Sunday, November 07, 2010

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs Chelsea

The visit of Chelsea to Anfield provides a painful reminder to Liverpool fans of how far they have fallen off the pedestal from which they used to dominate English football. The Blues are defending champions, while the Reds only moved out of the relegation zone a week ago.

Liverpool have been unable to add to their record 18 top-flight titles in the Premier League era, and have managed one FA Cup triumph in the last five years, a period in which Chelsea have collected eight major domestic trophies including three league titles.

Nevertheless, things are beginning to pick up for the fallen giants. The club are finally under new ownership, and beleaguered manager Roy Hodgson has the rare luxury of being able to reflect on three consecutive victories going into Sunday’s showdown.

And the midweek appointment of Damien Comolli as Liverpool's new director of football strategy will potentially allow the ex-Fulham boss to focus exclusively on coaching the best out of his squad.

Hodgson enjoyed what he described as his best 15 minutes in the job on Thursday as Liverpool came from behind to beat Napoli 3-1 in the Europa League. Yet that victory owed so much to second-half substitute Steven Gerrard, who scored a hat-trick, that despite the skipper’s insistence that it had been a fine collective performance, the Reds’ over-dependence on him was again plain to see.

The other world class player at Hodgson’s disposal, Fernando Torres, had been linked with a possible move to Sunday’s opponents until Carlo Ancelotti ruled out buying any new players in January unless injuries force a rethink, and specifically quashed rumors of a bid for Torres when citing the excellence of his own current strike force.

All Hodgson needs to do therefore is hope the Spaniard – who has scored four goals in as many matches against Chelsea at Anfield - can quickly recapture his imperious pre-World Cup form, match fitness and appetite.

Meanwhile, having not won any of his last six league matches against Chelsea (D1, L5), Hodgson knows that if he can take anything off the champions this weekend it could give his recovering side a massive shot in the arm and lend credence to the view that Liverpool could yet challenge for a top four place again.

However, if all results go against them this weekend, the Reds could find themselves back in the relegation mire by Sunday evening. And on the face of it, with just three wins from their 10 league games to date, Liverpool seem unlikely to trouble Chelsea over-much. Liverpool currently look miles away from the standard Chelsea have set, something Hodgson has not tried to gloss over when admitting that he and the club face a Herculean ask in restoring the Reds firstly to top four eminence and secondly to the glories that were commonplace at Anfield in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chelsea won 2-0 on their last visit to Anfield, in May in what was Liverpool’s final home fixture of the 2009-10 season, and took a decisive step closer to claiming their third league title in six seasons. But they have a mixed record at Anfield in recent years, winning four and losing four of their last 10 visits. The two clubs have met 26 times in all competitions since October 2004, Chelsea winning 12 of them and Liverpool seven.

The rivalry between these two teams reached a new level when Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez were the respective managers. Those two have moved on, and Liverpool have become less of a threat at the top of the table; but although relations between Ancelotti and Roy Hodgson are likely to be a lot less prickly than those between their predecessors, there will still be a keen rivalry between the teams.

And while Liverpool will be anxious to maintain their tentative revival, Chelsea will be no less determined to continue in the vein that has seen them establish a commanding five-point lead at the top of the table.

The Blues will be mindful that they came unstuck on their last but one trip to the North West, when Manchester City inflicted on them their only defeat of the season so far. They made up for that set-back by claiming all three points back in Lancashire last weekend when coming from behind to beat Blackburn Rovers 2-1.

If it was not their most convincing performance it was certainly a dogged and ultimately successful one that spoke volumes about their resilience. They are, after all, champions – a fact they underlined in the manner of an emphatic midweek thrashing of Spartak.

Chelsea have taken 10 points out of 12 and won six of their last seven matches in all competitions, and for good measure boast the best goalscoring and defensive records in the Premier League. Moreover, they have had a day extra to recover from European action and prepare for Sunday's match, having already done the hard work required to reach the Champions League knockout stage.

Chelsea represent a formidable challenge for any opponent at the moment, and are again the Premier League's best travelers, with three wins from five to their credit and a goal difference of plus eight on the road.



