Sunday, March 28, 2010

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs. Sunderland

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has no new injury worries for the home match against Sunderland in the Barclays Premier League.

With no midweek match, Benitez has been able to give his squad some time off to recuperate from a busy schedule involving Europa League matches.

He may opt for a more attacking line-up at home than he did for last Sunday's defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford, which could bring the likes of Ryan Babel, Alberto Aquilani and Yossi Benayoun into contention.

Martin Skrtel (foot) and Fabio Aurelio (thigh) are still a couple of weeks away from fitness while Albert Riera is unlikely to be included as the club consider a loan deal to Russia for the Spain winger.

Benitez does not believe his summer transfer budget will be affected by their Barclays Premier League finish but remains confident they can still qualify for Europe's premier club competition.

"I understand really well. For five years we qualified for the Champions League so we knew it was important for the club,'' said the manager.

"They (the owners) told me at the beginning of the season that there would not be a big difference (in the transfer budget).

"Hopefully we can finish in the top four. We've had one bad season but we hope it will be better another day.''

If Liverpool are to overtake fourth-placed Tottenham and Manchester City, as well as keep Aston Villa at bay, they need to win at least five of their remaining seven matches.

That starts at home to Sunderland, who were 1-0 victors back in October courtesy of Darren Bent's goal which was controversially deflected in off a beach ball thrown from the crowd.

Anfield stewards will be extra vigilant to ensure there can be no repeat from the visiting fans but Benitez is more concerned with beating the Black Cats.

"We are strong. We lost against Manchester United (last Sunday) but they were at the top of the table and the difference between the two teams was very small,'' said the Liverpool boss.

"I am sure Sunderland will provide a physical test for our players but if we can play our game we can beat anyone, especially at home.''

Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones has a chance of returning at Anfield.

The Trinidad and Tobago international has missed the last two games with a hip flexor injury but is back in training and may well be involved.

However, defender John Mensah (hamstring) is struggling after limping off at Aston Villa in midweek while midfielder Andy Reid remains on the sidelines with a similar problem.

Fraizer Campbell will draw upon his Manchester United roots as he attempts to deepen Liverpool's misery.

The 22-year-old Sunderland striker grew up in the game at Old Trafford, and although he played only a handful of senior games for the club after emerging from the Red Devils' Academy, he is well versed in the long-standing rivalry between the two clubs.

This weekend, the Huddersfield-born player will step out at Anfield determined to complete a famous double which would be almost as well received in the red half of Manchester as it would be back in the north-east.

Campbell said: "I have got a lot of Manchester United fans in my family, so they would be more than happy with that.

"These are the type of games that, when you are a youngster, you think, 'I would love to play at Anfield'.

"Every time I have played against Liverpool, there has always been a bit of bite.

"It will be good to go to Anfield and hopefully come away with a result and more points.

"We beat them earlier in the season at home, so I don't see why we can't do it now."

John Aldridge: Benfica Against Liverpool Test Is So Eagerly Awaited

Europe comes back on the agenda next week and though the competition might not be the one Liverpool want to be in, we have got a fantastic game ahead of us.

I have been in Portugal for most of the past week and I can tell you that all anyone is talking about is Liverpool’s Europa League showdown with Benfica; it has really captured the imagination.

Benfica was undoubtedly the most difficult tie Liverpool could have been given but the atmosphere will be amazing and I would imagine Rafa Benitez is determined to prove a point back in the Stadio da Luz.

The last time Liverpool played there in 2006, we threw a great chance away and ended up being comprehensively beaten over two legs. Since then, Benfica have blossomed and are a team going places.

It will be a difficult test but it would be great to think we could take a step closer to Hamburg by getting a result in Lisbon.

The winners of this tie will be favourites to lift the trophy.

Torres Urges Club To Make Four Top-Class Signings

Fernando Torres has confirmed he has no plans to leave Liverpool this summer but has again called on the club to invest in "quality players" for next season.

Liverpool are currently struggling to secure Champions League qualification for next season and there have been persistent rumours that Torres may be sold to balance the books if they do not finish fourth.

However, Torres is hopeful that there will be significant investment over the close season and insists he has no plans to leave even if Liverpool fail to make the Champions League.

"My place is here at Liverpool, and in England," he told his personal website.

"It's too early to talk, but I still think that we will finish fourth, but qualifying for the Champions League isn't the most important thing on my mind. The most important thing is for the club is to try and sign quality players, footballers who improve the quality of current squad.

