Friday, March 12, 2010

Match Report: Lille 1 - 0 Liverpool

Lille winger Eden Hazard's late goal inflicted Liverpool's first defeat on French soil in six visits and left Rafael Benitez's side with an uphill battle to make the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

The visitors appeared to have survived a testing examination by Les Dogues only for Hazard, who had been a threat all night, to curl in an 85th-minute free-kick.

Despite being territorially dominated Liverpool had the best two chances with Ryan Babel shooting too close to Mickael Landreau and Fernando Torres' header being brilliantly saved by the goalkeeper in the first half.

However, the scoreline was no real surprise as The Mastiffs, as Lille are known, had scored in 20 of their previous 21 games at the Lille Metropole.

Their impressive record has seen them lose just once at home in Ligue 1 since the opening day of the season on August 9, with only one defeat in 17 home European fixtures.

For Liverpool - unbeaten in France since a 1-0 Champions League defeat to Monaco in November 2004 - it was the worst possible result coming so soon on the back of a woeful performance at Wigan on Monday.

Their difficult task was outlined to them in the first minute as Lille came out in no mood to admire their more illustrious opponents as Yohan Cabaye forced Jose Reina into a save within 38 seconds.

One of the most intriguing battles was between winger Hazard and Emiliano Insua, who was destroyed on a regular basis by Wigan's Charles N'Zogbia.

The 19-year-old Belgian struck an early blow by skipping past his opponent and drilling a cross through the six-yard area but no team-mate was close enough to take advantage.

Lille were more Arsenal than Wigan in their approach - despite their heavily-sanded patchy pitch - and passed the ball around with ease to often leave their opponents chasing shadows.

However, for all their possession they looked like they were missing top scorer Gervinho, the Ivorian who was sidelined by injury.

Bizarrely, Liverpool had the best two chances of the first half.

Babel should have given the visitors the lead in the 26th minute after a neat exchange with Torres but shot too close to Mickael Landreau and the goalkeeper deflected the effort with his legs.

Hazard was proving Lille's best outlet and his cross saw Pierre-Alain Frau deflect a shot over after being pressured by Jamie Carragher.

Gerrard responded with a dipping 35-yard strike just over Landreau's crossbar before, in the 41st minute, Landreau produced a brilliant low save to repel Torres' close-range header from Johnson's deep cross.

Hazard had the ball in the net soon after half-time but was flagged offside.

Liverpool at least began the second half better than they had the first and six minutes after the restart Lucas volleyed Torres' headed flick-on wide.

Lille, by contrast, had lost some of their attacking verve as they were drawn into a more attritional contest unsuited to their style.

On the hour Babel had a fierce shot parried away by Landreau, before Insua was booked for a foul on Hazard as he threatened to break away.

Five minutes later Reina allowed a long-range shot from Frau slip through his fingers but fortunately for the Liverpool goalkeeper it ballooned behind for a corner.

Torres was then booked for his persistent complaints to referee Claus Bo Larsen.

Cabaye drilled a dipping strike inches over Reina's crossbar before he was replaced by Stephane Dumont, with Albert Riera coming on for Babel with 17 minutes remaining.

Hazard went down in the area under Carragher's challenge with seven minutes to go but Larsen waved away protests.

However, a minute later the winger made sure when he curled in a free-kick which missed everyone in front of Reina, who could only watch as the ball crept into the far corner.

And it could have been far worse had substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's shot not hit the post and gone wide

Darby Set For Swindon understands that Liverpool defender Stephen Darby is set to join Swindon on loan.

The 21-year-old full-back has been tipped to become a Reds star in the future and has already featured in the first team this season.

But manager Rafa Benitez is keen for the youngster to gain regular playing time for the remainder of the campaign and that would not be on offer at Anfield.

League One promotion hopefuls Swindon have therefore moved quickly as manager Danny Wilson aims to add what could prove decisive quality at a critical period.

It is understood that Darby is on his way to the County Ground for talks on Wednesday afternoon, with Swindon keen to reinforce their squad after taking only one point from their last three games.

