Monday, March 29, 2010

Match Report: LiverpooL 3 - 0 Sunderland

A scintillating first-half performance set the tone for a one-sided Liverpool victory over Sunderland at Anfield which kept the Reds in the race for Champions League qualification.

Fernando Torres struck a brilliant opener in the third minute and Glen Johnson's deflected strike made it 2-0 at the end of a first half in which the hosts could easily have scored six.

Torres scored his seventh goal in four matches, and his 18th in 21 Premier League appearances this season, midway through the second half before Liverpool coasted in the latter stages.

For Liverpool this was an eighth successive home league win, their best run at Anfield since winning eight in a row towards the end of the 2007/08 season.

More importantly it kept Rafael Benitez's side within four points of Tottenham, whose win over Portsmouth on Saturday cranked up the pressure in the race for fourth.

Liverpool responded accordingly and within 55 seconds defender Daniel Agger smashed a left-footed volley straight at goalkeeper Craig Gordon after Dirk Kuyt had flicked on Steven Gerrard's free-kick.

That the Denmark centre-back had a further two good goalscoring opportunities before half-time gave an indication of how dominant Liverpool were.

However, when it comes to goalscoring there are few to equal Torres and his third-minute strike was a piece of individual brilliance.

Goalkeeper Jose Reina picked him out wide on the left touchline and he dribbled inside Michael Turner to curl a shot over Gordon and perfectly into the far top corner.

In what was the best 45 minutes of football in Liverpool's season, Javier Mascherano had two long-range shots, one headed clear by Kieran Richardson and the other skewed wide, while Torres was just off target with a near-post effort following intricate passing between Maxi Rodriguez and Gerrard.

Ball retention, the pace of the passes, and the general attacking intent made for an exhilarating half.

More chances came and went as Gerrard's run and shot in the penalty area ended in a deflection behind and Rodriguez's near-post header from his captain's corner was superbly tipped over by Gordon.

Had Liverpool been 5-0 up after 30 minutes it would not have flattered them, but they had to settle for just the two goals at the interval.

The second came from Johnson in the 32nd minute when Gerrard's inswinging corner was only cleared to the edge of the penalty area and the defender touched the ball inside on to his left foot and unleashed a shot which took a slight deflection off Turner to beat Gordon.

Torres hit a post and then bundled the rebound wide before the break as Sunderland almost imploded under the pressure.

Liverpool's biggest problem in the second half was the expectation on them to reproduce the football they had displayed before the break.

While it did not reach those heights, they were hardly troubled.

Ryan Babel fired well over after Gerrard's driving run from halfway while Torres had an eight-yard shot blocked by Paulo da Silva, on at half-time for Lee Cattermole.

But the Spain international was not to be denied much longer and on the hour he scored his second goal, which was as simple as his first was brilliant.

Babel's far-post cross to Rodriguez dropped to Johnson who slipped a pass inside where Torres spun on the penalty spot to turn the ball past Gordon.

Alberto Aquilani replaced Kuyt with 20 minutes to go, with Torres making way for David Ngog to another standing ovation 12 minutes from time.

Richardson probably went closest to scoring for Sunderland when he flashed a left-footed shot just wide of Reina's right-hand post.

Gerrard's removal for winger Nabil El Zhar late on signalled that Benitez was more interested in saving his players for Thursday's Europa League quarter-final against Benfica in Lisbon.

What the Liverpool players must now prove in their remaining six league matches is that this performance was not a one-off.

If they can, then Benitez's guarantee of fourth place may yet hold good.

Steven Gerrard Looks To Win World Cup And Premier League In Next Five Years

Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard hopes to accomplish the two principal goals of his career in the next five years by winning a World Cup with England and a Premier League title with the Reds.

Gerrard will turn 30 years old when England face Japan in a friendly on May 30, just a few days before the Three Lions travel to South Africa for the World Cup.

With a career that has included 78 international appearances for England and a starring role with Liverpool over the last 12 season, Gerrard knows that he only has a couple of years left to achieve some of footballs top honours.

“It’s a big time for me – I am aware of my age and what I want out of the remainder of my career,” Gerrard told The Mirror.