"We need four more top players to be really competitive, players who are better than all of us who are here at the moment, and whose arrival will make the rest work that extra bit harder.

"Next season we want to be challenging for the Premier League title and the Champions League or Europa League but, for that to happen, we need some new signings. And remember, I've still got three years to run on my contract.

"I've said before that we need four or five top players so that we push ourselves even more. Competition for places is a positive thing, especially at big clubs.

"As for the new signings, that's a question for Rafa Benitez. The boss in charge of everything to do with the new arrivals."

Torres Quashes Exit Claims

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has rebuffed reports he will leave the club at the end of their dismal campaign.

The news will come as a relief to the Anfield faithful, who have seen Torres net 18 goals in just 24 starts this term - a shining light in an otherwise wretched season for the Reds.

Rafa Benitez's men face an uphill struggle if they are to qualify for next season's UEFA Champions League and at present look short of mounting a Premier League charge next term.

Torres admits Liverpool must bring in "quality players" over the summer but insists failure to qualify for Europe's premier club competition will not force him to consider a move.

"My place is here at Liverpool, and in England," the 26-year-old told his personal website.

"We need some new signings," he admitted, while adding his ambitions for next season include "challenging for the Premier League title, and the Champions League or Europa League."

The former Atletico Madrid forward has three years remaining on his current Anfield contract and is expected to put his credentials on show at this summer's World Cup with Spain.

Rafa: Defender Not A Problem

Rafael Benitez has emphatically dismissed question marks over the form of Emiliano Insua, insisting he is satisfied with the full-back's first-team performances.

Fabio Aurelio's injury problems and the sale of Andrea Dossena have meant the 21-year-old has figured in all but two of Liverpool's 31 Barclays Premier League fixtures so far this term.

And while Benitez admits Insua still has room for improvement, he is pleased with the development of the Argentina international.

"He has made some mistakes like the other players, but he has also played some good games. I don't see him as a problem," said the Spaniard.

"It is true with Fabio Aurelio we had more experience and different options - we could give a rest to Aurelio and Insua - but that is not the case now, so we have to keep pushing Emiliano.

"He is at the age to learn. He is young and wants to improve, so we are working very hard with him trying to give him some ideas and advice.

"I think he is doing well - he is not doing badly."

With Insua the only senior left-back currently available for selection, some have questioned whether Jamie Carragher could operate in the position.

Benitez, however, has not entertained such thoughts.

"Insua can do it well," said the boss. "He is left-footed, so when you think of attack, he can overlap when he goes forward, cross and be a different option.

"If you have a right-footed player there, it is always more difficult for them."

Carra: Torres Is A Nightmare

Jamie Carragher today revealed how he hates marking Fernando Torres in training and lauded the Spanish sensation as the world's top striker.

Torres is currently in a rich vein of form having bagged five goals in his last three games and Carra reckons there is no finer front man than Liverpool's No.9.

"For me I think Torres is the best striker in the world," he said. "But I can see arguments for (Wayne) Rooney and (Didier) Drogba. Man Utd fans would say Rooney and Chelsea fans would say Drogba. They are all in the Barclays Premier League.

"Torres is a nightmare to defend against in training. He has pace and power and that is what causes you problems. He is not going to drop off and do nice touches. He is always looking to get beyond you and score a goal."

Meanwhile, Carragher believes dented confidence has been a key factor in Liverpool's up-and-down season.

The Reds began the campaign amongst the title favourites after finishing second last term having amassed 86 points, but mixed early season form and misfortune saw Rafael Benitez's contingent fall out of championship contention.

Carragher said: "There is no set reason why the season has not gone as well as we would have hoped.

"We just haven't played well enough. We struggled right from the off. I think we were hit hard by the disappointment of not fighting for the league title like we thought we would. That knocked our confidence.

"Last year we were at our best. We were flying and confidence was high but it has been different this season.

"For other teams, fourth is top of the world and they have been buzzing all season, but we were disappointed realising we would not win the league."

Liverpool enjoyed great success against title rivals Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal last season - with only the Gunners preventing the Reds from winning by claiming a couple of draws.

Carragher continued: "Each year is different and the little things can change it, like when we conceded two quick goals against Arsenal at Anfield.

"Any little thing against the top sides gets punished. We still have Chelsea to play and that is a very big game if we want to get into the top four."

