Sunday, April 04, 2010

Premier League Preview: Birmingham City vs. Liverpool

Liverpool and Birmingham City are on course for a head on collision at St Andrew’s on Sunday, with the visitors having all to play for, while the home side rest in a comfortable mid-table position.

The Reds’ credentials of being a top-four side has been put through the acid test, with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa still in the chase to break the domination of the so-called ‘big four’. And with the league entering the final straight, Rafael Benitez’s men will have to secure three points to retain any real hope of proving their naysayers wrong.

However, Brum have turned their backyard into a fortress in recent times, having not lost at home in their last 12 league games. Moreover, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal have all failed to beat the Blues at St Andrew's. The former Rangers boss will certainly look to add Liverpool as another feather in his cap, particularly since his side have a good record against the Anfield outfit.

The last seven times that the two sides have met in the top-flight has seen the Blues mange to scrape a point or more on each occasion. To add some more worry to the cauldron, the visitors have endured rough weather on the road and have scored just once in their last five trips away from home.

However, it appears that manager Alex McLeish has one eye cast on next season, as it recently came to light that the Carson Yeung owned club have begun to turn their attention towards pre-season for the next term in the form of organising a friendly with Hong Kong. Add this to the fact that the Reds produced one of the best halves of football this season against Sunderland last week, and one can already sense the tension and the consequences this fixture could have on Benitez’s promise of delivering a fourth place finish.


Birmingham City

Mar 9: Portsmouth 1-2 Birmingham City [Premier League]
Mar 13: Birmingham City 2-2 Everton [Premier League]
Mar 20: Sunderland 3-1 Birmingham City [Premier League]
Mar 24: Blackburn Rovers 2-1 Birmingham City [Premier League]
Mar 27: Birmingham City 1-1 Arsenal [Premier League]


Mar 15: Liverpool 4-1 Portsmouth [ Premier League]
Mar 18: Liverpool 3-0 Lille [Europa League]
Mar 21: Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool [Premier League]
Mar 28: Liverpool 3-0 Sunderland [Premier League]
Apr 1: Benfica 2-1 Liverpool [Europa League]


Birmingham City

No significant changes in the Brum squad, as Gary O'Connor (thigh), David Murphy (hamstring) and Lee Carsley (foot) remain sidelined and will be unavailable for this fixture.

Last starting XI (against Arsenal): Hart, Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell, Gardner, Ferguson, Bowyer, Fahey, Jerome, McFadden


The Reds’ blockbuster summer signing Alberto Aquilani is a doubt for this game having succumbed to an ankle injury that kept him out of the recent Europa League tie with Benfica. Fabio Aurelio (thigh) and Martin Skrtel (foot) remain injured, while Maxi Rodriguez – who is ineligible to feature in the Europa League – will likely make a return to the starting line-up.

Meanwhile, Albert Riera is expected to be left out again due to the fractured relationship with the Reds’ boss.

Last starting XI (against Benfica): Reina, Carragher, Johnson, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Gerrard, Lucas, Babel, Kuyt, Torres


Birmingham City – Joe Hart

The Brum shot-stopper – on loan from Manchester City – has put in some exceptional performances this season, and will need to be on top of his game if his side are to continue their good run of form at home.

Liverpool – Fernando Torres

The Reds’ favourite rarely ceases to disappoint, and has scored 18 goals in 21 appearances in the league. ‘El Nino’ will likely have a say in the proceedings if the Merseyside club are to snatch the three points on offer at St Andrew’s.

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool Need To Cure Awayday Blues At Birmingham To Win Champions League Chase

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez knows his side have to find an immediate cure for their travel sickness if dreams of Champions League qualification are to be realised.

The Reds have the worst away record of any of the top nine clubs in the Barclays Premier League, having not won on an opponent’s ground in six matches and taken just 14 points from 16 games on the road.

Their previous worst league run came between August and November in 2006 when they failed to win in seven.

But the problem extends further than that and since beating Everton at Goodison Park at the end of November, taking into account all competitions, Liverpool have won just twice in 13 away fixtures - and that includes victory over Europa League minnows Unirea Urziceni in Romania.

So a trip to Birmingham on Sunday does not exactly promise an end to their troubles.

Alex McLeish’s side are unbeaten in their last 12 games at St Andrew’s, their longest unbeaten run in the top-flight since a 14-match streak from November 1973 to April 1974.

“We know we have to improve away from home and we have a chance on Sunday so we will try to do our best and get three points,” said Benitez.

“There are two or three things we can improve but at the end of the day it is not easy now.

“The team is doing well and we have more confidence and if the key players keep performing the rest of the players will be there and we will be better.

