Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Match Report: Liverpool 4 - 1 Portsmouth

Midfielder Alberto Aquilani finally found a performance to justify his £17million price tag, capping a masterful display with his first Liverpool goal in the 4-1 win over Portsmouth at Anfield.

The summer signing, brought in after Xabi Alonso's sale to Real Madrid, has struggled to adapt to life in England but was at the heart of everything in only his fifth Premier League start.

Fernando Torres scored twice, with Ryan Babel and Aquilani adding goals in between his strikes, before Nadir Belhadj hit a late consolation.

It was the first time since they beat Hull 6-1 on September 26 that Liverpool had scored more than two goals in a league match and that helped lift them to fifth in the table, a point behind Tottenham having played one match more.

However, of their three assignments this week - they face Lille on Thursday trailing 1-0 in the Europa League before heading to Old Trafford on Sunday - this was by far the easiest.

For Portsmouth the defeat ensured their 59-year winless run at Anfield continued but, considering their off-field problems, it will hardly have a defining impact on their season.

Strangely, Liverpool had not won on a Monday evening in their last nine attempts, with five draws and four defeats.

Their most recent victory came with Gary McAllister's last-minute free-kick at Everton in April 2001.

With a record like that they needed a positive start and the intent was apparent from the off as Torres' run towards the penalty area inside the first minute was halted only by Marc Wilson's tug.

Having cranked up the pressure against the massed ranks of Portsmouth's defence - with Torres and Gerrard both having penalty shouts turned down - Liverpool eventually made the breakthrough they were so desperate for in the 26th minute.

It was with more than a slice of good fortune, however, and came courtesy of goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown, making only his fourth appearance this season because of David James' calf injury.

Ashdown drilled Ricardo Rocha's back-pass straight at Gerrard and the ball dropped to Maxi Rodriguez, who squared for Torres to roll a shot into the empty net.

Two minutes later Glen Johnson's cross to the far post dropped to Torres, who turned former Liverpool defender Steve Finnan before slipping a pass inside for Babel to poke home.

In the 32nd minute the goal that all Anfield - and Aquilani - had hoped for came when Gerrard played in Torres, who crossed back for his captain to dummy and allow his team-mate to fire home in front of the Kop.

Torres could have made it 4-0 in the 35th minute when he cut in from the left to curl a right-foot shot beyond Ashdown only to see it rebound back off the post. Gerrard fired wide from Johnson's return ball.

Portsmouth were slow to return for the second half and it was perhaps understandable as the barrage continued almost immediately.

In probably the best move of the match, the ball was worked in from the right starting with Rodriguez and going through Torres, Aquilani, Babel, and Aquilani again before Gerrard's shot at the far post was charged down by Ashdown.

From the same move the Portsmouth goalkeeper's fingertip save then tipped Babel's shot onto the crossbar and over.

Portsmouth threatened in the 55th minute when Brown's shot was instinctively touched over by Jose Reina.

But it was only a brief respite as Rodriguez fired wide and Johnson should have had a penalty when Belhadj brought down the England international.

Gerrard departed in the 74th minute, having just been involved in a clash with Brown in which the Reds captain appeared to thrust an arm across his opponent's face, as Yossi Benayoun came on.

Aquilani's dream night continued in the 77th minute when he threaded a pass to Torres in the penalty area and he cut back onto his right foot to blast a shot inside the near post.

The Spaniard, who has now scored 15 Premier League goals to beat his tally of last season, was immediately replaced by David Ngog.

Torres, who looks to be returning to his lethal best having been sidelined for five weeks after a knee operation, left to a standing ovation.

But the real plaudits - after a long wait - went to Aquilani and even a late goal from Belhadj, sidefooting in Frederic Piquionne's volley across goal, could not spoil his night.

Rafael Benitez Fully Focused On Liverpool Despite Summer Exit Rumours

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has declared he is focused entirely on his side's home game with Portsmouth rather than any of the speculation surrounding his position at Anfield.

Reports continue to link the Spaniard with a summer exit from the Merseyside outfit but he insists that he and his players are concentrating on taking the Reds to a top four Premier League finish and nothing else.

"The club is the most important thing, more than anyone," Benitez told his club's official website.

"The most important thing is for everyone to try and do better and to improve performances.

"I don't want people talking about me. It doesn't matter.

"The priority has to be to improve things on and off the pitch."

"The only thing we should be thinking and talking about is Portsmouth, then the Europa League game against Lille, then Manchester United. It is a crucial week."

Benitez also wants everyone at Anfield to focus on working together to improve the club's curren situation, which has seen them drop out of the Champions League and drop behind in the race for a Premier League top four finish.