Nonetheless, the Reds will still aim to end 2009-10 on a high note as they pursue a top four finish and success in the Europa League.

At the start of the weekend, Liverpool were four points behind fourth place Tottenham Hotspur in the Barclays Premier League having played a game more.

Carragher feels Harry Redknapp's men are currently 'slight favourites' in the race for Champions League football - but the vice-captain is calling on his teammates to ensure a strong finale to the season.

"Tottenham are in the driving seat at the moment," he said. "They are playing well and winning games. But you don't know how the FA Cup will affect them.

"We have got to put a great run together because Aston Villa and Manchester City are challenging hard and Everton are sneaking up there."

He added: "The Champions League is probably the biggest club knock-out competition in the world. It is as big, or bigger, than the World Cup."

Striker Eyes Red Future

A first-team debut at the Emirates, goals galore at reserve level and a part to play in Huddersfield Town's bid for promotion - it's fair to say it's been an eventful season for Nathan Eccleston.

The 19-year-old striker has made huge strides this year and marked his first game on loan at the Terriers with a debut strike at Yeovil.

Earlier this week, made the trip up the M62 to see how the youngster has adapted to life in League One.

Here he tells us how Martin Kelly influenced his decision to make the move, why Terry McDermott is still passionate about all-things LFC and why he is determined to return to Anfield and make a big impression next term.

Well Nathan, you're a few months into your loan at Huddersfield Town now, how's life treating you?

It's been good. I arrived in late January and straight away the people here made me feel welcome. It's a terrific stadium and they are a good ambitious club. Hopefully we can end the season with promotion.

It's been an eventful campaign for Nathan Eccleston hasn't it...

Yes it has. I moved up from the youth team last year and it's been a whole new experience for me. I've made quite quick progress. I did well in the reserves and then the manager gave me a chance in the first-team. I had those two games within the space of a week and now I'm here on loan looking to gain more experience. As a young player I think that's what I need and I'm grateful to Huddersfield for giving me the chance.

Of course, you're not the only former red to have been on loan at Huddersfield. Last season Martin Kelly earned rave reviews here - did you speak to him when you were mulling over the move?

It all happened quite quickly really. A week earlier I was actually speaking to Martin about going out on loan and when I first heard about a potential loan move here I got on the phone to him. He basically confirmed everything, telling me that they were a good club and played football the right way. He told me he enjoyed his football here last year and that it would probably benefit me.

We bumped into former red, Terry McDermott earlier (assistant manager of Huddersfield Town). He's really pleased with how you've done so far. Has he been a big help?

Yes, definitely. The first day I arrived here all of the coaching staff were really welcoming. The players have all been great too. They could have seen it as competition for their place, but it hasn't been like that at all. They've been really helpful.

Have you had much banter with Terry Mac, particularly when you consider his past exploits with the Reds?

Yes, right from the first day, he was telling me all about his career at Liverpool and how times have changed. He's highly respected throughout the game and from what he achieved at Anfield he is rightly regarded as a legend. He's still got a big interest in Liverpool, asking me about all the up-and-coming players and who to watch out for.

You made an immediate impact too, with the winner against Yeovil. How pleasing was that to score your first senior goal?

It was great. I did a few interviews before the game in which I talked about how pleased I would be to score on my debut, so to actually do it was fantastic. But the main thing was to get the three points. I think Yeovil had only been beaten twice at home before that, so it was a bit of a dream start for me.

You've been in and out of the side since then, has that been frustrating or have you just seen it as part of your learning curve?

No, it's more about a learning curve. I'm only 19 and coming from reserve football, it is a lot different to league football. Any player who comes out on loan from the Premier League has to expect to fight for their place. You can't just expect to come out here and be in the team, you have to earn your place. It's just made me more hungry to fight for a place in the team.

Huddersfield are currently pushing for a place in the play-offs. Would the dream finale be for you to play in the final at Wembley?

Yes, definitely. Obviously, it's something you aspire to do when you are young boy. Just playing there in itself is a big achievement. If we can do that it would be magnificent for the club and obviously for me as an individual as well.

And just finally, in the summer your main aim must be to return to Liverpool and try to kick-on again...

That's my personal goal. I've come here to gain the experience so that I can go back to Liverpool and push for a place in the first team squad. I've got three more years to do that, so I'm looking forward to going back there in the summer.

Reds In Madrid Striker Link

Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is set to rule the roost at the Bernabeu with a summer clear as he looks to recoup some of the £250 million spent on 'Galactico' signings last summer.

