the eighth minute and the Latics were well worth their victory.

It was Wigan's first Premier League win over Liverpool and only their second over one of the so-called 'big four' - the other coming at home to Chelsea earlier this season.

That ended a run of seven league matches without a victory and lifted them four points clear of the relegation zone.

And while it was only sixth-placed Liverpool's second defeat in 11 games it could have done irreparable damage to their chances of finishing fourth as they have now played more games than all of their rivals.

Rafael Benitez's side's problems are clear to see as this was the sixth time in their last eight away league matches they have failed to score.

The closest they came in this game was when Torres hit the outside of the upright after Maxi Rodriguez's header from Steven Gerrard's corner dropped to him at the far post.

But Wigan quickly grew in confidence and Marcelo Moreno was only inches from connecting with a driven cross through the six-yard area by Charles N'Zogbia, who was causing left-back Emiliano Insua plenty of problems.

Rodallega curled over a 20-yard free-kick after being fouled by Lucas Leiva while Insua's difficulties against N'Zogbia continued as he was booked for bringing down his opponent in the centre-circle.

Gerrard could have opened the scoring in the 26th minute after good link play between Rodriguez, Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun but the England international's first shot was blocked by Paul Scharner and although he quickly recovered he could not hit the target with the follow-up.

Lucas was next to be booked for tripping Titus Bramble and Sotirios Kyrgiakos was also cautioned for cynically blocking off Scharner.

Liverpool were struggling to find any sort of rhythm and their alarming tendency to give the ball away proved expensive in the 35th minute.

Kuyt, deep position on the left, rolled the ball aimlessly to Boyce who instantly fired a cross to the far post where Rodallega poked home.

It was the first time the Reds had conceded in the opening 45 minutes of a league match for 11 games.

Bramble was then booked for clattering into the back of Torres, who headed over Rodriguez's cross from six yards just before half-time.

Within 42 seconds of the second half kicking-off Mascherano had to be quick to block Rodallega's shot.

At the other end Torres, unusually for him, failed to hit the target from Rodriguez's cut-back.

Ten minutes into the half Johnson replaced Lucas, with Mascherano returning to his favoured central midfield.

Liverpool almost gifted Wigan a second as Jose Reina came out to claim a through-ball only for Carragher to knock it past him and then smashed his clearance into Moreno.

The ball looped towards the goal only for Kyrgiakos to get back to head over his own crossbar.

However, Liverpool were not getting any better and Torres' ambitious 25-yard volley summed things up when it went out for a throw close to the right corner flag.

Wigan should have had a second in the 73rd minute when Rodallega's pass put N'Zogbia through but his shot was partially stopped by Reina and Johnson scrambled the ball out at the far post under pressure from Scharner.

Moments later Torres' volley from Kuyt's header down rolled agonisingly wide of the post.

Liverpool's frustrations boiled over as first the Spain international was booked after chasing Boyce half the length of the pitch to bring him down and then Gerrard was then cautioned for diving in on McCarthy, despite appearing to win the ball.

A sign of Liverpool's desperation could been seen in the five minutes of injury time when Kyrgiakos went to play up front.

It typified a night when the Reds' short-comings this season were laid bare by an industrious but by no means brilliant Wigan side.

Degen: I'm Still Dreaming

Philipp Degen has not given up hope of starring in this summer's World Cup despite his omission from the latest Switzerland squad.

The right-back helped the Swiss reach the last 16 in 2006 and is desperate for another chance to play on football's biggest stage.

Degen was not part of the squad which lost 3-1 to Uruguay this week but aims to do everything he can to impress manager Ottmar Hitzfeld between now and the end of the season.

He told Liverpoolfc.tv: "I think everyone is looking forward to the World Cup but for me right now what's important is being here and playing here. The news will come in May and I hope I'll be going to the World Cup.

"I played all the games in 2006 when we were very successful. We got knocked out on penalties to Ukraine when we could have got to the quarter-finals. That was very sad for us.