“I look after myself, and I’m in good shape physically so I believe I’ve still got five years to fight for all the big prizes in football. I’ll do everything I can to keep going.”

The last year has been one of international success mixed with club disappointment, but Gerrard knows that in football things change quickly.

“It’s fair to say it’s been a mixed season for me.

“It’s been positive for England, because we’ve qualified for the World Cup and we’ve been winning football matches. But at Liverpool there have been times when it has been tough. But that’s football, you have to deal with that.

“There’s a chance to finish the season on a high with Liverpool now, by finishing fourth and going to a cup final. It would be fantastic if we could achieve both of those things. Then you focus on the World Cup.

“That will give me a big lift going to the World Cup, and then I’ll be going feeling ­positive that I can achieve something really important with England.”

Jamie Redknapp Lifts Lid On Benitez And Gerrard Feud

Jamie Redknapp has lifted the lid on the increasing friction between Kop boss Rafa Benitez and Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard, hinting the England star could quit the club after the World Cup finals.

Redknapp says the pair are heading for a bitter bust-up over tactics.

And he said last Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United is a prime example of where it’s all going wrong between Benitez and Gerro, 29.

Sky TV pundit Redknapp, who played with friend Gerrard at Anfield during his 11 years at the club, said: “Gerrard is at his best in central midfield.

“But with 12 minutes to go and Liverpool chasing the game at Old Trafford, Benitez brings Alberto Aquilani on and pushes Steven wide left.

“That will have infuriated Steven. He doesn’t want to be out there. He’s less effective there. Then Benitez switches him again when he brings Yossi Benayoun on and he moves him over to the right.

“Why? Liverpool were losing 2-1 and needed Steven to be in his best position and at his most effective.

“I have played with Steven and that will have infuriated him.

“That’s where Benitez gets it wrong.”

Redknapp said Benitez’s tactics also had a similar effect on striker Fernando Torres.

The world-class hitman signalled his frustration at Old Trafford last week by destroying the penalty spot before Wayne Rooney put United level with the spot-kick. Redknapp claimed: “Gerrard and Torres make Liverpool tick – but Benitez just doesn’t use them properly.

And in a bitter parting shot, he added: “You don’t see Sir Alex Ferguson doing that with his best players.”

Benitez himself, though, has looked to smooth things over after a meeting with Gerrard and his senior stars to paint more financially sound, future for Liverpool for next season and beyond.

And Managing Director Christian Purslow also paid a visit to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground on Wednesday to address the Kop stars and inform them officially about the possible £110million investment from the Rhone Group.

The players have also been informed that £25m-plus will be injected by the same global SDHp investment firm to go towards buying new players this summer. Now­ ­pressure will be mounted on co-­owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to back the Rhone move.

Liverpool’s debt is currently £237m with RBS – and the bank has given the club until the end of the season to slash that by £100m.

Hicks and Gillett have been looking themselves for extra capital but time is now pressing for them to agree to this outside cashpot.

Benitez said: “We are working behind the scenes and I have confidence we can move forward because I know we’re trying to do that in a good SDHp direction. I’m quite positive.

“My last conversation with Stevie was very positive and he has a great determination to improve and play. “Stevie is the captain. He knows we have to improve on the pitch and then it will be easier to change things."

Kenwyne Jones: The Striker Who Got Away From Liverpool And Rafael Benítez

If Rafael Benítez had had his way in January then Kenwyne Jones would be emerging from Anfield's famous tunnel on Sunday in the red shirt of Liverpool.

What with Fernando Torres's problems with injury and the lack of quality strikers in his squad, the Liverpool manager wanted to sign Jones in the transfer window but the club did not want to meet Sunderland's £10 million valuation.

For Sunderland the projected transfer was like a bad New Year's hangover that just got worse by the day and with a week left before the close of the window Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, snapped, describing the manner of Benítez's pursuit of his player as "hugely disrespectful".

"What happened is that January was January and now it's March and it's all over," Jones said. "That's all that happened. However long the transfer windows have been in effect there has always been something like that happening at some club. It's nothing new, the same old script."

