Sunday, April 11, 2010

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Fulham

Two would-be Europa League champions go head-to-head this weekend as fellow semi-finalists Liverpool and Fulham return to domestic duty.

The Reds' 4-1 defeat of Benfica on Thursday evening has set up a tantalising last-four tie with Atletico Madrid, while the Cottagers will face Hamburg after edging past Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony.

That means England's sole remaining representatives in European competition are on track to meet in the final, and so Sunday's clash at Anfield could provide a preview of what may transpire at the HSH Nordbank Arena on May 12.

Liverpool certainly won't be thinking that far ahead, however, with some ground to make up in the Premier League if they wish to hold onto their 'Big Four' status.

Rafael Benitez's men are trailing Manchester City by four points, and Tottenham Hotspur by three, in the race for Champions League qualification. Both the Citizens and the Lilywhites also hold a game in hand over the Reds, so failure against Fulham is not an option.

For Roy Hodgson and his charges, anything but defeat on Merseyside will be considered a success after their recent struggles in the league.

Last weekend's win over Wigan Athletic ended a horror run that saw the Londoners take just one point from four games as they slipped into the lower half of the table, where they currently reside in 12th place.

The odds are firmly against Fulham making it two wins on the trot, however, as they have never won at Anfield.



Apr 8: Liverpool 4-1 Benfica (Europa League)
Apr 4: Birmingham City 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Apr 1: Benfica 2-1 Liverpool (Europa League)
Mar 28: Liverpool 3-0 Sunderland (Premier League)
Mar 21: Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool (Premier League)


Apr 8: Wolfsburg 0-1 Fulham (Europa League)
Apr 4: Fulham 2-1 Wigan Athletic (Premier League)
Apr 1: Fulham 2-1 Wolfsburg (Europa League)
Mar 27: Hull City 2-0 Fulham (Premier League)
Mar 24: Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 Fulham (FA Cup)



Fears that talismanic frontman Fernando Torres could sit out appear to be unfounded, as the Spanish striker - who aggravated a minor knee problem during his two-goal display against Benfica - is expected to take his place in the starting line-up.

Left-flankers Ryan Babel and Emiliano Insua return from suspension, while Alberto Aquilani and Maxi Rodriguez are also back in the mix.

Defensive trio Fabio Aurelio (thigh), Martin Skrtel (foot) and Martin Kelly (knee) all remain sidelined.

Last starting XI (v Benfica): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger; Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun; Torres.


The in-form Bobby Zamora is a serious doubt after the England World Cup hopeful hobbled out of Thursday's win over Wolfsburg - in which he scored the only goal - with an Achilles injury.

Roma loanee Stefano Okaka is on standby to make his first Premier League start, while virus victim David Elm could also make the matchday squad after being discharged from hospital during the week.

Simon Davies is a 50-50 chance due to a rib injury, while American star Clint Dempsey (thigh) is certain to sit out.

Last starting XI (v Wolfsburg): Schwarzer; Baird, Hangeland, Hughes, Konchesky; Duff, Murphy, Etuhu, Davies; Gera, Zamora.


Liverpool - Daniel Agger

The Dane has proven beyond doubt this season that, when fit, he is one of the classiest defenders around. His form of late has been nothing short of imperious, including a fine fill-in display at left-back during the week, and his ability to construct attacks from deep could prove important in this sort of encounter.

Fulham - Danny Murphy

He was discarded by Rafael Benitez in 2004 and looked like slipping into ignominy soon after, but Murphy and Fulham has been a match made in heaven. The former England international is the essence of the Cottagers' midfield and will relish the opportunity to strut his stuff in front of the Kop once again.

Rafa Benitez Urges Liverpool To Carry On European Form Versus Fulham

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez wants his team to pick up where they left off with victory over Fulham in the Premier League.

The Reds battered Benfica 4-1 in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday to win the tie 5-3 on aggregate.

And now Benitez wants to continue the momentum versus Roy Hodgson’s Fulham team, who also succeeded in midweek versus Wolfsburg, which could set up an all-English final versus the Anfield outfit.

The Spaniard is not giving up of finish fourth in the league and feels the tone has now been set for the final five games of the campaign, beginning with Fulham at home.

Benitez said: "I think it is important when you are playing well and scoring goals to keep the momentum. Hopefully we can keep this level.