"Everybody here wants to improve our position in the table and we have an opportunity to do that tonight against Portsmouth," he added.

"We know that we have had some problems but we know we can solve these problems if we keep working little by little. We have to work together for the good of the club.

"We had some games after that when we showed good character and the team was doing well. Now we have to show that character again. Hopefully we can remember that and push a little bit harder."

Liverpool Plan Move For Fiorentina's Juan Manuel Vargas

Liverpool are ready to move into position for Fiorentina winger Juan Manuel Vargas, according to Calciomercato.com.

An Italy-based scout working for the Premier League club is trying to open up a line of communication with Fiorentina to uncover the player's availability.

The scout wants to verify conditions with Vargas' agent before he approaches the Viola with the hope of moving forwards.

The Reds' directors are reportedly impressed with Vargas' form this term, especially after he played at Anfield in December during Fiorentina's win in the Champions League.

It was Vargas who supplied the assist for Alberto Gilardino's winner in that game.

The Peruvian international joined Fiorentina from Catania in 2008.

Fernando Torres’ Frustrations Can Help Fire Liverpool FC On - Rafael Benitez

Rafael Benitez believes Fernando Torres can reign in his frustration and help Liverpool salvage their season.

The Anfield outfit begin a make-or-break seven days this evening with the Premier League visit of rock-bottom Portsmouth.

Benitez’s men suffered a dismal time last week when a 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic on Monday was followed by a similar loss in the Europa League round of 16 first leg in Lille three days later.

Torres, who is still regaining match sharpness after a knee operation, missed a clutch of chances and his annoyance boiled over with unnecessary bookings in both games.

But Benitez is convinced the Spaniard demonstrated signs of getting back to his best in France last Thursday, and challenged the striker to rediscover his goalscoring touch and rekindle Liverpool’s hopes of Champions League qualification.

“I know Fernando was unhappy with two or three decisions and got himself booked again, but overall he was more focused against Lille,” said the Anfield manager.

“His behaviour, and everything about him, was much better, and it will continue the same way as we win games and improve our position.

“You could see against Lille that Fernando is improving and getting his form back. If he can keep putting that effort in, he will continue to get better with each game and will be among the goals again.

“It is very clear that he can make a big difference to us over the remainder of the season, if he carries on like that and starts finishing off some of the chances we have been creating.

“We had a run of games where we were looking stronger and more solid but were just missing that cutting edge up front.

“With Fernando, Stevie and Yossi coming back, it should be easier for the team, in that respect.

“We should be scoring more goals, and that will help the run-in.”

Having fallen four points behind fourth place given Tottenham Hotspur’s win over Blackburn Rovers at the weekend, victory is imperative for Benitez’s side this evening.

Torres spoke over the weekend of his frustration at Liverpool’s failure to challenge for the title this season while urging fresh investment in the squad this summer. And Benitez admits a desperation for honours is the driving force behind the Spain international’s efforts.

“People talk about money with him, but I can tell you his main motivation is winning trophies,” said the Liverpool manager. “That is what drives him on. That is always the main topic in any discussion between us. I was talking with him a few months ago, and that was all that concerned him.

“His only thought was to be challenging for honours, and that always comes across whenever we talk. Everyone knows you can have a bad season every now and then, and that is why frustration sometimes gets the better of him, but we have to keep going.

“Finishing fourth would mean a lot to Fernando, because he wants to be playing in the Champions’ League, but we all want that. It is important to me, to the other players and everyone connected to the club. That is the target, and we will do everything to achieve it.”

Benitez, though, is determined Liverpool do not become overly reliant on Torres and skipper Steven Gerrard during the last two months of the campaign. He said: “There is no doubt Stevie and Fernando are the key players, the ones who can make a difference for us but the others have a part to play.

“Those who stepped in and worked so hard when Fernando was out deserve a lot of credit, but we still need them to contribute. Players like Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt, who is always trying, and Lucas and Javier Mascherano. You cannot get by without these players, and they have to keep pushing and moving us forward.”

Liverpool Can't Afford To Fire Rafael Benitez Due To A Contract Clause - Report

Liverpool cannot afford to sack their under-fire manager Rafael Benitez, according to The Mirror.

The Spaniard signed a five-year contract with the club in last March, worth about £4 million per season. And it is claimed there is a clause in the deal that states that the former Valencia boss will be paid in full within 24 hours of being relieved of his position, if such a thing should come to pass.

The aforementioned deal was negotiated during a period when the Kop boss was in a more promising position, as the Reds were en route to a runners-up finish in the Premier League last season.