Midfielder Joe Cole will miss Sunday's match against his former club Chelsea because of the hamstring strain that also ruled him out of the Reds’ midweek Europa Cup triumph over Napoli.

But another ex-Chelsea player, right-back Glen Johnson, shrugged off a thigh muscle injury in time to make his first appearance since October 3 in the Napoli game, and was one of six changes manager Roy Hodgson made to the side that beat Bolton last weekend. Johnson is set to face his previous employers, but it is likely that Christian Poulsen, Jay Spearing, Jonjo Shelvey, Milan Jovanovic and David Ngog could revert to the bench as the likes of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres resume their places in the starting XI.

Dirk Kuyt may have recovered from an ankle injury in time to face Chelsea, while Ngog, who had to be substituted during the victory over Napoli, may have a sore shin after being the victim of an outrageous – and unpunished – over-the-ball tackle by the liability that was Salvatore Aronica.

Ryan Babel is doubtful with a rib injury; Daniel Agger (calf) and Fabio Aurelio (groin) are still recovering from their respective injury problems.

Possible starting XI: Reina; Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Konchesky; Lucas, Meireles, Maxi Rodriguez, Gerrard, Kuyt, Torres.


Like Joe Cole, Yossi Benayoun will be denied the chance to face his former team-mates, the Israeli international being a long-term casualty with an Achilles injury.

For the Blues’ 4-1 midweek Champions League win over Spartak Moscow, manager Carlo Ancelotti brought back Ramires after three games out with an ankle injury but took the opportunity to rest midfield dynamo Michael Essien, who was nursing a minor toe problem.

He also rested captain John Terry , while Salomon Kalou replaced the injured Florent Malouda. For the trip to Liverpool, Terry is back in the heart of defense, and Malouda is expected to have recovered from his ankle strain, but Essien may need longer.

Ramires is standing by to start, as Frank Lampard will probably still not be ready to make his comeback from a hernia operation.

Possible starting XI: Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Ramires, Mikel, Zhirkov; Anelka, Drogba, Malouda.

Steven Gerrard Has No Regrets Having Previously Turned Down Chelsea To Remain At Liverpool

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard insists that he has no regrets about turning down a move to Chelsea earlier in his career.

A few years ago the Reds captain had seriously considered the prospect of making a move to Stamford Bridge, when he had admitted that he had entertained thoughts concerning "the possibility of moving on".

But he eventually remained at the club and is still waiting to win his first Premier League title, whereas the Blues have gone from strength-to-strength and were crowned champions last term.

Ahead of the game between the two sides at Anfield, the Kop favorite insists that his wait for league success will be sweeter when it does arrive on Merseyside as opposed to west London.

"I don’t think sacrifice is the right word to stay at Liverpool," Gerrard said, according to The Mirror.

"Playing for Liverpool and being the captain, I wouldn’t call that a sacrifice – I would call that living a dream.

"Of course there have been opportunities in the past to move on – Chelsea and other times as well – but I love this club, I want to stay and be successful because when that day comes, I know it will mean an awful lot more to me."

The club has only recently been taken over by New England Sports Ventures, and the skipper hopes that they bring about a quick change to facilitate his need to achieve further glory at Liverpool.

"From a selfish point of view, I want a short-term fix from the new owners, but I’m not naive enough to think it is about me or the players coming to the final part of their careers.

"The Americans have got the right idea by trying to build a platform for this club for many years but I’m looking for the quick-fix because I have only got four or five years left at this level and I want to win trophies before I finish. That is what I go to work for."

He added: "The last 12 months have been the most difficult since I was 18 and broke into the first team.

"We finished seventh in the league and then there was all the stuff that went on off the pitch. Hopefully that is all behind us now – and we can move on."

Henry Demands Total Loyalty Or Players Will Be Sold

Liverpool's new owners, New England Sports Ventures, have issued a warning to any players not fully committed to the club that they will be sold. John W Henry, the club's principal owner, has been angered by reports that Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina would be leaving and has met the club's top players to reassure them of NESV's ambitions.