"Now we have another chance. Our group is very difficult but our chances are alive. We have to try our best."

Switzerland will meet Spain in the group stages - setting up a potential clash between Degen and clubmates Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Albert Riera.

The defender thinks the trio are among a host of Liverpool players who could return to Melwood with World Cup medals.

"I think Spain are the number one team. If they don't get the title then they're doing something wrong," said Degen.

"But England also have a chance. Apart from Brazil and Spain they have one of the best squads. You have to see that.

"With the people they have in the squad and their ages - when are they going to have a better chance? For me, this is absolutely one of the best squads England have had for a long time. They have very good players.

"England, Brazil and especially Spain - these teams have to be at the top. Germany can also pull a surprise, and Argentina have good players but they have some problems."

Rafael Benítez Assures Alberto Aquilani He Is Not Forgotten

Rafael Benítez has assured Alberto Aquilani that he is not the forgotten man of Liverpool despite having to sacrifice the Italian's adjustment to English football in the race for a critical place in next season's Champions League.

Aquilani, the club's £18m signing last summer, should again find himself on the substitutes' bench with Lucas and Javier Mascherano preferred in central midfield against Wigan. The Italy international has endured a frustrating first season at Anfield with his debut delayed by an ankle injury and then Liverpool's poor form affording Benítez little leeway in his efforts to blood Aquilani.

The Liverpool manager has explained his predicament to the 25-year-old, who has started only seven games since his arrival from Roma and completed 90 minutes only once, and says the midfielder accepts that a top-four finish takes precedence over personal trials.

Benítez said: "When you have been injured for a while it's not easy for a player. Then, when you are available and the team isn't doing well, it makes it even more difficult. You have to decide if you can afford to give him two or three games when you know he's maybe not at the level he could be, so you could end up losing some of them.

"Alberto isn't stupid. He knows the priority now has to be the team and what's best for that. All he can do is keep training and make sure he is ready when we need him. But as I said, the most important thing we have to think of is the team, not one player."

Meanwhile, England right-back Glen Johnson is in contention for his first appearance of the year. He has not played since the 1-0 away win over Aston Villa in the Premier League on 29 December, where he was substituted after 89 minutes just before Fernando Torres scored. Benítez, though, admitted the relaid pitch at the DW Stadium will not influence his thinking of starting Torres or, by contrast, omitting Aquilani.

He added: "When I didn't play Alberto at Wolves it wasn't to do with the state of their pitch, it was because of the kind of game and because others were available, which meant we could manage in a different way. So whether I play him at Wigan or not isn't a decision that will be determined by the pitch.

"But we have had a conversation about things and he knows the situation. Alberto is a very good professional, who was a big name in Italy and wants to show his quality here. When you're like that but cannot play for three or four months and then you're available but can't play because the team is maybe doing really well or has problems, it's a difficult situation for any professional."

The Liverpool manager said Mascherano is now focused on his Anfield career after having his head turned by interest from Barcelona last summer, and expects the Argentina captain and the Spanish goalkeeper José Reina to commit to long-term contracts before the end of this season.

"I am 100% certain that Pepe will stay with us and I'm really confident Javier will too – both for a long time," said Benítez.

"I've spoken to Javier about what's going on and, while it wasn't easy when you have a top side like Barcelona asking about you, he's really focused now. I have confidence both will be sorted out sooner rather than later."

Javier Mascherano Shows He’ll Play Anywhere At Liverpool For Rafael Benitez

Rafa Benitez rarely tells stories about incidents that happen on the training ground or in the privacy of his plush Melwood office.

While some cannot stop themselves talking about how a certain player conjured up a moment of exquisite ability in practice, Benitez prefers to keep his own counsel, feeling there is no need to let the world in on incidents that happen behind closed doors.
Where Javier Mascherano is concerned, however, Liverpool’s manager has been moved to take a break from what is his norm following the midfielder’s exceptional performance as an auxiliary right-back in the win over Blackburn Rovers last week.

