Sunday, March 21, 2010

Match Preview: Manchester United vs Liverpool

There may be a sizeable gap between the two in the Premier League table, but all that will count for naught when Manchester United host Liverpool on Sunday afternoon.

Sir Alex Ferguson's men are on track for a 19th league title, and their Merseyside foes will be desperate to prevent that in any way they can as they look to maintain their status as England's most successful club.

And while Rafael Benitez and his charges have had precious little to smile about this season, they know that they are capable of not only beating, but humiliating their North West rivals.

Indeed, United have lost each of their last three encounters with Liverpool, the lowest of the lowlights being a 4-1 drubbing at Old Trafford this time last year.

That clash was a genuine title fight in and of itself, with the result launching the Scousers back into contention - although they would eventually fall four points short of their noisy neighbours.

That element is altogether absent from this clash, with 'Pool battling just to stay in the hunt for Champions League qualification while United sit top of the table.

But while their goals may differ now, the gap in points tallies doesn't diminish the fact that this the biggest and most fiercely fought fixture on the English calendar.

And it may be difficult to tell the home and away fans apart, given their shared fondness for banners adorned with the phrase 'YANKS OUT!'...


Manchester United

Mar 14: Man United 3-0 Fulham (Premier League)
Mar 10: Man United 4-0 Milan (Champions League)
Mar 6: Wolverhampton 0-1 Man United (Premier League)
Feb 28: Aston Villa 1-2 Man United (League Cup)
Feb 23: Man United 3-0 West Ham (Premier League)


Mar 18: Liverpool 3-0 Lille (Europa League)
Mar 15: Liverpool 4-1 Portsmouth (Premier League)
Mar 11: Lille 1-0 Liverpool (Europa League)
Mar 8: Wigan 1-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 28: Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn (Premier League)


Manchester United

Ryan Giggs will be available for selection after missing the Red Devils' last seven games with a broken arm. Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva have also returned to training.

The travelling supporters will be denied the opportunity to heap scorn upon Michael Owen, as a hamstring injury means the former Kop favourite will play no further part this season.

Anderson, Wes Brown, Owen Hargreaves and John O'Shea are also sidelined.

Last starting XI (vs. Fulham): Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Park, Fletcher, Carrick, Nani, Berbatov, Rooney.


Fabio Aurelio was one of United's tormentors this time last year, and the Brazilian free-kick specialist could make the matchday squad pending a late fitness test. Martin Skrtel, though, remains laid up with a metatarsal injury.

Albert Riera's midweek outburst has seen him frozen out of the club, meaning the left-wing berth will go to any of Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun or Maxi Rodriguez - although many have called for the Argentine to play in place of Dirk Kuyt on the right after his impressive outing against Pompey.

Alberto Aquilani also starred on Monday night, but a stomach bug kept the Italian playmaker out of the Lille clash and he remains a doubt for the trip to Old Trafford.

Last starting XI (vs. Lille): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel, Torres.


Manchester United - Wayne Rooney

Quite simply in the form his life. The Everton old boy has 25 goals in 28 Premier League appearances, and he will be determined to add to that tally as he leads the line against his blood foes. Moreover, his newfound aerial dominance will test a Reds defence which has often faltered against good crossing and set pieces.

Liverpool - Fernando Torres

His season may have been blighted by injury, but the Spaniard's stats are no less impressive than Rooney's - 15 league goals from just 19 appearances. Even short of match fitness, 'El Nino' was majestic against Lille and Portsmouth and will be sure to give his favourite whipping boy, Nemanja Vidic, a torrid old time.

Reds Look To Derail United's Ambitions

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez may not publicly admit it but he would take great delight in having a hand in preventing Manchester United securing a record-breaking 19th league title this season.

The two north-west rivals are currently locked on 18 apiece but, sadly for the Merseysiders, their last championship came 20 years ago.

In the intervening two decades their arch-enemies have rapidly caught them up and are currently in a three-way battle with Chelsea and Arsenal as they seek to win an unprecedented fourth successive Premier League crown.

Liverpool, by contrast, are scrapping for fourth place with Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa and it says much for the current malaise at Anfield that denying United another success ranks high on their list of ambitions in the remainder of the campaign.

They do have a Europa League quarter-final against Benfica to look forward to but home really is where the heart is for Liverpool fans who desperately crave another title.

