Friday, April 02, 2010

Match Report: Benfica 2 - 1 Liverpool

Daniel Agger's clever backheel gave Liverpool the lead in a controversial first half of their Europa League quarter-final first leg against Benfica in Lisbon.

The Dane produced the perfect start in the ninth minute by converting Steven Gerrard's low free-kick but Ryan Babel was sent off on the half hour for pushing Luisao in a melee started by the Brazilian centre-back.

Midfielder Lucas Leiva returned to the starting line-up for Liverpool's Europa League quarter-final first leg against Benfica in the Estadio da Luz.

With Maxi Rodriguez unavailable, the Brazil international returned to the team with Steven Gerrard moving to his more usual advanced midfield position, and Dirk Kuyt switched back to the right.

Defender Jamie Carragher made his 621st Liverpool appearance, moving above Alan Hansen to eighth on the all-time list, while Jose Reina featured in goal for the 250th occasion.

Benfica were without former Barcelona striker Javier Saviola, who sustained a toe injury in the weekend victory over Braga which is also likely to keep him out of the second leg.

The cacophonous noise inside Benfica's impressive ground was silenced as early as the ninth minute with virtually Liverpool's first attack.

Maxi Pereira's foul on Gerrard gave the Liverpool captain a chance to whip in a dangerous free-kick from just left of the penalty area.

However, with the hosts massed around the six-yard area the midfielder fooled everyone by rolling a low pass in towards the penalty spot where Daniel Agger produced a classy backheel into the corner of the net.

It was reminiscent of a similar move which saw the Denmark defender score in the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in May 2007, although that one was hit with more power.

Benfica's European top scorer this season, Oscar Cardozo, could not show the same control from Fabio Coentrao's left-wing cross three minutes later as he deflected the ball over the crossbar.

The Paraguayan then nodded Angel di Maria's free-kick wide and headed another Coentrao effort straight at Reina from eight yards.

Benfica's barrage continued but Pablo Aimar's first touch for once let him down as he looked to beat Reina.

Chances continued to come and go for the hosts with Ramires next to head over at the far post from a cross by Di Maria, whose shot from 25 yards fizzed just over Reina's crossbar in the 28th minute.

Chaos descended in the on the half hour as referee Jonas Eriksson lost control.

Centre-back Luisao took exception to a tackle by Ryan Babel and subsequently hacked right through the back of Fernando Torres.

A melee ensued in which Luisao continued his protest at Babel and the Dutchman responded by pushing the Brazilian in the face.

The Swedish official showed the Benfica defender a yellow and then flashed a red at the Holland international - sparking wild protests by Liverpool's entire team.

After much argument the decision stood and Babel trudged off.

David Luiz was next to go into the book for clattering Torres in the 37th minute and the Spain striker thought he had exacted the perfect revenge.

Gerrard's free-kick was weakly punched by Julio Cesar and Torres volleyed it home only for an offside flag to go up.

Emiliano Insua was booked for pulling back Di Maria just before the break, ruling him out of the second leg.

Within four minutes of the restart Cardozo planted one header straight at Reina and the other over from five yards and you sensed just maybe it was going to be Liverpool's night.

There was a brief stoppage in play when a firework was thrown close to the fourth official next to Reina's goal and Eriksson made a point of mentioning it to the UEFA delegate in the technical area.

Cardozo's 59th-minute free-kick rattled back off Reina's right-hand post but when Aimar went down under Insua's tackle chasing the rebound Eriksson pointed to the penalty spot.

This time Cardozo finally hit the target to beat Reina.

In the 76th minute Torres had a glorious chance to put his side back in front - and score his first Liverpool goal on foreign soil since March 11 2008 - but with only Cesar to beat he dragged his shot wide from Kuyt's pass.

It was to prove costly as two minutes later Di Maria's cross hit Carragher as he slid in to tackle and the fourth official signalled a penalty for handball.