The tale goes like this. With Martin Skrtel injured and Sotirios Kyrgiakos serving a ban, Benitez was faced with a big dilemma heading in to that particular contest around who would patrol the flank given that Jamie Carragher was needed in the middle.

Pitching Glen Johnson back into battle was out of question, due to his lack of match practice and training, but Philipp Degen was an option, so too Martin Kelly, who had made his return to action as a substitute against Unirea Urziceni.

Yet after much deliberation with his backroom staff, Benitez kept returning to the subject of Mascherano, who had played out of his skin in the role when circumstances required he move there during a breathless success over Everton last month.

Asking a player to move from his comfort zone, though, is no easy task these days and when Benitez beckoned the midfield dynamo in to his room, he was unsure how Mascherano would take the news but 30 seconds later, the answer told him everything he knew all along.

“Before the game against Blackburn, we were having a conversation and talking about who to play at right-back,” said Benitez, taking up the story. “We knew Carra had to play as a centre-back, as Soto was suspended and (Martin) Skrtel had suffered an injury.

“So we decided to talk with Javier. I took him in to my office and I said ‘listen, we are thinking about playing you as a right-back. He just turned around and said ‘fine’. We finished the conversation there and then. He was just so pleased to help.

The attitude was fantastic. He just said ‘yes’ straight away, no problem and away he went. That is not his position. But he played really well and his commitment was fantastic. I am so happy with this attitude.”

No wonder, then, more talks have taken place in Benitez’s office during the past seven days, this time relating to Mascherano’s future; a new deal has been thrashed out, which would tie the 25-year-old to Anfield until 2014, and a successful outcome is anticipated.

While his form and commitment to Anfield was rightly called into question at the start of the campaign, when Barcelona’s vigorous pursuit of his signature proved disruptive, in the past six months only Pepe Reina and Carragher have matched his consistency.

With the pursuit of a Champions League place taking Liverpool to Wigan Athletic, Mascherano will again be required to play a key role but, as the treatment room has been cleared and a suspension over, on this occasion it will be in a more familiar role.

It will, inevitably, be a busy week for Mascherano as, after the skirmish at the DW Stadium, tomorrow attentions will turn to the round of 16 Europa League first leg clash with Lille and a short hop to northern France. Such a short turnaround between games is far from ideal but Mascherano would much prefer to have this kind of schedule rather than just flitting from week to week, concentrating simply on domestic affairs.

So before attentions turn to Lille, Wigan must be beaten to keep the momentum building behind the charge to the top four and Mascherano feels the return to form of influential figures Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres will ultimately prove decisive.

“It was very important for everyone at the club that we got through the last round,” said Mascherano. “Now we are thinking about the Premier League and we have got to make sure we keep on improving and keep winning before we play in Europe again.

“If you ask the players, the majority will say the same. We want to play as many games as we can and we will try to continue in Europe as long as we can, as we are all desperate to arrive at the final. To do that would be great for us.

“We have to keep switching in between targets and this is another important game for us. We have got to try and win. The more we keep doing that, the more we will put pressure on the other teams around us and get back into the top four.

“We have started scoring goals again and it is giving the players confidence to go forward. We have been defending well but it’s important for the team that we add goals to what we have been doing at the back.

“The signs have been good but we have got to continue and keep improving if we can. We have a duty to give the forward players service. It’s like Stevie. He has been breaking records recently and we hope he can keep playing unbelievable for himself and the team.”

As Skrtel won’t play until the middle of April and Daniel Agger’s participation is threatened by injury, Benitez is likely to ask Sotirios Kyrgiakos to assume the role he was filling with aplomb before his sending off in the Anfield derby on February 6.

“Soto started really well,” Benitez pointed out. “He couldn’t play too many games when he first arrived because Carra, Skrtel and Agger were all available. We brought him here because he was really good in the air and he showed that against Bolton.

“He is a fantastic professional and very good lad. He is always ready, keen to learn but I was surprised when he came in because I thought his English would be better, as he played in Scotland but he said to me ‘I couldn’t understand any words!’