The former England Under 19 international made his full Reds debut in the UEFA Champions League defeat to Fiorentina in December and marked the occasion with an error that demonstrated his naivety when gifting Alberto Gilardino the wining goal.

But Liverpool-born Darby made an impressive return to the first team in the initial FA Cup draw with Reading at the Madejski Stadium.

Skrtel Hopes For Injury Boost

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel is hoping to make an early return from injury after reporting that he is in a better state of health.

The Slovakia international is recovering from a broken metatarsal in his right foot he suffered in the Europa League win away to Unirea Urziceni last month.

The injury was initially expected to rule the 25-year-old out for two months and he has been undergoing intensive treatment at the Reds' training ground.

And Skrtel's recovery is going so well that his lay-off could be cut, providing a boost for both Liverpool and Slovakia ahead of their first-ever World Cup appearance this summer.

"I must say, I'm in a better state of health now," he said on his official website,

"I have been undergoing regular treatment on the injury at our Melwood training centre, along with getting massages and doing various exercises so that the muscles in my foot don't weaken.

"The foot is not swollen any more and it doesn't hurt as much as before. Naturally, I still have to use the crutches but on Thursday I went for a check scan which will determine how the treatment process will continue."

Boss Pleased With Aqua Desire

Rafael Benitez has hinted Alberto Aquilani's encouraging cameo performance at Wigan has pushed him into contention for more action against Lille.

The Italian midfielder played the final 20 minutes at the DW Stadium on Monday, and the boss admits he has been impressed with his determination to make an impact at Anfield.

"He had more mobility and he was trying to be involved when he played at Wigan," said Benitez. "The team was working harder when he came on and Alberto was trying to help dictate play. They had pushed a little bit deep and we had more time in possession.

"He is in our thoughts. We have to analyse carefully each decision we make about each player. We need people with energy and we need people with desire. If they show this on the pitch and in training, we will think about them more.

"The problem we have with him, though, is match fitness. He has got to play some games in a row and we have had conversations about this. He wants to be playing but the situation of the team does not allow you if he doesn't have that match fitness.

"You have got to be cautious with it. The other day (at Wigan) we thought it would be a good opportunity for him. When he got on, you could see his desire. He wanted to be involved and he wanted to help us."

Aquilani endured a difficult start to his Anfield career after injury sidelined him until October, meaning he has made just 16 appearances so far for Liverpool.

Benitez is confident, though, that the experience the midfielder has gained this season will stand him in good stead for next campaign.

However, the Spaniard insists Aquilani still has an important role to play in the remainder of 2009-10.

He added: "If Alberto has time (to develop), it will be different next season. We know this. But we cannot wait for next season. If he can give us something, we have to use him now. We will monitor him in every training session to see what he can do.

"We are looking for positives from him all the time. If he shows it all the time, we will play him. He is desperate to help. He wants to play and he wants to do well. But the only way to do that is to train really well and make sure he is available."

Benitez Calls Anfield Crisis Meeting

Rafa Benitez has called a crisis meeting of his players in an attempt to stamp out the discord that threatens the very fabric of the club.

The Liverpool manager believes the next three months are crucial not just for his side’s season, but also for the long-term future of the club, given how much is at stake financially.

But in recent weeks, the Spanish coach has been dismayed by what he sees as “negative body language” from his players, which he reckons is sending out the wrong message at a time when they must all stick together.

The frustration amongst certain senior players has been visible in many matches this season, with the likes of skipper Steven Gerrard, star striker Fernando Torres, and senior pros Javier Mascherano, Pepe Reina and Jamie Carragher all venting their anger at poor performances at different times.

And while Benitez fully understands that frustration, he brought all his players together after the painful defeat at Wigan, to stress that the body language has to be much more positive as they strive to portray a united front.

“I don’t like players showing disappointment with body language, it’s not positive but each player is different. Now though, it is important to show leadership and bring people on board,” the Reds boss explained.