The defender was booked and Cardozo scored his second spot-kick of the night.

After more hefty challenges Torres was withdrawn for David Ngog to make an appearance on his 21st birthday.

With more fireworks raining down behind Liverpool's goal towards the end Rafael Benitez's side were fortunate to leave Lisbon with just a one-goal deficit.

Rafael Benitez Blames Squad's Lack Of Depth For Liverpool's Poor Season

Liverpool have struggled this season due to the squad's lack of strength in depth, according to manager Rafael Benitez.

The Reds have struggled for much of the season in both the Premier League and European competition but, after beating Sunderland 3-0 at the week in an impressive performance from a near full-strength XI, Benitez believes injuries have taken their toll.

"Everyone knows we have a good 11. You can see some good players on the bench but also others with less experience," said Benitez ahead of their Europa League clash against Benfica on Thursday.

"When you talk about the league the depth in your squad is very important and we have had problems with injuries.

"It has been a difficult season for young players as well because they have had to perform on the pitch when the team is not doing well.

"The majority of the players have been fighting from the beginning but the problem in football is you can be working very hard but if you don't win people say you are not doing enough."

With the first leg of the quarter-final against the Portuguese league leaders taking place away from home, Benitez is reluctant to look too far ahead in a competition he believes the club can win.

"We have to have confidence that we can win but my idea is to take it one game at a time," he said.

"We have a very difficult tie and if we can progress Valencia or Atletico will be dangerous but you never know - we are in form now too so hopefully we can do well, be in the final and win.

"If we can keep this spirit and mentality we can beat anyone."

Inter Give Up On Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas & Turn Transfer Effort To Liverpool's Steven Gerrard

Inter have kicked the plan to sign Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas into long grass and they will focus their transfer efforts into landing Steven Gerrard from Liverpool instead, according to Tuttosport.

Fabregas has been the number one objective on Jose Mourinho's transfer list, but Inter have realised that signing him will be difficult. Mourinho's relationship with Arsene Wenger is not the best, and Fabregas has made it clear his dream is to go back to Barcelona in the future.

With that in mind, the Nerazzurri have set out an approach for Gerrard. His name has been floated around Massimo Moratti's office for the past two weeks, suggesting a move is still in its development stage.

Signing the England international will be less than easy. However, Inter are hoping to press for the best deal and they are expected to make a €35 million bid for him.

Mourinho will attempt to raise funds for the deal by offloading players, and his recent spat with Mario Balotelli will see the Italian as first on the list to go.

Balotelli has a €70 million release clause in his deal. Inter are aware they will not get such a figure for their player, but they will attempt to sell him for €40million, meaning they would have enough allowances to fund a move for Gerrard.

Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona have all been linked with the Inter forward.

Alberto Aquilani Could Miss The Rest Of Season

Rafa Benitez is about to discover the full extent of Alberto Aquilani's latest fitness setback after refusing to rule out fears his injury-jinxed midfielder could be out for the rest of the season.

The £20million signing from Roma damaged an ankle in training and failed to make the trip to Lisbon for Thursday's Europa League quarter-final first leg with Benfica after being booked in for a scan on Merseyside.

Benitez initially played down concerns that the Italy midfielder faced another lengthy lay-off but would not be drawn on the possibility that his season may already have ended.

'We have to check on Alberto and find out exactly what he has done,' said the Liverpool manager, after touching down in Lisbon and hosting a late-night press conference in the team hotel at nearly 10pm.

'We should have an answer to that sometime tomorrow and can only hope for the best in the meantime. I don't think it is too serious, but it is clear he has a problem with his ankle.

'Is that the end of his season? We have to check tomorrow. We will see then.'

Aquilani was still recuperating from ankle surgery when he signed for Liverpool and was kept waiting for his debut after his recovery went on longer than expected.

He has made few appearances in the starting line-up since, amid increasing misgivings that he is struggling to cope with the physical demands of the Barclays Premier League.