“But I’m really pleased with him now and hopefully he can play more games.”

Danny: I'll Be Geordie Gerrard

Danny Guthrie has set his sights on becoming Newcastle’s answer to Steven Gerrard.

The former Reds midfielder hit a double in the Magpies' 6-1 rout of Barnsley at the weekend and admits he would love to go on and have the same sort of impact as the man he rates as Europe's finest.

Guthrie said: "I've been at Liverpool with Gerrard, and, for me, he's the best central midfielder in Europe.

"You can only learn good things from him and I'd like to think that's come into my game. You see him every day, and how he handles himself. He's a top lad, and it was all good experience.

"When I was growing up there was Scholes, Keane and Vieira.

"As I got a bit older there was Lampard and Gerrard.

"It was great to work with him and hopefully that can benefit me and Newcastle United."

Rafael Benitez Must Strive To Keep Jamie Carragher At Anfield

Rafael Benitez can’t have seen this one coming, surely? After months spent watching the world debate the futures of Javier Mascherano, Ryan Babel and Fernando Torres, he can now expect a raft of questions about one of the pillars of his Liverpool side, Jamie Carragher.

The mere thought of the Reds parting company with such a symbolic figure seems inherently absurd, but the summer promises to be an interesting one at Anfield, whether they finish in the Premier League's top four or not.
Carragher’s comments dominated the weekend’s papers, with the 32-year-old confirming that he would entertain the idea of leaving Liverpool, should the club fail to offer him the first-team football he requires.

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

This was not your typical, money-based plea for a new contract. Indeed, nor is it the first time the Bootle-born defender has hinted at a future away from Anfield. His autobiography contained a more candid assessment.

“I hate missing games, no matter what the occasion,” he wrote back in 2008, “I have no respect for those who have built a reputation at a big club by settling for being a bit-part player.

“If I’m not a regular in the side – and I hope that is many years away – I will move on. There are those who advise you to quit at the top, but I disagree. I’d love to finish my career at Anfield, but if the time comes to consider another Premier League club, or a competitive Championship one, then I will do it.”

The message then was the same as it is now; if Carragher is not to be a regular at Liverpool, he will not think twice about seeking first team football elsewhere. It is refreshingly honest, in an age where many players would gladly accept a reduction in hours for an increase in wage. But Carragher’s defiant stance means Benitez must assess his options carefully before making his next move.

Carragher’s contract at Anfield – worth around £80,000 per week – will have a year left to run in the summer. And having witnessed Michael Owen – home-grown and with a worldwide reputation – depart the club for a paltry fee in 2005, Liverpool will be well aware of the perils of dealing with players approaching the end of their contracts.

And having witnessed the efforts made to tie the likes of Torres, Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard to lucrative long-term deals, Carragher is entitled to wonder why the powers-that-be at Anfield have not been as eager to beat a way to his door.

The Reds, unlike Arsenal or Manchester United for example, do not operate a strict policy when dealing with new deals for players over the age of 30, so any decision on the defender’s future should be made on its merits.

A similar decision was made with Sami Hyypia, who left the club to join Bayer Leverkusen after rejecting a contract extension last summer. Now Benitez must decide whether, at 32, Carragher is still an automatic choice at Anfield.

And, as with all decisions to be made at Liverpool this summer, financial factors are bound to come into play.

For example, how much would it cost Benitez to replace a player of Carragher’s stature and experience? Despite some high profile mistakes this season – including a nightmare at West Ham and a dismissal at Fulham – his form has recovered sufficiently to make him a key player in the Reds’ recent defensive revival – which has seen them concede just three goals in ten league games . And this even allowing for an unscheduled stint at full-back in the absence of Glen Johnson.

Simon Kjaer, the towering Palermo centre-back, has this week been keen to fuel speculation that he is set for a summer switch to Merseyside, but is likely to cost in excess of £10 million, and attract the attention of plenty of other, more fiscally able clubs. The Dane might be keen on linking up with international colleague Daniel Agger, but money still talks, and Liverpool’s bank balance is speaking more softly than most at the moment.