“It will be another tough game. The Premier League is always difficult so we have to move on and bring players back quickly and be ready.

“Birmingham have done a very good job and are in a good position.”

A Sunday kick-off means all of Liverpool’s rivals will have played by the time they take to the pitch.

“Our idea is to get three points - it doesn’t matter what the other teams do,” said Benitez.

“There are still a lot of points to play for and we have to do our job and not worry about the other teams.”

Benitez does not think he will have much work to do to lift his squad after their defeat to Benfica, when they performed admirably in the face of adversity.

But he is concerned that playing an hour with 10 men after Ryan Babel’s sending-off will have taken its toll on one or two.

Unfortunately he has few options to change things around, with Alberto Aquilani injured again and Albert Riera frozen out for his verbal attack on his manager and the club.

Yossi Benayoun, who has played just 34 minutes in the last five matches, is one alternative while Maxi Rodriguez, ineligible in Europe, is certain to return having played so well in last weekend’s 3-0 demolition of Sunderland.

“The players showed character again (against Benfica) and that is positive and hopefully we can show this character again on Sunday,” said the Liverpool boss.

“They will be tired but we have to work with them ahead of Birmingham.

“We have been working hard the whole season with the fitness coach so hopefully the players will be okay.

“Sometimes you have to analyse and bring in fresh legs but I think we will have enough energy.”

Aquilani’s ankle injury, sustained in training just hours before the squad was due to fly out to Portugal on Wednesday, means he is unlikely to be risked tomorrow.

He joins defenders Martin Skrtel (foot), Fabio Aurelio (thigh) and Martin Kelly (knee) on the sidelines.

Rafael Benitez Unsure On Alberto Aquilani Return

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is not sure when Alberto Aquilani will be fit again for first team action.

The £20 million summer signing has had numerous niggling injuries since arriving from Roma which have limited his first team appearances for the Reds this season.

The 25-year-old had a long term ankle injury that was operated on last year and the same ankle is now causing him further problems and forced the Italian to miss Liverpool's Europa League defeat to Benfica.

"He was complaining of pain in his ankle and said he couldn't train," Benitez told the Liverpool Echo ahead of Sunday's trip to Birmingham.

"We will have to talk with the doctors when we get back to see what's going on because at the moment we don't know.

"He has some pain and we will just analyse that with the doctor. It's the same ankle he did before.

"Some players maybe can manage with the pain, but some, when they have pain, cannot. It depends on each individual and that makes it really difficult."

Aquilani has made 17 appearances for Liverpool, scoring one goal.

Liverpool Midfielder Alberto Aquilani's Season Is Not Over - Agent

Alberto Aquilani's agent Franco Zavaglia has rejected reports his season with Liverpool is over.

Aquilani has had a recurring ankle problem and coach Rafa Benitez was unsure regarding the extent of his injury.

"Does he think he needs another operation? We don’t know. He has some pain, and we will have to analyse that with the doctor. It is the same ankle as before," Benitez told the press.

Reports on Friday suggested Aquilani wouldn't be back until next season, but Zavaglia has kicked that idea into long grass.

"Season over? I don't know who puts these bad things around. We have to wait and see what it is, but Alberto will be back on the pitch soon," he told ANSA.

Aquilani joined the Reds from Roma last summer, but he has only started eight games this season.

Starlet Eyeing Promotion

Stephen Darby is hoping his loan spell at promotion chasing Swindon Town will bring him a step closer to achieving his Liverpool dream.

The 21-year-old Scouser is with Danny Wilson's League One high-flyers until the end of the campaign and they are in a great position as they chase promotion to the Championship.

With eight games remaining Swindon are just one point behind second placed Leeds United who they face in a crunch clash at Elland Road today.

The Reserve team captain has played four games for Town so far and is thoroughly enjoying it.

"This is my first experience being out on loan and I feel like I'm learning each game which is great," Darby told

"The lads have been brilliant helping me get settled in and they've made me feel really welcome which has made it a lot easier for me.

"This is the right time for me to go out on loan and I need to play some games and get more experience. I spoke to the coaching staff at Liverpool who told me this would be good for my development.

"Swindon play football the right way and they are a good team.

"We are not putting too much pressure on ourselves and want to pick up as many points as we can.

"Leeds will be a tough game but it's one we are looking forward to. They beat Manchester United this season in the FA Cup and they gave us a tough game in the Carling Cup, so we know what to expect."

Darby made three appearances for the Liverpool first-team this season, his last being a substitute in the 2-0 Anfield win over Tottenham Hotspur. He was also a strong contender for the man of the match award in January's FA Cup third round draw at Reading.