Benitez, wisely, chose not to leave himself open to criticism for taking more interest in a spoiling role than dealing with Liverpool's deficiencies but he knows the significance of United usurping his club's history.

"I think for all our fans it would be really good [to stop United]," said the Spaniard.

"The rivalry between both teams is massive but for me, as a professional, I will keep my feelings inside.

"These games between United and Liverpool are more or less the same for both - it doesn't matter about the position in the table because both want to win so the pressure will be on both sides.

"As a manager you want to win against any club but especially against top sides.

"We need to win because we want to be in the top four."

Forward Dirk Kuyt was more forthcoming with his feelings, admitting: "No-one here at Liverpool wants to see them winning another league title but the main thing for us is to win our own games."

Benitez broke his Old Trafford duck last season with the stunning 4-1 victory over United, the second of three successive wins over Sir Alex Ferguson's side - all of which have resulted in defender Nemanja Vidic being sent off.

However, the Liverpool manager - like his United counterpart - does not believe that result will have any bearing on Sunday’s encounter.

"It is another game, another season so we have to approach it as another challenge," said Benitez, who will give a late fitness test to midfielder Alberto Aquilani after the Italian missed the Europa League victory over Lille with a sickness bug.

"Maybe they will think if we don't play well they can beat us but they have experience and will approach the game as they usually do.

"I don't think they will be thinking too much about the past.

"Last year was a very important and amazing game for us. It was the first victory there for me but it is another year and another challenge and we have to concentrate on this game."

Liverpool at least head into the match on the back of two successive victories, 4-1 over Portsmouth and 3-0 against Lille, in the last six days.

That has provided a much-needed boost to the players' flagging spirits, as has the form of striker Fernando Torres.

The Spain international, celebrating his 26th birthday today, now has 17 goals in 27 appearances of an injury-hit season and has scored in his last two matches against United.

"In terms of the week, we've had two good wins and people have more confidence so we will move forward and be ready for the next game," said Benitez.

"We played really well on Monday and Thursday was a good game and hopefully we can get a result at Old Trafford.

"If we stick together we can beat anyone. Old Trafford will be difficult but we will try.

"If we can work like we did against Lille and we have a game plan it will be the small details that make the difference."

Benitez has been left to bemoan his bad luck in terms of injuries this season, particularly to Torres.

The striker missed five weeks after a knee operation in January but had struggled with a hernia problem prior to that.

Had he been fit for the entire season Benitez believes Liverpool would have been close to replicating their record haul of last season when they amassed 86 points in running United a close second.

"The gap would be reduced - how much I don't know - but Torres fit and scoring would have been a big difference," said the Reds boss.

Babel Eyes Dazzling Finale

Ryan Babel is determined to maintain his recent resurgence and repay the Liverpool supporters with a series of dazzling displays.

The Dutch forward has shown glimpses of the form that had many tipping him as a star of the future in recent weeks and is confident his approach will give the Kop more reason to cheer.

"For any player, if you are given games to show what you can do, it's a good thing and also for me," he said.

"I hope I can show more of this and hopefully give something back to the supporters.

"Slowly you regain confidence when you play a number of games so hopefully I can show what I can do.

"They expect me to always dribble or take men on. It's not always possible but I try it as much as I can because that's what I want to do as well."

"Hopefully if I can show more of this in the future I will be very pleased."

The Holland international still has one eye on this summer's World Cup and is hopeful some top performances with Liverpool will earn him a place in his country's squad.

He added: "I'm happy that I could start again [on Thursday]. I think I'm very pleased with the team performance.

"If I play a lot of games then maybe I have a good chance to go to the World Cup."

Rafael Benitez: I Wouldn't Swap Fernando Torres For Wayne Rooney

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has insisted he would not swap Fernando Torres for anybody, not even Wayne Rooney.

Manchester United's Scouse star has shot through the stratosphere with 32 goals already this season, a return which has led some pundits to dub him the best striker in the world.

However, Torres has reminded everyone of his claim to such a titile since returning from injury last month, with doubles against both Portsmouth and Lille during the week.

And while Benitez acknowledged Rooney's obvious quality, he was confident there is no-one he'd rather have leading the Reds' line than 'El Nino'.

“I don’t think I would swap Fernando [Torres] for anyone, not even [Wayne] Rooney, not really. Fernando is a fantastic player, so is Rooney too,” the Spaniard told a press conference.