"The fans and the atmosphere were very good and the players have an extra motivation when they can feel the atmosphere.

"We know we are in a position that it depends on others making mistakes but we have to do our job.

"We cannot be watching the others, we have to win our games.

"We have to concentrate on the next game, get three points and then get ready for the next one.

"I am still confident if we do our job we will be there.

"It is really important to score a lot of goals at home. The players will have more confidence and we know we will have to start with it against Fulham."

Liverpool missed an opportunity to get themselves back within touching distance of the top four as they were held at St Andrew's 1-1 by Birmingham last weekend.

It was just one of a number of disappointing results for the Reds this term but Benitez is adamant all is not lost.

He added: "We knew before when we had six games left we could draw only one.

"Everybody thought of maybe drawing against Chelsea but now we have drawn against Birmingham so we have to win the others."

Sunday's encounter could be the first of two meetings between the two clubs should both win through to the Europa League final.

Benitez has respect for the achievements of the Cottagers and their manager Roy Hodgson.

"Hopefully we can see Fulham in the final and there will be two English teams there. That will be very good for England. Fulham are doing very well."

Mancini Backing Liverpool

Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has revealed how he is hoping Liverpool clinch success in the Europa League this season after watching the Reds' Benfica demolition.

The Italian viewed from the Anfield directors' box and was left impressed by the manner of the stylish 4-1 victory as goals from Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva and Fernando Torres (2) fired Rafa Benitez's men into the semi-finals of the competition on Thursday.

However, Mancini does not subscribe to the view that Liverpool's European run will have a negative impact on their challenge for a top four finish as the Reds, City, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa all continue to vie for Champions League football.

Asked if he felt our Europa League schedule could act as a distraction, the Eastlands manager said: "Helpful to us? I hope so. They played a fantastic game on Thursday and I hope that they win the Europa League.

"But they are a strong team. They will still try hard for fourth place, which is normal. There are four teams still for the one place - ourselves, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Liverpool.

"It's six games for us and Tottenham and only five for Liverpool. But all our games are difficult, starting with Birmingham (on Sunday)."

John Aldridge: European Super Cup Spot Is Real Motivation For Liverpool

I know it’s only the consolation cup but we’re in the semis now and the Europa League is getting tasty.

We’ve not had much to crow about when it comes to the rivalry between Man United and ourselves this season but we’ve stayed in Europe longer than them.

Of course first and foremost we want fourth place but if we could get to a final and win a trophy it would be a real bonus.

One big attraction of winning the Europa League is playing for the European Super Cup. It’s very prestigious and would provide a great start to next season. Liverpool v Barcelona – how juicy would that be?

Our build up to this season was awful. We had so many players coming back late and we weren’t ready.

But to be involved in the Super Cup in August would be something to relish.

The likes of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher deserve another winner’s medal for everything they’ve given for the club. And for other players like Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano they haven’t won anything at Liverpool so the Europa League would still mean a lot.

The semi against Atletico Madrid will be special for Torres and it won’t be easy. They might only be mid-table in La Liga but they are no mugs and have some quality players.

Benfica are a good team who stuck five past Everton so to defeat them like we did was very pleasing.

Lucas took his goal well and he needs to get into those type of positions more often. If he does then people will appreciate him more.

Kuyt was superb, while Carragher marshalled things really well at the back.

Up top Torres’ finishing was terrific. He provided the finish to a great move for his first and his second was a lovely dink over the keeper. It reminded me of the goal I scored against Notts Forest in our 5-0 win back in 1988.

Enough has been said already about the decision to take Torres off at Birmingham.

I struggled to come to terms with it and the fact is towards the end of games defenders tire and strikers get more chances.

Atletico Madrid Captain Antonio Lopez Expecting Rousing Ovation For Fernando Torres

Atletico Madrid captain Antonio Lopez believes Fernando Torres will receive a rapturous welcome at the Vicente Calderon when los Colchoneros host Liverpool in the Europa League semi-finals in just under two weeks' time.

"It will be a very special game for Fernando Torres,” Lopez told the club's official website.

“People are going to receive him with open arms because he has been an icon here, but once the game starts everyone will defend only their own interests.”

Liverpool breezed past Benfica at Anfield on Thursday night while Atleti booked their spot in the semis on away goals following a scoreless draw with Valencia.