He still has ambitions of making it at Anfield and intends to give it all he has got to achieve his ultimate ambition which is playing regularly for the first-team in front of the Kop and following in the footsteps of Jamie Carragher.

"I want to help Swindon try and get promotion and then come back to Liverpool and hopefully get a chance in pre-season and show what I can do," he added.

"I know it is tough to make it at Liverpool but it is the club I love and I want to give my best.

"The night before I came to Swindon Carra phoned me and gave me some great advice. I also got a text of Stevie Gerrard. That was really nice of them and it gives you a lot of confidence."

Alan Hansen: Liverpool Must Keep Hold Of Steven Gerrard

Former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen believes keeping Steven Gerrard at Anfield is crucial to the club’s aspirations of success.

The Reds midfielder is desperate to win the Barclays Premier League with his hometown club but another disappointing season has only increased speculation he may look for a new challenge as he turns 30 in May.

Midweek reports in Italy suggested Inter Milan were preparing a bid of £28million plus striker Mario Balotelli but it remains to be seen if that ever gets off the ground.

Leaving Liverpool would be a huge wrench for Gerrard, while Inter manager Jose Mourinho has hardly committed his long-term future to the club by stating this week he does not like Italian football.

Hansen insists holding on to the England midfielder represents the Merseysiders’ best chance of success in the near future.

“Liverpool supporters love him, he is part of the place. If he doesn’t play there is something missing,” said the Scot, who won eight league titles and three European Cups with the club.

“It is just great to have players of the quality of Fernando Torres and Gerrard in the team because with those two in the team Liverpool can beat anyone.”

Gerrard admitted last weekend he had failed to reach his own high standards this season.

Hansen said the fact he was prepared to face up to criticism spoke volumes about the type of person and player Gerrard is.

“If you have played the way Gerrard has played the last seven or eight years at Liverpool - where the level of performance has been as good as anyone I have seen at the club - and don’t reach those massive standards then he is the type of player that will be self-critical,” he added.

“There is no doubt he has not played as well this season as in previous years.

“That’s great he can look at himself and say that. It is a measure of the man. Having rediscovered some form to play an important role in last Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Sunderland Gerrard will need to lift his side again at Birmingham on Sunday.”

Thursday’s Europa League defeat to Benfica in Lisbon, in which Liverpool played with 10 men for an hour after Ryan Babel’s dismissal, highlighted the team’s fighting qualities.

Manager Rafael Benitez hopes to be able to use the positives from that match against Blues.

“The commitment of the players was really good and, okay, we made some mistakes but we have to be positive and think about the next game,” said the Spaniard.

Liverpool To Discover Nabil El Zhar Compensation Fate

Fifa has promised a decision in the "near future" over St Etienne's claim for £160,000 relating to their training of Liverpool's Nabil El Zhar.

The Morocco international, now 23, joined Liverpool in October 2006 and signed a new deal in July 2009.

The French club argues it is entitled to a compensation payment as it helped develop El Zhar between 2004 and 2006.

"The investigation commenced in 2008," Fifa told BBC Sport. "Investigation of the affair is now concluded."

El Zhar was with St Etienne between 2004 and 2006 on a scholarship contract after he joined the Ligue 1 club from Nimes Olympique, before moving to Liverpool at the age of 20 when he signed a professional deal.

"Given Liverpool's size, history and wealth we're disappointed we haven't received compensation - €180,000 (£162,000) is 0.1% of Liverpool's turnover," St Etienne sporting director Damien Comolli told BBC Sport.

"On top of that the player has recently signed a new deal so they must be happy with him and his performances."

In 2008 Liverpool successfully defended a claim brought by St Etienne for compensation in respect of El Zhar's alleged breach of contract with Fifa's Dispute Resolution Chamber ruling that the French club had no grounds for their claim.

It was after that decision that St Etienne brought proceedings before Fifa regarding the compensation training claim.

"The claim is currently pending determination by Fifa and we await the outcome of its deliberations," said a Liverpool statement, initially released to the BBC following a Football Focus investigation in October. "As such, we do not feel it appropriate to make further comment at this stage."

The Fifa statement, sent on Tuesday, added: "The investigation can be submitted to the competent deciding body for consideration and a formal decision [made] in the near future."

It costs St Etienne more than £3m per annum to run their academy, which since 1997 has produced a number of players that have been sold, bringing in more than £25m in transfer fees.

"We've been producing an average of one-and-a-half first-team players per annum over the last five years and four of our current starters have come through the ranks," added Comolli.

Earlier this month the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that clubs can seek compensation for young players they have trained if they go on to sign their first contract with a team in another EU country.

The ruling has been interpreted as a victory for clubs that develop young players, but a leading sports lawyer believes the judgement will allow top European clubs to snap up emerging talent without having to pay the player's true value.