However, the Merseyside club boss' reign has come under intense scrutiny following several under-par performances that have resulted in the club bowing out of the Champions League, FA Cup, and the League Cup.

The Reds are now battling for a fourth place finish in the domestic circuit to achieve Champions League football next season, while pinning their hopes on silverware in the Europa League.

It is believed that the club's owners have not backed Benitez due to his abilities, but have instead done so reluctantly due to the expenditure costs associated with his release from the club.

We've Been Here Before - How Rafa Benitez's Reign Risks Doing As Much Damage As Gerard Houllier's

One year ago yesterday, Liverpool wandered into Old Trafford with the eyes of the world upon them and a title race to salvage, and dished out a 4-1 mauling to a strutting Manchester United side. Fernando Torres destroyed Nemanja Vidic, Steven Gerrard was on the rampage, offering a kiss for the camera, and even Andrea Dossena looked a Premier League player. What went wrong?

If you had told any fan inside the 'Theatre of Dreams' that day that the Reds would encounter such an alarming dip in form, to the extent that a defeat to Portsmouth at Anfield tonight would open up the genuine possibility of the club missing out on European football entirely next season, then most would have scoffed. The cynics might have foretold such doom and gloom, but then who listens to the cynics when Fabio Aurelio is bending free kicks in like David Beckham?

The reasons for the Reds' failures this season have been argued, debated, speculated upon and repeated more times than enough, but one thing is for sure: if Liverpool learnt nothing from the reign of Gerard Houllier, it is that allowing a downward slump to carry on too long can do more damage than any short-term upheaval.

Rafael Benitez's future has been the hot topic on Merseyside for the majority of the season, and with Liverpool having suffered two single-goal, class-free defeats in a week - to Wigan Athletic and Lille - the Spaniard once again finds his head on the chopping block. Liverpool may have a struggle to find the money to sack him, but can they afford to keep him?

The Reds welcome to Portsmouth to Anfield tonight knowing that nothing short of victory will suffice if they are to salvage any kind of consolation from the wreckage of a season in which they were tipped by many as potential Champions.

Instead, they are 18 points off the league leaders, struggling to qualify for the Champions League, and playing the kind of turgid football which so blighted the latter years of Houllier's reign.

Houllier was allowed to carry on too long at Liverpool; that much is clear. By the time he departed in 2004, Liverpool were 30 points off the Premier League summit, with a squad littered with inadequate or under-performing players. It would take Benitez the best part of four seasons to repair the damage, but he now finds himself facing the same kind of questions - and it should also be noted that Houllier collected four major trophies in his Liverpool career (though Benitez's 2005 European Cup success certainly trumps any of those).

The current situation is not exactly the same, but the similarities are obvious. Critics of Benitez feel that, like Houllier, his early success has afforded him too much room for failure at Anfield. And whilst that is a tad harsh, it is also true to say that plenty of Liverpool's failings this season can be placed at the manager's door.

It isn't his fault that the financial goalposts have been moved over the past 18 months - something Houllier never had to contend with - but Benitez has not helped his cause.

Liverpool's performances this season have been largely dire, and when you consider that of the eleven that started at Old Trafford a year ago, only Sami Hyypia has left the club, questions must be asked.

Why, for example, does Steven Gerrard appear to be playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders? The skipper went public over his dismay at seeing Xabi Alonso leave the club in the summer, but that alone cannot explain why his trademark dynamism and passion have been so subdued for so much of this season. Plenty inside Anfield believe Gerrard lacks confidence in his manager, and if the captain is in doubt, then the club is in trouble.

Of course Benitez's supporters will feel, with justification, that one poor showing should not seal the fate of a manager who, it must be pointed out, came as close as any Liverpool manager since Kenny Dalglish to delivering the elusive 19th league title. Benitez's win percentage, even allowing for this current season, is still higher (56 per cent) than any Liverpool manager since Dalglish - Houllier's stood at just 50 per cent during his six-year reign.

But on the other hand, failure to secure Champions League qualification, whilst not the Armageddon situation painted by some, will have a massive effect on Liverpool. Sure, they have failed before - most recently under Houllier in 2003 - but the Premier League landscape is different this time, and the likes of Tottenham and Manchester City have the capacity to elbow the Reds out of English football's elite group - in the short-term at least.

Avram Grant would claim Rafa Benitez doesn't know the half of financial and political turmoil within football. Anything less than a win for Liverpool this evening against truly-in-crisis Portsmouth doesn't even bear thinking about, but even those three points won't change the fact Rafa seems more Gerard than Gerrard, and is looking more and more beyond redemption with each passing week.