“The key to coming through the tie [against Valencia] was built on a solid defence from the whole team.

“Who would have said at the beginning of the season that we would be there? But through effort and hard work we are in the final of Copa del Rey and the semi-final of the Europa League," he concluded.

Alvaro: He's Rafa The Robot

Alvaro Arbeloa has branded Rafa Benitez's management style as "a bit robotic".

And the defender, who left Liverpool for Real Madrid last year, claims his old boss won't throw caution to the wind.

He said: "Rafa doesn't want you to take any risks ever. He's happy to score first and sit back."

Arbeloa, 27, added: "What Rafa wants, the team does. Every player knows what he wants. The one-two-three you work on in the week is the one-two-three you produce in matches. At times that can be a bit robotic."

But he praised Benitez for being "hugely important" in his development.

He said: "He improves you. He's correcting you every single second, always wanting more. That was good for me."

Benitez Would Do Well In Serie-A, Says Alberto Aquilani

Alberto Aquilani believes Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez would be ideal in Serie A, as Juventus continue to keep track of him.

The Bianconeri have long been linked with the Spanish coach, who is reportedly top of a long list of candidates of their most wanted for a summer rebuild.

And, while landing him appears prohibitive, one of the Red's most recent recruits believes the former Valencia coach would deliver quick success in Italy if he was given the chance.

"[Rafael] Benitez has never asked me about Italy and Serie A, but with some of his staff we often joke about this subject," Aquilani is quoted as saying in Tuttosport.

"I think Benitez is a great coach, and he would also be in Italy."

Liverpool are still in the hunt for fourth spot in the Premier League to secure Champions League football next season.

Rafa Benitez: Our squad Just Not Good Enough To Secure Champions League Spot

As Liverpool return to domestic duty on Sunday, not even their rousing dispatch of Benfica on Thursday night has raised the Rafa Benitez's hopes that their pursuit of fourth place in the Premier League will prove a successful chase.

His squad, he fears, can not live up to what is expected at Anfield.

Their success in reaching the last four of the Europa League holds out the promise of ending an underwhelming campaign with silverware, but it would offer scant consolation for missing out on a place in next season's Champions League and the accompanying financial hit that would bring. Liverpool lie sixth, four points behind Manchester City, who hold the coveted spot, having played a game more and Benitez admits it is a gap that his side will struggle to close with just five games remaining.

"If it is a question of 11 v 11 we can be as good as anyone when everyone is fit," he said. "But normally the problem is the squad and in our case the expectation. As soon as you cannot be so close to the top people are disappointed and you do not have the same energy, but in a normal game, we can beat anyone.

"The question this year has been consistency. It is very clear [that] you need a good, big squad and then you can manage. After one international break, we had [Glen] Johnson, [Sotirios] Kyrgiakos, [Fernando] Torres and [Steven] Gerrard injured, [Fabio] Aurelio at the beginning too. When you have too many problems with starting players you need a bigger squad. The other day you could see [Nicolas] Anelka played and his substitute was [Didier] Drogba, so that is a massive difference, and [on Wednesday, Wayne] Rooney played and [Dimitar] Berbatov, a £32m player, came on. The length of the squad is important, especially in the league."

As Benitez has been in charge at Anfield for six years, the squad is absolutely the Spaniard's creation. His concerns are valid, but they could also be said to be of his own making. It was he who spent £20m on Alberto Aquilani and £2m on Kyrgiakos in August and a combined £20m on Andrea Dossena, Albert Riera, Diego Cavalieri and David Ngog – and the same again on Robbie Keane – the summer before. His dissatisfaction with his lot will not be eased unless the club attracts new investment before the summer. The July deadline to find £100m to reduce their level of debt hangs heavily over Liverpool. If they do not finish fourth, will Benitez even be there by then?

With one less game to play than the other three teams in contention for fourth – City, Tottenham and Aston Villa – Liverpool may need to win five out of five. "They are in a good position and if they lose it will be more through their fault," said Benitez of City and Spurs. In Liverpool's favour is that three of their remaining games are at Anfield, although one of those is against Chelsea, and the two on the road are at Burnley and Hull. Their home form has been formidable of late, and their opponents on Sunday, fellow English European survivors Fulham, have one of the worst away records in the league. Roy Hodgson's side have won once on the road this season, which is merely an extension of their dire away form. With just nine league wins away from Craven Cottage since 2005-6, they make Steve Harmison resemble a modern-day Magellan.