Reports this week in El Mundo Deportivo and Marca report that up to nine Madrid squad members could face the axe this summer with Premier League clubs Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool linked with possible swoops.

Perez is set to execute a strict summer exit policy at the 'White House' in an effort to raise funds for new stars.

It is understood that the influential businessman was shocked by Madrid's sixth consecutive premature Champions League after they were dumped out of the competition by French Ligue 1 side Lyon.

To rub salt into the wounds Madrid fans had hoped the club would reach the Champions League final as it is being held in the club's magnificent Bernabeu stadium.

The Premier League quartet of Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool have been linked with moves for a number of Madrid's players who are surplus to requirements under Perez.

Reports in El Mundo Deportivo suggest that Madrid legend Raul will retire at the end of the season, as could former Liverpool FC goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.

Reds boss Rafael Benitez has been linked with a move for in-form Argentinean international Gonzalo Higuain.

The striker has been in great form for Los Merengues this campaign, and despite good performances could still lose his berth in the first XI if Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery joins moves to the Bernabeu.

Liverpool boss Benitez is a confirmed admirer of Higuain, with reports suggesting he would swoop for the player if he became available.

Benitez To Bank On Experience

Manager Rafael Benitez thinks Liverpool's previous experience in securing Champions League football will help them come good at the end of the season.

The Reds are currently sixth, four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, but that gap could be more by the end of the day.

And although his side have played more matches than Spurs, Manchester City and Aston Villa, Benitez is confident his players can rise to the occasion with at least five wins required from their last seven matches.

"I had the belief before last weekend's defeat at Manchester United and the main thing is to keep focused on our games and try to win and we will see what happens with the other teams," said the Spaniard.

"Normally when you are in a top side and you have been in a top side for years you expect to approach every game thinking about just winning.

"With the other teams you never know but at this moment they have an excellent motivation.

"But it is different for them, when they have been coming fifth, sixth or seventh, to go forward than when you have been in the top four and have had some problems.

"That is the extra motivation they have so the experience we have will be our motivation too."

Liverpool host Sunderland on Sunday, a game they have to win if they are to maintain the pressure on their rivals.

Midfielder Javier Mascherano is likely to play a key role against combative opponents Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana.

Benitez praised the attitude of the Argentina captain, who this week said the Reds boss had made him "a better player and better person".

Mascherano is on the verge of signing a new long-term contract and Benitez, with a dig at winger Albert Riera who criticised him for not communicating with his players, said that was partly due to the relationship they had.

"We are working hard behind the scenes so it is closer. I talk with him every day so I know the latest news," said the manager.

"The last conversation was very positive. He knows we are trying to improve the club and hopefully we can do it sooner rather than later.

"For a manager who doesn't talk to the players - so some of them say - that is good.

"I think he has improved a lot and he is keen to learn. He is 100% and the fans love him and we know when we are trying to improve him in a different way he will listen and try to do what you say.

"The main thing is the attitude of the player and his character."

Anfield stewards will be extra vigilant with visiting fans on Sunday to ensure there can be no repeat of Darren Bent's infamous beach ball goal which earned Sunderland a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light in October.

Benitez: I Have No Cash For A Summer Spree

Rafael Benitez does not expect his Liverpool transfer kitty to be adversely affected if his club does not qualify for the Champions League this season – only because he has precious few funds to play with in the first place.

Benitez was advised at the start of the season that he could do little more than spend the money he generated, hence the purchases of Alberto Aquilani and Glen Johnson only once outgoing deals for Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa had been settled.

The manager has also spent a relatively small amount bringing Maxi Rodriguez and Sotirios Kyrgiakos to Merseyside yet he is anything but the last of the big spenders.

Not finishing fourth is currently unthinkable yet if they do not make it, he expects no reduction in his war chest only because he is determined not to miss what he never had.

"They [the owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks] told me before that it didn't make a big difference [if we don't qualify]. Every year that we have qualified for the Champions League it hasn't made a big difference so if we don't qualify this time I don't expect a big difference."

A failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a stark wake-up call to the fact that the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa are now all genuine contenders. The hegemony of the old Big Four looks to be over – with Liverpool the principal victims – yet Benitez has not given up faith that a strong end of season can restore their position among the elite.