Jones's desire to put the whole episode behind him is understandable. The speculation came halfway through a winless streak of 14 games for Sunderland, a sequence that pushed them towards relegation. "It was like we started tripping down some stairs and we just kept falling down and down until we hit the floor," he said.

Jones has helped lift the team off the floor and get them climbing again. For the last two months he had started to show the kind of form that brought him to Benítez's attention last season. A hip injury has kept him out of the last two games but he is optimistic of returning to the side on Sunday, a side who, after five games without defeat, are finally beginning to move in the right direction again.

Not that the wings of Jones's ambition have been clipped. "Like any footballer you don't want to be a fixture," he said. "What you want is to achieve something. You want to be one of the greats of football and win something. Some people, like me so far, have not been able to win anything throughout their career. You want to be in the place where you can win the big trophies and all the stuff that matters.

"All the attention? It's a pat on the back for me that I'm doing something that people recognise and they want. That itself propels me to keep working harder and keep doing the things I've been doing. Hopefully I can continue that until my knees go bad and I can't play any more, that I can fulfil the dream of playing at the highest level, winning things."

At 25 Jones has learned to seize every opportunity. As a promising Trinidad youth international his life was completely changed by the birth of his son Isaiah, when he was still just 18. "Having a kid on its own is an experience but having a kid at that age when you think you have your whole life ahead of you... it doesn't stop your life, it just propels you in a direction. It propelled me in a direction and I thank God for that."

Jones – "decently smart" – had full scholarship offers from some 20 American universities but feared college life would kill his hunger for football. So he went on a punishing series of trials with European clubs, even spending a week with Manchester United. "David Beckham was still there, Juan Sebastian Veron, Dwight Yorke, Laurent Blanc, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane – it was the biggest experience I'd had in my career so far."

Like so many other trials, it did not work out and, with the responsibility towards his family, Jones imposed a deadline to get a contract. If not he would go into the army, like his schoolfriend and former Sunderland team-mate Carlos Edwards.

"I'd been on trial at a lot of places, probably three months at a time. It wasn't nice being away from home for that long at that age and living out of my suitcase. I didn't want it to drag on for me. I wanted to make a decision and have something steady happening. For me it was do or die, now or never."

That determination resulted in a move to Southampton in 2004. It took a while for Jones to get into the kind of physical shape needed in English football but when he did, catalysed by a productive loan move to Sheffield Wednesday, he emerged as an intimidatingly powerful striker. In 2007 Keane took him to Sunderland for £6 million, where his rapid progress continued, John Terry describing him as the best he had faced in the air in the Premier League.

His playing style has earned comparisons with Didier Drogba and it is the paucity of players with those kind of capabilities that make Jones a coveted player. "Thankfully I'm 25 and not 32 [Drogba's age]. I guess it's good to be in that mode because it fits me into a certain script: necessity to demand. You don't want to be superfluous. You don't want to be like everyone else. Thankfully I'm different. That's what people want and I hope it will stay like that for a long time."

Rafa Benitez In Talks With Liverpool Takeover Rivals From Rhone Group

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is understood to have met representatives of potential investors the Rhone Group.

He has also briefed senior players, including Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, about a future beyond the current boardroom stalemate.

The New York-based fund management firm wants to invest £100 million – to be put towards the club’s £237 million debt – for a stake of around 40 per cent, as well as putting in a further £25million to be spent on transfers. Talks with the Spaniard were constructive and positive.

Key men Gerrard and Torres, who has claimed that Benitez needs to be able to add “four or five top-class signings” this summer, have appeared particularly disaffected as Liverpool have been reduced to scrapping for fourth place.

But Benitez and managing director Christian Purslow met with senior members of the squad on Wednesday to discuss on potential future developments in an attempt to persuade them that good times are ahead for the Anfield club.

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks, who is particularly resistant to the prospect of his stake being diluted, and George Gillett need to find £100 million in order to refinance loans from the Royal Bank of Scotland in July. If they are unable to do so, they will have little choice but to accept the offer from the Rhone Group, or another investor, and have their power decreased.