"It is a completely different system here to what we are used to," Henry said. "If a player has a contract in the United States they fulfil the contract. Over here, it seems players have much more say-so about where they are. Frankly, where we are, we don't want a player at the club who doesn't want to be at the club. It's really up to us to provide the kind of leadership, on and off the field, that any player at the club or who is coming to the club wants to be here."

Henry and Tom Werner, Liverpool's new chairman, are open to recruiting the right talent in January, following the appointment of Damien Comolli as director of football strategy. They are, however, determined to hang on to their best players, despite reports that Torres and Reina have contractual clauses that would facilitate their departure.

"I was upset about the assertion that they were leaving," Henry said. "There was one day when I read reports that we were not going to be involved in the transfer window because we do not have the funds. The next day I read that Torres and Reina were leaving.

"I have spoken with a number of our top players and was really heartened by the response. I was heartened by the intelligence of these players, who understand more about Liverpool than we do. They were good discussions."

Henry, who has been at Liverpool all week, was not so heartened by some of the discoveries he has made since taking over the club.

"There were a number of unpleasant surprises when we did our due diligence because the wage bill is high and it's going to be higher next year -- and we're not a young team," he said. "That was disappointing."

Henry arrived with some firm ideas about the transfer market of his own, including his belief that it is folly to pay out high fees and wages on players in their late 20s and 30s, who offer no resale value.

Comolli has arrived to help make the vision a reality. The 38-year-old Frenchman and Henry share a deep appreciation of the part statistical data can play in spending wisely on the best young players -- the science of sabermetrics. Comolli has developed a personal friendship with the Oakland baseball coach Billy Beane, who transformed his own sport with the method and who Henry once tried to hire for his Boston Red Sox.

Hence some of the telling body language in the directors' box on Thursday night. Henry shook his head when Raul Meireles swivelled into a right-foot effort against Napoli and put a golden opportunity wide and though Graham Taylor, from his commentator's position, observed drily that proprietors always think they might do better on the field of play, the owner had his reasons.

Meireles' struggles to adapt to the Premier League may have contributed to the new owner wondering precisely why Roy Hodgson spent £11.5m on him.

Liverpool's medical staff discovered that Meireles needed building up physically when he arrived at Liverpool and the club have also struggled to establish where he operates best. But he still has a lot to prove, almost as much as Christian Poulsen (£4.5m) and Paul Konchesky (£5m), the latter brought from Fulham by Hodgson. Poulsen's most significant contribution to Thursday's match was the misdirected header which set up the lead Napoli held for nearly an hour.

The brutal truth to date is that Poulsen and Konchesky are the kind of comfort-blanket players a new manager will sometimes turn to, in the knowledge that they have done a job elsewhere before. The impression given by Joe Cole and by Fabio Aurelio, re-signed this summer when Liverpool had shipped out nearly all of their serviceable left-backs, is little better. The average age of the new lot is 29.

Henry clearly did not consult with Hodgson before deciding to bring in Comolli.

"I really didn't talk that much with Roy over the week or so before we made the decision," he said. "I think he may have been surprised when I brought it up a couple of days before we brought in Damien. But he was fully supportive."

Hodgson seems to feel that Henry will grant him the second striker he needs, though his future appears heavily dependent on Steven Gerrard reaching the heights of Thursday.

Henry already knows Gerrard quite well. He sat with the captain at an informal lunch with the players on their first day at Anfield, last month. But though the 61-year-old stood and punched the Liverpool night air as the captain's 89th-minute penalty drove Liverpool into the lead against Napoli, Hodgson knows no amount of statistical work can buy you a younger version of that passion.

"More and more we bring players into our teams who are gifted individuals, but they don't always have that fight in them as well," Hodgson observed.

"Football has changed, and in (Jamie) Carragher and Gerrard we do have two of a dying breed. They are Liverpool through and through, and not only that but they have the quality, guts and desire to play for Liverpool. Most managers would say they are the type of player we really want, but they are much harder to find these days.

"United have their share with (Paul) Scholes and (Ryan) Giggs, but if you go through the Premier League these days, it's not so easy to name many of them. We recruit talent from abroad, but they might not have that burning heart which refuses to accept defeat, as Steven did against Napoli."