“There’s no doubt Rooney is very, very good. But Fernando is our player, the fans love him and we want to keep him for a very long time.

“He has something that is very important. These players make the difference in these big games, and for us, Fernando is very important.

“If he had been fit all this season, then the gap to the top would have been smaller, that is clear. If Fernando is fit, he’d score in a lot of games.”

Torres and Rooney will duel this Sunday as Liverpool visit Old Trafford hoping to make it four wins on the trot against United.

The Reds may not be enjoying the finest of seasons, as symbolised by Steven Gerrard's unusually indifferent form throughout, but Benitez knows his big guns are capable of blowing away even the toughest opponents.

“We know we can match any team. We have players like Torres and [Steven] Gerrard - if they are fully fit they can change games and win games,” he added.

“Gerrard loves playing [Manchester] United and I think Torres does too. The top class players want to play against the top sides and against other top class players.

“Both will enjoy it hopefully and it will be a challenge for them.”

Reina Holds No Reds Regrets

Jose Reina has denied Liverpool are a 'sinking ship' and insists he will not regret extending his contract.

The highly-rated goalkeeper agreed a new four-year extension at Anfield earlier in the month, meaning the 27-year-old Spanish international has committed his best years to the Merseyside outfit.

Europe's elite, including Reina's former employers Barcelona, had reportedly been keeping tabs on the talented shot-stopper in case he wanted to jump the 'sinking ship' - in the words of team-mate Albert Riera.

But the former Villarreal number one stands by his decision to remain at Liverpool for the next six years.

"I am really proud and really lucky to be here," said Reina, who will be charged with the task of halting Wayne Rooney when Manchester United host Liverpool on Sunday, a game live on Sky Sports.

"I felt wanted from the beginning and these kind of things are personal. My mind is clear, my decision is taken and I have no regrets at all.

"It is nice to hear that other teams want me. But I am not thinking about leaving Liverpool at all. This is the right club for me.

"I don't see it as a sacrifice, signing for so long, and it doesn't make any difference to me if some people are saying I could have had my pick of clubs across Europe.

"I have talked it through with my wife and we don't see any better place to go. It is personal as well as professional. The education of my child is another factor and I feel it would be brilliant for my kids to grow up speaking two languages.

"I want them to speak English as well as Spanish and if it turns out to be with a Scouse accent, I will still be proud of them!"

Reina accepts that Liverpool have endured a miserable campaign thus far, with expectations of ending a 20-year wait for the domestic title not reached in a season that could see the Reds finishing outside the top four and missing out on a coveted UEFA Champions League place.

But the Reds shot-stopper responded to comments by team-mate and compatriot Riera that manager Rafa Benitez is not prepared to change a losing side by insisting the rest of the camp are dedicated to the cause.

"We always want the best for the supporters and to deliver trophies for them. But even when we are not, they are always behind the team and that is priceless," he said.

"All of us want to win trophies but sometimes that is not the case, and you cannot throw in the towel. It has been a long wait for the fans, 20 years without a league title, and I would just love to be here when and if it happens."

Exclusive: Buyout Tycoon Lined Up For Liverpool Bid

I have learned that John Muse, the American private equity tycoon, is to play a leading role in an offer to buy a 40 per cent stake in Liverpool Football Club.

Muse has been lined up to co-invest alongside Rhone Capital, a US investment firm which last week tabled the first formal proposal to inject new funds into the Premier League club.

What I'm not clear about is how much money Muse, who is now chairman of HM Capital Partners, another private equity group, would invest under the Rhone proposal, which would see it paying about £110m in exchange for a 40 per cent stake.

The news is nonetheless significant because Muse was one of the founders of Hicks Muse Tate & Furst, the buyout firm where Tom Hicks, one of Liverpool's current co-owners, also made his name and fortune.

Hicks and Muse are said by people who know them to have had an at times uneasy relationship, although it seems logical to assume that they are on decent terms now.

After all, Hicks and George Gillett, the current shareholders, will continue to collectively own a majority of the equity in the club even if the terms of Rhone's bid would hand it effective control.

Christian Purslow, the highly-regarded managing director of Liverpool, has set an Easter deadline for serious offers. There has been plenty of speculative interest from around the world but I'd be surprised if there were more than three concrete proposals for Purslow to consider at that stage.