Liverpool Winger Albert Riera Claims Move To Spartak Moscow Has Broken Down

Liverpool midfielder Albert Riera has revealed that his proposed loan move to Spartak Moscow has broken down and he will now consider his options in the summer.

The Spaniard had looked a certainty to move to Russia after publicly slamming Reds manager Rafael Benitez.

However, it now seems that he will have to wait a while longer before exiting Anfield.

"Negotiations with Spartak Moscow are stalled. My intention is to decide my future in the summer," he told Spanish newspaper Marca.

"I want to continue my career at Liverpool because it is one of the best clubs in the world.

"The feeling is spectacular, we have a great stadium and I feel very good at Liverpool.

"I speak with Fernando Torres and (Jose) Reina and agree on the greatness of Liverpool."

Juventus Cling Onto Hope Of Landing Liverpool Coach Rafael Benitez

Juventus will not concede defeat in the race for Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez, as they cling onto a line of hope to reel him in.

Il Corriere Dello Sport claims Juventus have been left with just one main target - Benitez - after Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli pledged his allegiance to the Tuscan side.

Bianconeri vice-general director Roberto Bettega will now use the Easter period for some reflection before he flies out to Liverpool next week to open up a new line of communication with the Spaniard.

Benitez is under contract at Anfield until 2013, but top chiefs at Juventus have promised significant action, and they are prepared to pay any penalties they incur from signing the coach should the deal take off.

Also, Juventus have allocated an extra budget to help pay for Benitez's top coaching staff, who he would bring to Turin with him.

The Bianconeri are now set to act quickly to help speed up the move.

Alan Hansen Says Jamie Carragher Has Got Many Years Left Playing For Liverpool

When Jamie Carragher made his Liverpool debut more than 13 years ago, he could only dream of one day being spoken of in the same breath as Alan Hansen.

As two very different defenders, it is unfair to compare them.

What is clear, though, is that they’ve both produced the quality required to join an elite band of players who can say they’ve played over 600 times for Liverpool.

In their case it’s 620 apiece.

Carragher, who will usurp Hansen against Benfica in Lisbon on Thursday, will be shifting himself back to ninth on the all time list of total number of appearances for Liverpool.

While injury forced Hansen to retire, the former club captain believes Carragher will continue to clock up many more games for the club.

“In modern day football it’s a hell of an achievement to play over 600 games as Jamie has, especially for one club,” said Hansen.

“Every year since 1977 when I was at Liverpool there seemed to be a testimonial. Players used to stay around for a long time whereas nowadays to stay 10 years in one place is an achievement in itself.

“But to be 10 years and play so consistently well to reach the number of games Carragher has is absolutely phenomenal. The level of consistency in his performance and how he has conducted himself is a tribute to Jamie Carragher.”

His consistency has been such that Carragher has played in 50-plus games in eight of the last nine seasons for Liverpool and looks set to do so again this year.

That doesn’t happen if you’re not playing well and Hansen places the Bootle-born defender among the Liverpool greats.

“It’s fantastic for Liverpool Football Club and the fans too,” he says. “In a long line of centre-backs who have stood out for the club, here they have another one. You can go through eight or nine of them who have been sensational since big Ron Yeats came in under Bill Shankly. Jamie is up there with the best of them.

“To play 621 games – and counting – is absolutely sensational.”

On his own admission, Carragher did not have the best start to this season.

He turned 32 in January providing an easy target for critics to begin to write him off.

Hansen says this is inevitable for players of a certain age. It’s how you bounce back that counts.

The Match Of The Day pundit believes Carragher has worked hard to address his form and is back to his best again.

“The last six weeks or so would sum Carragher up,” says Hansen. “He’s not had the best season by his standards, and looked to be struggling at times. But he’s played really well lately. He had a great game against Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford but, even before that, was getting back to the level he’s been at for a number of seasons now.”