There is of course nothing to say that Meireles won't prosper and be taken to Anfield hearts. Maxi Rodriguez has recently shown that 29-year-olds, whatever their re-sale value, can deliver after a rocky start.

Rodriguez speaks of the need for Liverpool to play with "calmness" against Chelsea. It is part of the demand for instant results that both he and his manager have been granted so little of it in their respective Liverpool careers.

Should Liverpool win on Sunday, incidentally, they will be only three points worse off than they were after 11 games last season. Yet Hodgson badly needs others to follow where Rodriguez has led in the past fortnight.

Glen Johnson, who made his Chelsea debut against Liverpool at Anfield in 2003, has still to prove that the £80,000-a-week wages he arrived on are remotely good value. Liverpool's £120m wage bill is something else which will have had Henry shaking his head. Cole, the £90,000-a-week man who is 29 on Monday, will miss Sunday's game with a hamstring injury.

Hodgson has grounds to believe that Fernando Torres will rise to this occasion more than others this season, having scored five goals in seven games against Chelsea in all competitions. You suspect it will be Gerrard who will be the talisman once again, though. Only this time it will not be a suspect Napoli goalkeeper he is encountering but a side against whom he has managed only one goal for Liverpool in 30 appearances and even that one in a 4-1 Anfield defeat.

Henry's wife Linda Pizzuti revealed on her Twitter feed yesterday that the strains of "you're not singing any more", delivered to the Napoli fans, were a personal highlight of Thursday evening.

With the size of the task her husband is facing, she may not be hearing that kind of triumphalism too often.

Liverpool Desperately Need Damien Comolli To Be A Success

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one left scratching his head this week when I heard Liverpool had appointed a director of football strategy.

I’ve certainly never heard a job title like that.

The more I looked into what is expected of Damien Comolli at Anfield, the more I realized that it’s basically the role I always knew as chief scout.

Comolli’s job is to identify and recruit players for the Academy right up to the first team.

His arrival could be viewed as stepping on Roy Hodgson’s toes but the manager has come out and said he’s happy to have Comolli on board so hopefully they will work well together.

Comolli has an impressive CV having worked at Arsenal and Tottenham and he’s got a massive task facing him at Liverpool.

The bottom line is we don’t have enough quality players and the new owners have made it clear they aren’t going to give the manager a blank cheque book.

As a result it’s vital we’re able to identify talented youngsters and bring them to the club.

We’ve got such a good spine to the team with Reina, Carragher, Gerrard and Torres but we still need better players around them.

If Comolli is a success at Liverpool then he will actually save the club money.

I really hope he’s already got two wingers and a centre forward on his list of potential recruits.

Liverpool Fans Have Key Role To Play Against Chelsea

I admit that Chelsea are the best team in the Premier League and seem to be winning games very easily this season.

However, at Anfield today they will face a Liverpool side high on confidence after three straight wins.

We shouldn’t fear Chelsea and if our key players perform we can cause them problems.

When Jose Mourinho was in charge at Chelsea he admitted that his players were terrified by the Kop in full voice.

We need that kind of atmosphere again at Anfield today.

I’m sure the fans will be up for it and the players must start well with a high tempo and take the game to Chelsea.

If we do that we can keep this good run going.

'Next Steven Gerrard' Is A Distant Dream At Liverpool

Steven Gerrard lines up against Chelsea today with his reputation as Liverpool's saviour restored. The captain rose from the bench on Thursday to turn a 1-0 deficit against Napoli into a 3-1 victory almost single-handed. But along with the euphoria that generated came a familiar, grim feeling for all Kopites; when is Anfield's next home-grown superstar going to arrive?

It is close to 12 years since Gerrard made his debut for Liverpool. The date was 29 November, 1998, Blackburn Rovers were the opponents and since then a club which had produced a glut of talent – most notably Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen – has created little for its supporters to get excited about. Instead a list of those who have risen from the youth ranks over the past decade now reads like a who's who of lower-league fillers.