Liverpool had some decent news last night when they progressed to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, suggesting they may yet salvage some silverware from a dismal season. Whether the news off the pitch during the next two months remains unclear.

Rhone and Muse both declined to comment today.

The Genius Of Yossi Benayoun

It didn’t take long for Liverpool’s no. 15 to eclipse cult hero Ronny Rosenthal as the club’s greatest ever Israeli player. Benayoun, or “Benny Noon” as David Pleat insists on calling him (the clue’s in the letters David) proved to be one of Rafael Benitez’s more prudent signings when signed from West Ham for £5m in 2007.

Yet recent speculation has linked the Israeli captain with a move away from Merseyside. Liverpool had already rejected a £5m offer from Olympiakos in January, before sources within Dynamo Moscow claimed Benayoun to have agreed terms with the Russian club in preparation for an Anfield exit in the summer. If he does leave for pastures new, he will be sorely missed. has a look at some of the reasons why.

1.) Vision – An intelligent player, Benayoun has great positional sense, times his runs well and hits the right channels. Most threatening towards the end of a game when defenders begin to tire, Benayoun is regularly introduced from the bench by Liverpool coach Benitez and on occasion has completely torn teams apart.

2.) Touch – Benayoun has great feet, his touch is flawless and he has the ability and the confidence to run at defences with the ball at his feet. In the absence of Gerrard and Torres, it is always Benayoun who is often singled out by opposition managers as Liverpool’s major threat.

3.) Work rate – Unlike a lot of wingers who have a tendency to go missing in games, Benayoun is a wide player who has the dedication to track back and support his full-back. He never shrinks away from making tackles, occasionally conceding free-kicks in dangerous areas in doing so, but you can’t fault his enthusiasm.

4.) Goals – When it comes to these Liverpool have a tendency to over-rely on lone striker Fernando Torres. Benayoun has stepped up along with the likes of Gerrard and Kuyt over the last couple of seasons to ensure the goals keep coming. The Israeli notched hat-tricks at Anfield in this season’s comprehensive 4-0 defeat of Burnley as well as 8-0 drubbing of Besiktas last campaign.

5.) Big game player – It’s all very well scoring when your team’s playing well, but Benayoun has hit his fair share of crucial goals in his time at Liverpool as well. His pivotal strike at the Bernabeu to give Liverpool the upper hand against Real Madrid in the Champions League won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Nor will his injury-time winner at Fulham about this time last season which gave the Reds renewed hope of winning the title. That goal prompted scenes of jubilation among the travelling support and Liverpool fans should keep their fingers crossed there are more of these to come.

Alan Smith: Albert Riera Fall-Out Shows Rafael Benitez Man-Management Style Needs Tweak

Take a look at this quote: "People expect more from me and it's not easy. But they are also not doing what they said they were going to ... I can have a spectacular game but nobody guarantees me I will be starting the next match. It shatters your confidence ... He [the manager] can go from complimenting you to just plain trashing you in a matter of minutes."

Now compare it with this one: "I have been here two years and I know how he is. He has never sorted out a situation with a player by talking with him... If I'm doing something badly and you are my boss, and you value me, then you are going to come and tell me what I have to do to play again. This is what hurts me. His dialogue with the players is practically nil."

The first quote comes from Nani earlier this season when the Portuguese winger couldn't hold down a place at Manchester United. The second comes from Liverpool's Albert Riera after the Spaniard's frustration boiled over this week.

Both complaints are borne from a lack of match action but they also reveal the inherent differences between the respective methods of Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benítez.

Because while Ferguson will slaughter you in front of everyone, he will also lavish praise when it's deserved. Not only that, the United manager will show compassion and patience if he believes someone harbours genuine promise.

He has proved this with Nani, an underachieving show pony for much of his time at Old Trafford but now starting to emerge as a proper player.

Benítez, on the other hand, struggles when it comes to showing his human side. Unlike Ferguson, he just can't bring himself to put a kindly arm around the shoulder when circumstances demand a lighter touch. Without doubt, his man-management skills could do with a tweak.

Among other things, that's what separates the two. That's why Nani has turned into a force for United, while Xabi Alonso got the hump with Benítez and left, and why Riera will probably end up leaving, too.

It might also have a bearing on why, going into Sunday's clash, 15 points separate United and Liverpool.