Both Agger and Martin Skrtel have shown signs of promise as a partnership recently – despite similarly slow starts – but with just Greek veteran Sotirios Kyrgiakos as senior cover, Carragher remains a vital part of Benitez's squad, both in terms of numbers and quality.

Additionally, Carragher offers the kind of leadership and organisational qualities courted by just about every other club. Pace may never have been a strong suit for the Bootle boy, but communication, positional intelligence and timing in the tackle certainly are, as Carragher himself noted "whenever there is a big game, I'm there."

How Manchester City, for example, would love a defender of his ilk as they challenge the Reds for a top-four berth, (ironically, they had one in Richard Dunne, before they allowed him to leave and become part of the meanest back-line in the Premier League at Aston Villa).

Carragher has proven over the last three months, both at right-back – a position he is known to despise – and in his favoured central role, that he still has plenty to offer Liverpool. Benitez must now convince Carragher that Liverpool has enough to offer him.

And if he doesn’t, then one suspect it will be Liverpool’s, not Carragher’s, loss.

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool FC Must Improve Away Form To Reach Champions League

Rafa Benitez yesterday called for a dramatic improvement in Liverpool’s away form as they seek a first win on their travels in more than two months.

The Reds have won four of their 14 Premier League games away from Anfield – the last was at Aston Villa on December 29 – and have only taken 18 points from a possible 42.

At this stage of last season, Liverpool’s victory total was eight and their outstanding form on the road was the reason they were able to push for the title.

But if they are going to clamber back into a Champions League spot this season, Benitez knows it is vital Liverpool start making up for lost time.

That’s why Benitez is demanding Liverpool leave Wigan Athletic with nothing less than three points and a place back in the top four.

“I have been checking the numbers from where we were last season and you can see that we were much better away from home,” said Liverpool’s manager.

“We have got to improve and that is very clear. But we have got an opportunity tonight and we have got to try and take it. We need to change our record.

“You have to keep a good balance between what you are doing at home and what you are doing away. Recently we’ve been quite good at home but away it has not been so good.”

Benitez, though, believes the return to fitness of key trio Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun will dramatically improve Liverpool’s prospects.

“You want to play nice football and you have an idea of what you want to do,” said Benitez. “But to do that, you need players with quality. When you talk about the players who have been missing – Yossi, Fernando, Fabio Aurelio, Stevie, Glen Johnson – you can see what effect it has had.

“But now we have these players coming back. That is going to be a big boost for us and I know that we can start to play a little bit better.”

Liverpool have not lost to Wigan since the Latics were promoted to the top flight in 2005.

Wigan’s form has been hugely inconsistent and they are in danger of being sucked into the relegation zone but Benitez is taking nothing for granted.

“Wigan try to play nice football and they have got some strong players,” Benitez pointed out.

“It is going to be difficult for us but we have more confidence. We are strong in defence, we are scoring goals and are in a good moment.”

Former Liverpool Defender Phil Thompson Admits He Was Wrong About Fernando Torres

Liverpool legend Phil Thompson has acknowledged that he couldn't have been more wrong about Fernando Torres after doubting the Spaniard's quality when he first arrived in England.

The former Reds defender admits that he wondered whether the striker would be able to adjust to the pressure of the Premier League after his time in La Liga.

"If I was to say I knew he'd be a superstar I'd be a liar," Thompson told the Reds' official website.

"He'd carried Atletico Madrid but they'd always been in the shadow of Real, so you wondered just how good he really was. And we've seen so many falter in the Premier League.

"But you look at him and he ticks every box. He scores headed goals - great; goals from outside the box - great; goals from inside the box - great; he goes past people for fun - great."

It is not just the Spaniard's skills which impress Thompson though. The former centre-back is also a fan of the way in which Torres conducts himself on the pitch.

"This guy is the complete package - and he plays the game in the right way," he added.

"Am I glad he's at Liverpool Football Club! He's still young and he's still going to score goals."