It is in this context that last week's appointment of Damien Comolli as Liverpool's director of football strategy is significant. The Frenchman's brief is, according to the club's owner John W Henry, to "identify exciting young talent" in much the same way he did while working as a European scout for Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, as director of football at Tottenham. If Comolli is successful, there will surely be fewer Jon Otsemobors and more Gaël Clichys filling Liverpool's age-group teams.

In fairness the club had identified a failure to produce talent of its own long before Henry arrived. Liverpool had won the FA Youth Cup in 2006 and 2007, as well as reaching the final in 2009, yet none of those who played in those teams has come close to establishing himself in the first team in the way Gerrard and Carragher have. Something was clearly wrong.

To address the situation there was a major and expensive overhaul of the club's academy in Kirkby 2009. Close to 17 coaches were let go and in came Frank McParland as academy director and, most interestingly, Rodolfo Borrell as the under-18s coach.

Borrell was recruited from Barcelona's renowned La Masia, where he had developed Cesc Fábregas, Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi. Whether he can do the same for Liverpool will only become apparent in due course but what is certain is that the Spaniard, who was directly appointed by Rafael Benítez, feels he is working from a low base.

"The reality of what we found here was unacceptable," Borrell said in April. "The under-18s had no centre-forward, no balance, no understanding of the game. We are working hard but you can't change things overnight."

That assessment would be deemed harsh by recent attendees of Liverpool's academy. Robbie Threlfall, for instance, scored in the final of Liverpool's 2006 and 2007 triumphs and feels he could have progressed into the first team had there been a desire among senior management, most notably Benítez, to give young players a chance.

"Like most of the lads at the academy, I didn't have a relationship with Rafa, he wouldn't speak to any of us on a personal level," says Threlfall, who joined Liverpool at the age of 11 and, after a series of loan spells elsewhere, signed for Bradford in May. "It also didn't help that we'd be performing well and then see a foreign player signed ahead of us. In my case that was Emiliano Insúa. When he came I knew my time was up."

Threlfall remains friends with most of the class of 2006 and 2007, including Jay Spearing, who captained the latter and has featured regularly for the first team in this season's Europa League alongside other youngsters – some nurtured, others signed – such as Martin Kelly and Jonjo Shelvey.

"With Roy Hodgson in charge the young lads will hopefully get a chance," Threlfall says. "As a Liverpool fan myself I want to see more homegrown players, particularly local ones, in the team."

That sentiment is shared by Liverpool city council. Warren Bradley, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council, has revealed to Observer Sport thatthe council has spokento Henry, as well as to officials at Everton and Tranmere, about a policy that would ensure that 5% of their annual academy recruits were local apprentices.

"We believe 5% is a realistic figure and a fair one," says former council leader Bradley. "These clubs take huge amounts of money from the local community and it is only right they put something back."

For now the focus remains fixed on Carragher and Gerrard. They face a Chelsea side who are also short of homegrown talents but believe they may have unearthed a gem in the 17-year-old midfielder Josh McEachran. The word from Kirkby is that Raheem Sterling and Suso could be Anfield's next big things. No more need, then, for Liverpool to sign such players as Andriy Voronin.

Young Reds Hit Bolton For Six

Liverpool U18s returned to winning ways in sensational style on Saturday morning as they recorded a stunning 6-0 victory at Bolton Wanderers.

The young Reds bounced back from their disappointing defeats to Blackburn and West Brom by romping to a comprehensive triumph over a side who had only previously conceded seven goals in their first 10 matches.

Full-back Brad Smith fired Rodolfo Borrell's side into a first-half lead before Toni Silva added a quick-fire brace shortly after the break.

Goals from Michael Ngoo, Adam Morgan and Krisztian Adorjan completed the rout.

Afterwards, Borrell told "We bounced back after two bad results with a great team performance.

"We need to keep working hard to improve day-by-day and not become overconfident after this massive result."

Liverpool U18s: Belford, Smith, Coady, Adorjan, Aylmer (Sumner), Flanagan, Sterling (Walsh), Sama, Regan, Silva, Ngoo (Morgan).