“It is important to show the right approach to your team-mates in this situation, and when we spoke we have said we want to improve this.

“Of course, it depends on each player and on the situation. Watching highlights yesterday I could see the keeper blaming the defenders and the defenders blaming the keeper, and sometimes that is part of the game.

“But if you see these things too much it means you are making too many mistakes, and we have said that we have to bring all the people on board.”

The in-fighting at Anfield is clearly a result of the turmoil that surrounds the club in what has been a desperately disappointing and difficult season.

Fingers have often been pointed in matches, with even a hint of a lack of trust between the players creeping in, and also a sign that the likes of Torres is beginning to feel a powerful sense of frustration in matches.

The Spanish striker was booked when his anger spilled over at the end of the Wigan game, and Gerrard too was booked when he lost his cool as the game looked to be slipping away.

But Benitez knows there is too much at stake for the players to start squabbling amongst themselves, and he has asked for calm as he looks at the bigger picture in what is a hugely important three months for Liverpool.

“Look, it is always easier when things are going well. Now we have made some mistakes, but if we cannot improve playing better football, then the only way you can win is by having everyone together,” he said.

“One thing we spoke about yesterday was committing fouls at the end of the game. We have to keep calm and play better football instead losing our cool and fouling.

“That is something we have to improve and the only way is to explain to them, analyse and try to control it for the next game.”

Failure to qualify for the Champions League is almost inconceivable, and Benitez recognised this, when he said: “I agree this could be a crucial period that may determine the future of the club.

“We talk about investors, we talk about the new stadium; we talk about all these same things for maybe one or two years now. Everybody is waiting for something to happen and expecting something to happen. The main thing for me is to try and concentrate on the football and get the best out of the players.

“That's something I can do, and something I have to do for the fans and the club. Inside the club, at the top they have a responsibility and we will try to do out best – that is what we all must do now, in the best interests of the club.”

McMahon Lauds Lauri

John McMahon believes there is a lot more to come from Lauri Dalla Valle in a red shirt after the Finnish starlet netted his first goal for the reserves in the Liverpool Senior Cup semi-final win over Tranmere Rovers.

The Academy hot-shot scored from a seemingly impossible angle to give the Reds the lead on Wednesday, and they went on to win 3-0 courtesy of a strike from David Amoo and an own goal.

Dalla Valle was making his first start of the season for the second string and he impressed during the 90 minutes.

"I am really pleased for Lauri and he took his goal really well," McMahon told

"It was always the plan to introduce him slowly into the reserve team set-up this season and I was pleased with his contribution. Lauri is a natural finisher and he has got that uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time."

The reserve team boss was also delighted to see Francisco Duran make his first appearance since November 2008 when the Spaniard came on as a 73rd minute substitute in front of the watching Rafa Benitez and Sammy Lee.

The former Malaga midfielder has battled back from three cruciate ligament operations - two on his right knee and one on his left.

"It has been a horrific time for Francis with the injuries but he has worked so hard and showed some good things in training," said McMahon.

"It's always good for the lads when they see the boss and Sammy watching them and it's the next stage of these players' development to try and impress them and push into the first team squad."

One of those players trying to impress again is Jay Spearing who captained the side against Tranmere.

"Jay always gives everything for this club," he said.

"He has that great mentality as a person and player. He has infectious enthusiasm and he is a pleasure to work with."

Sam Allardyce Rekindles Row With Rafael Benítez

Sam Allardyce claims Rafa Benítez's criticism of him is a cover-up for how bad Liverpool are and claims the Reds have all but blown their chance of finishing in the top four.

Benítez last week mocked Allardyce's behaviour and Blackburn's style after their match at Anfield, suggesting that the European champions Barcelona were going to model themselves on Rovers: "He is a model for football all around the world. I am sure he is a model for behaviour and for kids all around the world. I am sure Barcelona are thinking of copying this style now too."

But the Blackburn manager has hit back by claiming he has managed to get under the skin of Benítez and that his Liverpool counterpart was just covering up for how badly his team played despite the Reds' 2-1 win.