Since Liverpool's embarrassing FA Cup loss to Reading in January, they have won nine straight games at Anfield, and at the heart of that run has been one man. The clinical double against Benfica made it eight goals in the last four Anfield matches for Fernando Torres. Over the course of his three years in England, Torres has scored 49 times in 59 home games. His presence on the pitch will, as ever, be key. His withdrawal against Birmingham last weekend and Liverpool's subsequent failure to win left Benitez open to criticism but he stressed that he will continue to manage his compatriot's time on the field carefully.

"It is important he is not weary," said Benitez. "People say he cannot be tired because he has not played so many games, but if you play with 10 men for an hour and have to play again, everyone will be tired. If Torres is fit he can be very, very dangerous and he can score goals. He can make a difference like [against Benfica], when we tried to protect him, if we can manage him for the rest of the season."

Another of the Spanish contingent yesterday gave Benitez a fillip when Pepe Reina agreed a new six-year contract. The goalkeeper follows Torres, Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and Yossi Benayoun in agreeing long-term deals over the last 12 months.

Liverpool Face Crucial Phase

Liverpool face a crucial phase in their history on and off the pitch. Qualifying for the Champions League next season is a key target, not just for the fans, but for financial reasons. Without the revenue the Champions League provides, servicing the interest on the club's debt payment may become difficult.

The American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, have been in the country together, of itself quite unusual, and it is evident that important discussions have been taking place. One idea that has been floated is the appointment of a high-profile independent chairman, whether or not anyone takes a minority stake in the club.

The £237m debt needs to be re-financed in the summer. The principal lender, the Royal Bank of Scotland, would like to see the outstanding amount paid down by £100m. But the Bank seems to be taking a conciliatory stance. The option of them finding their own purchaser for the club does not seem to be being considered at the moment.

The offer by the American-based Rhone Group of taking a 40% stake is no longer available. Some sources close to the club think that this is a negotiating tactic and that discussions are just at their first stage, but most analysts think this is unlikely. There are five or six possible purchasers, but the real sticking point is the price. Gillett and Hicks think that it should factor in the boost to the club's revenues and values that would result from the construction of the new Anfield. But as the new owners would have to find the funds to build it, that sounds a bit like being asked to pay twice.

Radio 5 had a live (and lively) discussion from Liverpool involving supporters from the red and blue parts of the city at lunchtime today. The conventional assumption is that very few supporters favour a shared stadium and that those who do are Blues. However, when a speaker raised this possibility he got a loud round of applause.

One speaker said football is about emotion not economics. That is how it is experienced by the fans. But the reality of the situation is that economics and money matters and not least on Merseyside.

Tom Hicks And George Gillett On Verge Of Signing Martin Broughton

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are on the verge of appointing Martin Broughton, the head of British Airways, to become the club’s independent chairman.

Hicks and Gillett, both of whom were at Anfield on Thursday night to watch the Reds demolish Benfica in the Europa League, have been in Britain since Tuesday discussing a number of issues with their advisers, most notably investment.

The appointment of an independent chairman, though, has also featured heavily in their talks and, after much deliberation; Broughton is understood to be the man they want to step in.

Liverpool officials will not comment on the subject but it is understood Broughton has held talks over the position and is set to be appointed to the role at some point in the next week.

Where he will be based remains unclear. Broughton, a 62-year-old from West London, has been with BA since 2000 – he was on the board for four years before becoming chairman in 2004 – but he has a considerable background in sport, as he chaired the British Horseracing Board between 2004 and 2007.

He was also chairman of British American Tobacco when it launched the BAR Formula One team in 1999.

Such a move on Hicks and Gillet’s behalf makes sense, particularly if they are to find a minority investor to help reduce the club’s current £237m debt.

Reds Managing Director Christian Purslow has been attempting to bring in third party investment for months but the only confirmed interest so far has come from the Rhone Group, a private equity fund, who offered £113m for a 40 per cent stake last month.

Hicks, in particular, was reluctant to accept that figure but there are still several interested parties who have increased their interest in buying a stake since news of Rhone’s interest emerged.