Purslow has kept Benitez updated on the Rhone Group’s interest, as well as that of several other interested parties. Having previously insisted he wanted all potential offers on the table by Easter, the managing director is now prepared to wait until the end of the season.

After pushing Manchester United all the way last season, Benitez does not attempt to deny that Liverpool have been blown off course this time around but is adamant that it can prove to be just a temporary set-back.

He said: “I have confidence we can move forward because I know that we’re trying to move forward in a good direction. I am quite positive.’’

Torres has repeated his claim that Liverpool need to spend heavily this summer but said: “My place is at Liverpool and in England. I’ve got three years to run on my contract.

“The most important thing is for the club to try to sign quality players, footballers who improve the quality of the squad. Next season we want to be challenging for the Premier League title and the Champions League or the Europa League but for that to happen we need some new signings.”

Liverpool Deal For Milan Jovanovic In Doubt

Liverpool’s move for Serbian striker Milan Jovanovic has stalled, according to a report in the News of the World.

The 28-year-old striker has been widely tipped to join Liverpool in the summer with his contract expiring at the end of 2009/2010.

In January reports claimed Jovanovic had undergone a medical at Anfield but Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has refused to confirm this.

Benitez said: "I won't talk about him now. We are working behind the scenes."

In 2009/2010 Jovanovic has scored 13 goals and provided four assists for Standard Liege in 32 appearances.

Jovanovic would be a useful signing for Liverpool as he can play up front, behind a striker or on the left.

Christian Purslow Held Meeting To Reassure Players Over Club's Finances - Report

Liverpool Managing Director Christian Purslow has reportedly held talks with players to alleviate concerns regarding the club's coffers.

The Reds' well documented crisis with respect to their finances, coupled with below par performances on the pitch, has seen them go from title chasers to top-four hopefuls this season.

Heavy speculation surrounding the future of star striker Fernando Torres is also believed to have been discussed at the meeting, with the Managing Director believed to have reassured players the Anfield outfit is still heading in the right direction.

According to the Sunday Mirror, the disillusionment concerning the club's fortunes this term had left skipper Steven Gerrard and Torres considering their future at the Merseyside club.

However, after being assured that fresh investment is close to being secured, both of the Reds' stellar performers are believed to have been convinced to continue plying their trade for the Kopites.

Purslow announced that a deal with the Rhone Group is in place for a 40 per cent stake to be sold to the New York based investment company for a price of £100 million, with a further £25m being made available to replenish the squad during the summer.

An unnamed source close to the club is quoted as saying: "Christian Purslow informed the players on the direction the club will be taking.

"He was able to give them the answers they were looking for about new investment and how the club will move forward. It was a very positive meeting."

Tom Hicks Unwilling To Sell 40 Per Cent Stake In Liverpool - Report

Tom Hicks is reportedly not interested in selling a 40 per cent stake in Liverpool, which could potentially derail any investment into the squad during the summer.

The boardroom battle is believed to have reached fever pitch, as the pressure is reportedly back on co-owners Hicks and Geroge Gillett to let go of their control of the club.

According to the News of the World, Reds managing director Christian Purslow believes he will secure sufficient investment to rebuild the squad in the summer should the Americans insist on holding the reins to the Merseyside club.

There has also been speculation concerning the future of striker Fernando Torres, who has called on the club to bring in "four or five new signings" to bolster the squad and consequently challenge for domestic and European honours.

It is claimed that any hope of hanging on to 'El Nino' will largely depend on whether Hick and Gillett remain in power after June.

Recent reports pointed toward Purslow negotiating an equity sale with the Rhone Group, who would gain 40 per cent control of the club should a deal reach fruition. But Hicks is believed to have vetoed the idea, as he would make no money from the potential takeover.

Rival investors, including the Sahara group from India, are said to be interested in a full buyout of the club, but face a similar conundrum due to Hicks' unwillingness to let go of his stake in the Premier League outfit.

It is claimed that co-owner Gillett is in line with reducing his stake for the greater good of the Reds, but Hicks' rock-solid stance is believed to be causing tension in the club's upper echelon.