"In reality, the net effect is that clubs have to be paid, but not very much," said Adam Morallee, a partner at Mishcon de Reya Solicitors, reflecting on the ECJ ruling.

"When dealing with top talent, the size of the payment for the big club is likely to be small in relation to the potential value of the player.

"The added bonus for the clubs is that if they pay, they won't be in breach of contract or procuring a breach and then won't get a Gael Kakuta-like punishment from Fifa," added Morallee, referring to the recent dispute between Chelsea and Lens over the French winger's move to Stamford Bridge in 2007.

Comolli would like to see Fifa introduce a tribunal system that requires buying clubs to pay add-on fees to provide protection for clubs that develop young players.

"I am not a dreamer," said Comolli. "A club cannot impose on a player to sign his first pro contract in the club where he signed his scholarship. Players can sign wherever they want due to the freedom of movement principle.

"But I would like to see a different compensation system organized by Fifa - a mix of the current system and of the English one.

"For example if a club signs a talented player they should pay a fixed amount, plus add-ons - £500,000 for 20 starts, another £500,000 for 40 starts and £1m for a full cap and a sell-on to be paid to us if the boy is sold.

"All those add-ons and the sell-on should be fixed by Fifa within the compensation system in order to avoid long and painful discussions.

"I think that would be a fairer system which will protect clubs who are developing players."

Reds Ace Set For Debut

Liverpool's latest recruit James Walker starts his Anfield career today as our Superleague Formula title defence starts at Silverstone.

There are 12 dates on the circuit this year and plenty of points available for Liverpool to try and mount another title challenge.

Saturday is the qualifying round when Walker will be hoping to put himself into pole position for Sunday's three big races.

Speaking about his debut season at the Kop, Walker said: "The thought of representing a prestigious club like Liverpool, one of the biggest teams in Europe and having the link between English club and driver, has got fantastic foundations already for being successful.

"As a local driver, trying to get the fans behind me is going to be a lot easier so hopefully we can have as good a season as they had in 2009.

"I'm obviously really looking forward to my home round at Silverstone. I was quick there in Renault World Series last year, finishing second in the feature race and qualifying on the front row, and I think my driving style definitely suits the high-powered cars round a circuit like that. The home support is definitely going to help as well so I can't wait.

"I'm going to get down to work during testing and make sure we're in good shape for a strong weekend."

No Way Back For Riera

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has indicated that there is no way back for Albert Riera at Anfield.

The Reds have been trying to offload the Spanish winger after his radio outburst at his boss' expense in his homeland ahead of the Europa League tie with Lille.

A move to Spartak Moscow has stalled, reportedly due to personal terms, and Riera has since announced his desire to stay with Liverpool.

But Benitez, who is preparing his side for Sunday's trip to Birmingham, has let it be known that the 27-year-old does not have future on Merseyside.

"We still have some time until the end of the Russian transfer window so we will see what happens," the Reds chief told the Liverpool Echo.

"I didn't see his latest comments but for me, on the day before a massive game when he was talking this way was disappointing. It was especially so when he was saying things that weren't true, so I was really surprised.

"I was really disappointed with his timing and the comments themselves. He also said he wants to play, that's why he had to go, but our fans are not stupid and they will know what's going on. We'll see what happens now."

John Aldridge: Second Leg Cracker Can See Liverpool Overhaul First Leg Benfica Deficit

The stage is set for an absolute cracker in the second leg of our Europa League tie against Benfica at Anfield next Thursday.

I'd say we have a slight edge after the first leg thanks to that away goal but it's very well balanced.

We have the edge with the away goal but they are a good side with some quality players and won't sit back. They will come to Anfield and try to score because that's the way they play.

It is only the consolation cup but it is getting tasty now and it's going to be a great European night.

The first leg was frustrating. Rafa Benitez was right to say what he did about the referee because he simply wasn't up to it.

The official was certainly swayed by the atmosphere inside the ground.

We couldn't have any complaints with the two penalties but the treatment dished out to Fernando Torres was a disgrace.

The tackle by Luisao that led to the sending off of Ryan Babel was cynical.

It was clear Benfica were out to rough Torres up and they got away with it.

To put your hand in the face of an opposition player once you are taking a risk, but to do it twice like Babel did was just stupidity.

Maybe a referee in this country would have given him a slap on the wrist but not in Europe.

But the fact is Luisao should have gone for that tackle and the way he reacted after the incident. If both him and Babel had gone there would have been no complaints.

Decisions didn't go our way and after the way we were treated over there I'm expecting our players to be right up for it at Anfield.

The likes of Torres and Gerrard will be desperate to put one over them and hopefully we'll have a far better referee.