"It was a good cover-up by Rafa because he knows how bad his side were and that was repeated against Wigan on Monday night," said Allardyce. "He's got personal with it for many, many years now. That's why I don't like him and the feeling is probably mutual. I don't get personal with him; I get into him and under his skin, yes, but that's all part of the game.

"The tit for tat between me and Rafa will probably go on until one of us is no longer a Premier League manager. I've managed to psyche out one or two here and there and that's how the Premier League has evolved over the last 20 years. But no, Pep Guardiola has not been in touch yet."

He also believes Liverpool's result at Wigan leaves Benítez's side unlikely to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League.

He added: "The last time one of the big four didn't finish in the top four it was Liverpool – Everton got that spot – and I think this time it looks pretty difficult having lost against Wigan. They are having to rely on other teams slipping up now.

"They have a wealth of experience and that may be a telling factor when the nerve ends start jangling. We saw what happened to Tottenham a few years ago with the famous 'poisoned lasagne' scenario – which was obviously never the case – and they let it slip.

"But I think it might be more difficult for Liverpool this time around because there are more teams involved. There's Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham in there and if Everton keep rolling on you might be surprised to see them making a late run."

Liverpool Fans Threaten Royal Bank of Scotland Boycott Over Reds Finance Deal

A group of Liverpool fans are threatening to boycott the Royal Bank of Scotland if it extends its refinancing deal with the club.

Liverpool FC co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have until July 24 to repay the remaining £237million borrowed from RBS and American investment bank Wachovia that they have leveraged against the club's assets.

Despite pledges to the contrary, Hicks and Gillett have set a total of £350million worth of debt against the club that was around £44million in the red when they took control from David Moores in February 2007.

Now, some Reds fans are urging the bank to call in the debt this summer in the hope it will force the Americans to sell the club.

An e-mail addressed directly to RBS chief executive officer, Stephen Hester, has been replicated and signed by individual Liverpool fans, angry at the bank's involvement.

The e-mail has also been copied to other senior figures at the bank and Liverpool FC, including Hicks and Gillett, plus city council leader Warren Bradley.

It reads: "Having reviewed the company accounts in relation to Liverpool Football Club and Parent Company Kop Football Ltd, of which there is approximately £237m worth of debt; it is clear that the business model operated by the current owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett is unsustainable.

"Whilst I appreciate that any refinancing package deal is a confidential matter between the Royal Bank of Scotland and the current owners of Liverpool Football Club, it is also a very personal issue for many Liverpool supporters around the world.

"There is an ever increasing sense of anger and resentment towards the owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which is likely to turn towards RBS if the refinancing deal is extended in the coming months.

"It is my understanding that if the refinancing deal is renegotiated beyond July 2010, then a campaign in protest against the Royal Bank of Scotland will take place which will include billboards with anti-RBS messages encouraging Liverpool Fans to Boycott RBS in a similar manner to the Boycott of the Sun Newspaper.

"We as supporters of Liverpool Football Club are effectively paying the loan repayments for Hicks and Gillett, and as taxpayers have a "controlling stake" in RBS. We should therefore have a say in where our money is being invested.

"The ball is firmly in your court."

Links to a website supporting a campaign to boycott The Sun are included in the e-mail as well as a link to the Liverpool Supporters Union, Spirit of Shankly, website.

Spirit of Shankly have previously threatened similar action against the Royal Bank of Scotland when Hicks and Gillett secured a £350m refinancing package in January 2008, a move which saddled Liverpool with annual interest payments of £30m.

However, although some of the fans behind the latest campaign are members of Spirit of Shankly, SOS says this latest move to oust Hicks and Gillett is not official union action.

An SOS spokesperson told the Echo: "Whilst we appreciate the intent behind this action it is not something the recent AGM or management committee have considered."

Hicks and Gillett have successfully sought several repayment extensions from RBS and Wachovia.

In January 2009 they exercised terms under the loan agreement to extend it for a further six months until July 24 that year. After that, further extensions were thought to be unlikely.