Hansen insists Carragher has plenty left in the tank before it’s time to hang up his boots.

“The way he’s playing now I’d say he’s definitely got a few more years in him at the top level. For me, he’s as good as ever.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are. I was 35 when I packed in but that was because I had a bad right knee.

“The last season I played, in 1990, I only missed four or five matches and was going as good as ever.

“But the problem is that, once you hit 30 and have a period of trouble, people just point to your age and say you’re finished.

“It’s difficult to come back from that but Jamie has done exceptionally well, particularly to play as he is in the latter stages of the season when players tend to tire. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’ve been a model of consistency and the best central defender of your generation or whatever. People don’t take any prisoners.

“Once you get to a certain age and have a bad run they will write you off.

“But Jamie has got enough mental strength to deal with that.

“He’s proven it by overcoming the critics.

“Among all the things that have changed in football over the years, the only way you can answer any critic is by doing it on the pitch.

“That’s what he’s done and that’s full credit to him.

“He’s come back strong again and that’s simply because he wants to play for Liverpool.”

As Carragher makes his 621st appearance on Thursday night, Hansen has no qualms about making way for the Reds stalwart.

“When I retired I must have had about 20 different records,” he says.

“Things like being the only player to have a Championship winners medal from three different decades. That’s gone.

“We had the most games unbeaten at home. Now that’s gone too.

“I look at some of the records now that people like Ryan Giggs have got and they’re incredible.

“Obviously you wish it was a Liverpool player every time but Jamie’s record to play that amount of games at a time when people are moving on left, right and centre is an unbelievable show of loyalty too.

“For that alone, Liverpool supporters should be eternally grateful.”

Liverpool's Ambitions Shrink To Fourth Place

A room set aside at the trophy-packed Liverpool Football Club museum at Anfield is devoted to endless replays of an astonishing night of European football.

Seemingly down and out after trailing 3-0 at halftime to AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, Liverpool came back to tie the match and win the penalty shootout.

Although the memories are enshrined forever in the red section of Merseyside, manager Rafa Benitez's ambitions five years on have shrunk to securing fourth place in the Premier League and a spot in the Champions League.

"We know that we have to keep going," the Spaniard said after Liverpool romped to a 3-0 win over Sunderland last Sunday, courtesy of two goals from his compatriot Fernando Torres.

"It will be difficult. If Torres can stay fit he will be very important. If a striker is scoring goals he is a very important player and in trying to keep him happy the first thing we can do is win the games this year and try to be in the top four."

The spring-heeled Spaniard has scored four goals in his last seven games, to bring his season's tally to 20, but Liverpool still remain four points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur and the north London side have a game in hand.

In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Torres threatened to leave Liverpool if the club did not invest in some quality players and, even though Liverpool are still involved in European competition this season through the Europa League, fifth place might persuade him it is time to leave.

Torres, 26, would then be the target of richer and more successful English clubs and the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. Reports from Italy say AC Milan are also interested.

Both through word and deed, Torres appears at the moment committed to the Liverpool cause.

"When you get injuries it is frustrating because every player wants to be able to play in every game," he said.

"Playing in less than 30 games is not too many for a footballer, especially a Liverpool player, but I am playing now and scoring goals and I just want to help the team.

"The main thing is that I am close to my best now. I feel strong, I have stamina. If I can keep scoring goals until the end of the season we can do good things for Liverpool.

"We have got 18 points to play for and all we can do is try to get them and wait to see what the results of the other teams ahead of us are."

Then there is captain Steven Gerrard, an England mainstay but a player who has scored only six league goals for his club this season.

Benitez, who has been criticised for playing Gerrard in a variety of positions, mounted a robust defence after the Sunderland match.

"Gerrard can play everywhere," Benitez said. "It depends on the team. I told him before the Sunderland game he was playing in the middle and he was happy. He can help the team and that is the main thing."