Rafael Benitez Worried About Striker Fernando Torres Leaving Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is worried that striker Fernando Torres may leave the club for greener pastures, should the Reds fail to secure Champions League football for next term.

The Merseysiders woke up on the wrong side of the bed this season, losing to Tottenham Hotspur on day one, and went on to bow out of the Champions League in the group stage, which left them to compete in the Europa League.

And life in the Europa League has not gone as planned either, as they now have a 1-0 deficit against Lille - and need a stage a comeback in the second leg at Anfield to ensure progression in Europe's second tier competition.

To worsen matters, the former Valencia boss has been under the critics' eye for some time now, and also has been linked with a move away from the club in recent weeks, with Real Madrid being mooted as one possible destination.

In the midst of it all, Reds key hit-man Torres recently suggested that the club must invest ambitiously in the summer if they are to compete for silverware next season.

However, Rafa is now worried as to whether the fan favourite will remain at Anfield next season, should his side fail in its quest to finish in a Champions League spot.

"Finishing fourth in the Premier League would mean a lot to Fernando," Benitez said, according to The Guardian.

"People talk about money with Fernando but I can tell you his main motivation is winning trophies. That is what drives him. That is always the main topic in any discussion between us.

"Fernando's only thought is to be challenging for honours, it's all that concerns him. He wants to be playing in the Champions League," he concluded.

Reds Unveil New Recruit

James Walker is the man charged with retaining Liverpool’s Superleague Formula by Sonangol crown after being confirmed as the club’s new signing for the 2010 campaign.

The 25-year-old from Jersey arrives with a rich pedigree in the racing world, having capped three seasons in Formula Renault 3.5 with a fifth placed finish last year.

During that time, Walker also made selected Superleague Formula appearances, culminating in a victory for Borussia Dortmund at Jerez in 2008.

"It's going to be great. Over the winter I've had a strange period of not knowing what I'm doing so to find out I'll be racing for Liverpool in Superleague Formula is fantastic," he said.

"Having done two races before I've already got a feel of what it's all about and the thought of doing a whole season now - and aiming for the championship - is going to be an honour and really exciting".

"With the prize fund that's up for grabs this year, which has been a big attraction, I'm only interested in winning after challenging for the Formula Renault 3.5 crown last year. The only realistic aim is to try to win the title and I think we've got a very good chance of doing just that while hopefully winning a lot of races along the way".

Walker is also honoured to be racing for the Merseysiders: "The thought of representing a prestigious club like Liverpool, one of the biggest teams in Europe and having the link between English club and driver, has got fantastic foundations already for being successful. As a local driver, trying to get the fans behind me is going to be a lot easier so hopefully we can have as good a season as they had in 2009".

The Reds will once again be working with the Atech Grand Prix team - the new name for Hitech Junior Team - and Principal David Hayle is relishing the chance to work alongside Walker.

"James is part of the Atech family really because he raced for me for two years while in British F3 and I've followed his career closely ever since," Hayle confirmed. "When this opportunity came about it made perfect sense".

"I think it's going to be tough for everyone this year, now that Superleague Formula is growing and more and more people want to be a part of it. I would have thought that James is certainly one of the championship favourites though."

Liverpool start their title-defence at home on April 3-4 when Superleague Formula by Sonangol travels to Silverstone for 2010's opening fixture.

Cascarino: Benítez Style Of Football Is Not Fit For The Bernabéu Car park

The former Chelsea FC and Aston Villa forward Tony Cascarino believes Rafa Benitez must take responsibility for Liverpool FC’s woes this season.

The Republic of Ireland legend claims rumours of Real Madrid’s interest in Benitez are ludicrous because the Liverpool FC manager’s brand of football is clearly not suited to the Bernabeu.

Liverpool FC are currently struggling to finish inside the Premier League’s top four this season, and the ex-Aston Villa star suggests Benitez’s negative tactics are to blame.

Despite Liverpool FC’s woes this season the former Valencia coach continues to be linked with the Real Madrid job Cascarino clearly feels Benitez is ill-suited to it.

Liverpool FC have scored just nine goals in ten games, and with Portsmouth, Lille and Manchester United to come in the space of a week, Cascarino is unsure where their next goal will come from.

The former Aston Villa forward told the Times: “Rumours persist that Rafael Benítez is off to Real Madrid but, at the moment, his style of football is not fit for the Bernabéu car park.”

“It’s negative, defensive, spoiling, “nothing” football.”

“It reminds me of the England rugby union team, who cannot score tries and do not look like doing so.”

“Liverpool rarely look like scoring — only nine goals in ten games. What a bore, Rafa.”