Instead, the Americans again refinanced with RBS and Wachovia, granting themselves a further 12 months to July 24 2010 to repay the debt.

Following concerns expressed by club accountant, KPMG, about Liverpool's ability to operate efficiently with such a burden of debt, a condition was written into the latest agreement that £60m in equity must be provided to reduce Liverpool's outstanding liabilities to around £250m.

That was achieved last year but the banks are known to have put pressure on Hicks and Gillett to attract third party investment to the club.

Investment banks Rothschild and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have been brought in to help with the search, while Liverpool managing director, Christian Purslow, is looking to bring in £100m of investment before the July deadline.

Why Rafael Benítez Is Still The Right Man For Liverpool

It is only natural for supporters to get frustrated when their club is going through a bad spell, and finger-pointing is always going to occur, especially when one of the top clubs in Europe is having such a torrid season.

But Liverpool fans shouldn’t be blaming their side’s poor form on Rafael Benítez, in fact if anyone’s the man to get the team out of this bad run, it’s him.

The defeat at Wigan Athletic on Monday night was the final straw for many Liverpool supporters. Despite sticking behind the manager through thick and thin over the last five years, a limp and lifeless performance against one of the League’s strugglers was a step too far for even some of the most staunch backers of the Spanish boss.

As with last season, many feel the bad result at the DW Stadium put an end to Liverpool’s domestic ambitions; last season it was finishing top, this season it is to finish a lowly fourth.

An ever-increasing percentage of Liverpool’s support is calling for the manager’s head, but it’s time for these fans to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Since Benítez’s arrival at Anfield in 2004, Liverpool have qualified for Europe’s top competition year-on-year, an accomplishment never achieved by any Liverpool manager before him. Up until this season, the earliest Liverpool were ever knocked out of the competition under Benítez was the first knockout round, to Benfica in 2006. Over the last five years, the Spanish boss has taken his side to two Champions League finals, one semi-final, one quarter-final and one last-16 knockout round — a record most of the top managers in Europe would be proud of.

Whilst many Liverpool fans will suggest that the League should be the main target, the back-to-back qualifications for the Champions League demonstrate how much their domestic form has improved under Benítez, finishing in the top four in four of the five seasons. The only season Liverpool failed to finish in the top four was the one in which they won their fifth European Cup in Istanbul.

The quality of the team itself is another major issue at Anfield, which many say is lacking strength-in-depth and relies too heavily on two key players, Fernando Torres and captain Steven Gerrard. It should be evident to anyone who has any knowledge of the game that Liverpool do lack depth, but when the manager has been forced to sell in order to buy for most of the last three seasons, it is something of an inevitability. A prime example is the sale of Craig Bellamy to help fund the Fernando Torres deal. Despite the Spaniard being a much better player, Liverpool could now certainly do with Bellamy as a back-up.

The other major thorn in the side of Benítez is the club’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The two Americans have seemingly done everything in their power to hinder the manager’s attempts to improve the squad to challenge for the title in recent years. Whether that be not giving him the financial backing to bring in Gareth Barry, or going behind his back to discuss the manager’s position with Jürgen Klinsmann.

It would be fair to say that outside of Fratton Park, Benítez endures the worst working conditions of any manager in the Premier League. He has had his authority undermined on a number of occasions and has seen money from the sale of players being used to help finance the crippling debts placed on the club by its current owners.

Yes, Benítez can and does make mistakes and yes, it’s happened more often than usual this season. But the implications of him being removed from his post are unthinkable. Say what you like about the prestige of the Liverpool manager’s job, when you have no money to spend and are expected to win the League, no world-class manager would look twice at the position.

And that’s the problem Liverpool face. It would be close to impossible to find a manager with anywhere near Benítez’s vast experience who would go anywhere near the job.

Some of the short-term problems on the pitch may rightly be laid at the door of the manager, but if you want to find Liverpool’s long-term problem look no further than Tom Hicks and George Gillett.