Gerrard, who turns 30 next month, concedes he has not been at his best this season. However, the man who at his peak epitomises the best qualities of a combative English footballer, thinks the spur of a place in Europe and the World Cup in South Africa can turn his year around.

"It's a big time for me, I am aware of my age and what I want out of the remainder of my career," he said.

"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.

"You have to accept that as a team we have underachieved and I have to accept that there have been times when my form hasn't been good. We deal with that and move forward.

"There's a chance to finish the season on a high with Liverpool now, by finishing fourth and going to (the Europa League) final. It would be fantastic if we could achieve both of those things. Then you focus on the World Cup. Things change quickly in football."

Liverpool FC Supporters Demand Premier League Probe Into Gillett And Hicks Ownership

Liverpool supporters have stepped up their efforts against owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks by questioning the thoroughness of the Premier League's 'fit and proper' person test

In an open letter to senior figureheads, the Liverpool Supporters' Union - Spirit of Shankly have called on League chiefs to investigate the Americans' dealings that contravene the guidelines of the probe, which was unveiled two years after the duo took control at Anfield.

Pledges made by the pair in February 2007, during which they claimed they would ensure that the club remained debt-free and begin work on a new stadium within 60 days of their takeover have been cited by the group in the letter to Chief Executive Richard Scudamore.

The proposed takeover by the Rhone Group has also come under scrutiny following previous dealings with surfwear brand Quiksilver amidst claims that John Muse, a former business partner of Hicks when he owned Brazilian outfit Corinithians, is involved with the bid.

Christian Purslow, Liverpool's managing director, is currently scouring the global market for a £100 million investment to reduce repayments owed to the Royal Bank of Scotland on the club's £237 million debt in order to negotiate an extension before this summer's deadline.

James McKenna, a spokesman for Spirit of Shankly, said: “Tom and George promised us heaven and have delivered hell.

"Who would have thought that three years ago we would be where we are now, owners with no money, a desperate search for investment to pay down debt, and fans having to seek and fight for answers about what is going on at their club?

"Questions must be asked of those who are meant to regulate the game, the Premier League. They are seemingly turning a blind eye to what is happened to us and other clubs, in favour of selling the brand.

"What brand will they have to sell if it carries on like this? If we don’t get the answers we want from them, then we will see if they will listen to us when we turn up at their offices and demand answers.”

He added: “Questions must also be asked, and the same mistakes not allowed to happen again, regarding who will invest in LFC now. We don’t want to be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

"Until we know what is happening at our club, we will continue to seek answers to protect the club, as the fans after all are the true custodians.

"Tom Hicks and George Gillett need to get the message – They aren’t welcome at Anfield and neither are any other investors looking to make a quick buck at the expense of doing it properly.”

Supporters have been encouraged to send a copy of the email, which can be found on the group's website, to Scudamore, chief spokesman Dan Johnson and Cathy Long, Head of Supporter Relations.

A joint protest with financially-strung Portsmouth took place before the game between the two sides at Anfield last month to call for more stringent measures to be taken when investigating owners of Premier League clubs.

Centenary Stand Collapses! Anfield In Danger!

Liverpool FC's season couldn't really have gone any worse, but this morning they are reeling from the shock that part of the Centenary stand suddenly collapsed in the early hours last night.

A mild earth tremour in the Irish sea is reported to be the cause, as there is widespread minor damage to buildings all around the Merseyside area, but a previously unseen crack in the Anfield foundations broke apart to leave half the stand in ruins, and the whole stadium declared a no-go zone by officials until the safety of the other three sides and assorted other buildings can be ascertained.

Liverpool have yet to make any official announcement, but this catastrophe is sure to increase the long-standing calls for a new stadium.

Liverpool have no home game this week, but rumours abound that the return leg of the Benfica match will probably have to be moved to the nearest available substitute, which is good news for Benfica as the last time they played at Goodison they won 2-0.