"It could go to the very end," he said. "I don't know which teams will be there. Hopefully it will be Liverpool and maybe another one but now there are four and maybe five teams involved so it is important to remain calm."

He also confirmed that Albert Riera's time at Anfield is almost up after he publicly criticised the Liverpool manager last week. Benitez said Riera could be sent out on loan.

Mark Lawrenson Says Failure To Qualify For Champions League Could Be Disastrous

As a player, he made 241 appearances for Liverpool during the club's glory years of the 1980s, winning nine major honours. Now, he is one of the most recognised pundits around, a lynchpin of the BBC's football coverage. But whilst Mark Lawrenson retains a special affection for his old club, he believes that failure to finish in the top four this season could have disastrous consequences for the club in the long term.

Speaking exclusively to UK, Lawrenson revealed that he feels Manchester City are the team best placed to snatch the final Champions League qualification spot, despite their midweek defeat at home to Everton.

"At the moment, I think Manchester City are favourites," he said. "Tottenham have a really tough run of games, and that could prove their undoing. Liverpool, meanwhile, are inconsistent. You don't know what you are going to get with them at the moment.

"As for City, well I know Everton beat them - and beat them comfortably - but at this stage of the season I would rather have the points in the bag than the easier games to play. Because when it gets to this stage of the season, teams look at the fixtures and say 'we can win the next three or four', but it never works out that way."

Tottenham currently occupy fourth spot on 55 points, two points clear of City, and four ahead of Liverpool, and Lawrenson concedes that failure to qualify for next season's Champions League would have far harsher consequences for the Reds than their rivals, and queries whether the club's prized assets would be prepared to settle for Europa League football.

"If you look at Manchester City for example, if they can secure Champions League football next season, can you imagine the players they will be able to sign? They already have a strong squad, that will only get stronger and stronger if they can guarantee Champions League football," he said.

"Of course I would dearly love to see Liverpool finish fourth, and they do have more home games than away, and with Torres back they will always have a chance. But if they don't finish fourth, I think it becomes a major problem for them - both in terms of attracting the kind of player they need, and in keeping hold of the ones they have got.

"If we’re not in the Champions League, does Fernando Torres want to play in the Europa League? Does Steven Gerrard, after all he has done for the club? I’m not sure. The problem we have is if we don’t get fourth, there will be so much open for debate, and that’s a worry."

That worry is certainly exacerbated by fears for the club's financial well-being. The £100million of fresh investment promised by managing director Christian Purslow has yet to appear, despite reports of interest from US-based bankers the Rhone Group, and Lawrenson believes the Reds co-owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, are simply waiting for the best possible deal on their investment.

"The Americans promised Liverpool a new ground, with George Gillett saying that there would be a spade in the ground within 60 days," said Lawrenson, "That was over three years ago, which tells you all you need to know about the situation at the moment.

"I think the key with Liverpool is – what will investors get for their money? If you are going to invest in a football club, you want value for money. And I think the American’s are looking at new investment from a perspective of how much money they can make."

It is certainly a come-down from this time last season, when Liverpool were pushing Manchester United hard in the Premier League title race. This year's championship is a three-way battle between United, Arsenal and Chelsea, and Lawrenson has a sneaking feeling for Arsene Wenger's side.

"I have to tell you, when Arsenal lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, I got 10-1 on Arsenal for the league, and I took it," he says, "Just looking at their fixtures, I'd give them a massive chance. I’m not saying they are definitely going to win it, but it is looking like a good bet at the moment.

“Having said that though, would you back against Manchester United? Would you back Chelsea to go and win at Old Trafford? I’m not sure."

Lawrenson admits the title race is as open as it has been for many years, but says the reason for this is an improvement in the top seven clubs, rather than the entire league.

"I think the reason the league is so open is because the top six or seven have improved, and the rest of the league has not," he added. "So you have the top teams all beating each other, whilst the rest of the teams are perhaps scrambling around a bit, that's why the race is so open this season."

And with the PFA Player of the Year awards fast approaching, Lawrenson feels there is one candidate who stands head and shoulders above the rest this season.

"I think Wayne Rooney is a shoo-in," he says, "How can anyone vote for [Didier] Drogba when he keeps getting sent off in the Champions League? Cesc Fabregas? Maybe, but for me Rooney is a certainty.

"When you think that [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Carlos] Tevez left in the summer and people wondered where United would get the goals from, and he just stepped up and has been absolutely sensational. He is a shoo-in for Player of the Season surely.”