Saturday, November 13, 2010

Match Preview: Stoke City vs Liverpool

Stoke take on Liverpool in Saturday's evening kick-off in the Premier League at the Britannia Stadium, with both sides looking to kick on off the back of a recent improvement.

The first 12 games of the campaign have been no bed of roses for either side, with the Potters having lost four games straight before they rallied to beat Birmingham 3-2 on Tuesday.

Despite turning their home patch into something of a fortress in their time in the top flight, Stoke have looked vulnerable at the Britannia this term, exemplified by the Blues' two goals in two minutes to level matters, when it seemed the result was in the bag.

Dean Whitehead's late goal to win it however demonstrated the spirit of Tony Pulis' side, but Liverpool will pose far more of a test than they arguably would have earlier in the season.

Pulis has been disheartened by decisions from referees against his side in recent weeks, so he will be keeping his eye on the officials for any contentious issues not going his way.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have picked up their form since their derby defeat to Everton, having now gone unbeaten in their last four league games and finally looking something like the side that frequently sat in the top four of the division.

Wednesday however demonstrated that work was still to be done, when they drew 1-1 with Wigan at the DW Stadium despite seemingly being in control.

Star striker Fernando Torres looks to be getting back to his devastating best, with three brilliantly taken goals in his last two games.

Coming off the back of such a decent spell, manager Roy Hodgson will be confident his side can come away with something from the game, given Stoke's fragile state this season.

But he must be wary that his side have not won at the Britannia in their last two visits, and that this stadium is a place where the wheels have come off for Liverpool before.

At the start of 2009 Liverpool travelled to the Britannia leading the table and with an opportunity to extend their advantage over Manchester United and Chelsea to continue their march towards the title, only to fail in a dour goalless draw.

Then-manager Rafa Benitez's rant against Sir Alex Ferguson's manipulation of referees appeared to be the catalyst for a poor run of form that saw them lose their momentum and miss out on the title to United.

There is arguably as much at stake for Hodgson now as there was for Benitez then, but the 63-year-old knows that a victory would push them towards the top-four place captain Steven Gerrard still feels they can obtain.

It is over 25 years since the Potters beat the Reds, but Pulis' team always have the ability to upset the odds, and Liverpool the constant ability to disappoint.

Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross is likely to make his return to the heart of defence after serving a one-match ban following his dismissal against Sunderland.

Other than that, Pulis may stick with the same side that beat Birmingham, with Danny Higginbotham the most likely to lose his place in favour of Shawcross.

Tuncay however could make a return to the starting line-up after Pulis admitted the recently recovered Ricardo Fuller may not be able to play two games in a week.

Jermaine Pennant should keep his place to face his former club for the first time since leaving Anfield to join Zaragoza in 2009.

Liverpool could welcome back Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Glen Johnson to the squad and the defenders are in contention to start.

Other absentees Jose Cole and Fabio Aurelio have also made a recovery form their knocks and are a possibility for the bench.

Hodgson used Martin Kelly at right-back in their win over Chelsea and draw with Wigan, but is likely to lose his place should Johnson return from his groin injury.

Kyrgiakos, who has had tonsilitis, has been in good form for the Reds, but it is yet to be seen whether he will make it into the starting line-up over Jamie Carragher or Martin Skrtel.

Midfielder Raul Meireles came off at half-time with illness at the DW Stadium, and will be assessed before a decision whether he will play can be made.

Hodgson has no new injury worries and is likely to stick with a similar midfield and forward line, with Ryan Babel and Daniel Agger still longer-term absentees.

Possible starting XIs:

Stoke: Begovic, Collins, Huth, Shawcross, Faye, Delap, Whitehead, Pennant, Etherington, Jones, Tuncay.

Liverpool: Reina, Kelly, Carragher, Skrtel, Konchesky, Lucas, Meireles, Gerrard, Rodriguez, Kuyt, Torres

Roy Gets Mixed Injury News

Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson has had mixed fortunes over his injury list after Joe Cole and Glen Johnson were both ruled out of the trip to Stoke.

He will be boosted however that centre-back Sotirios Kyrgiakos and goalkeeper Brad Jones have recovered and are set to at least make the bench.

Cole had missed the last three matches after sustaining a hamstring injury against Bolton, whilst Johnson has missed the previous two games with a groin strain.

The news is likely to force Hodgson's hand to make some changes to his side, after selecting the same line-up for their 2-0 win over Chelsea and 1-1 draw with Wigan on Wednesday.

Hodgson admitted that options were thin on the ground, but hoped that he could keep changes to a minimum and that they would be fit enough to last what is likely to be an exhausting encounter at the Britannia Stadium.

"I'm rather hoping that the two and a half days we'll have had after Wigan will have given us time to recover," he said.

"I don't think we've got that many possibilities to make too many changes.

"We've got senior players like Johnson, Cole and Daniel Agger who are not fit to take part in the game, and then it's young players like Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing and Danny Wilson.

"There isn't an enormous luxury to make wholesale changes.

"If we do make any at all it will be the odd one here and there because the team is functioning well.

"The guys who played against Wigan and Chelsea had a very light training session on Friday, mainly just recovery and prevention of injury. A little bit of movement, but nothing serious.

"We're very aware that it's three very important games in six days, so we don't want to leave anything on the training field.

"We want all our energy, vitality and intensity when we go into the match."

Liverpool Line Up Wolfsburg's Diego Benaglio As Possible Replacement For Pepe Reina

Despite Pepe Reina’s denial of reports that he’s looking to leave Liverpool, the Reds have already lined up a replacement for the Spaniard should he depart, according to German reports.

The 4-4-2 Web site claims Liverpool are looking at VfL Wolfsburg goalkeeper Diego Benaglio.

Bayern Munchen are also said to be interested in the 27-year-old Swiss stopper, who is contracted to Wolfsburg until the end of the 2012/2013 season and is valued €10M-15M.

Benaglio is an extremely reliable goalkeeper. He boasts agility and sharp reflexes, is excellent on crosses and very commanding in his area.

The Switzerland No. 1 is also great in one-on-one situations.

New Torres Partner Could Be Available On A Free

Liverpool and Manchester City have been boosted by the news Italy striker Antonio Cassano will not be welcomed back by Sampdoria after a spat with their president.

After refusing to attend an awards ceremony, Cassano had a blazing row with president Riccardo Garrone, which led to ‘the jewel of Old Bari’ being frozen out of the Genoa-based club.

Now, according to Sky Sports, Sampdoria have asked the Italian league authorities for consent to annul his contract – paving the way for a sensational free transfer elsewhere.

Garrone said: “Obviously Cassano is the best and without him, our team loses a lot. But we will move forward with our decision.”

And the Premier League is a distinct possibility with Liverpool and big-spending Manchester City both interested, but they will face strong competition from Italian side Fiorentina.

Liverpool are currently looking for big name signings, particularly up front, and manager Roy Hodgson has recently stated he is looking for £20 million players to bring to Anfield.

Although Cassano could be available for nothing, he certainly fits the bill of a world class striker and would complement Fernando Torres if he made the move to Liverpool.

Furthermore, Manchester City are always on the lookout to bring the best players in the world to Eastlands and, with the FIFA rules on financial fair play coming in soon, the Citizens will be looking for cheaper players to bring to the club.

Liverpool Set To Swoop For Former Chelsea Star

Liverpool are being linked with a shock January swoop for England international winger Shaun Wright-Phillips.

The 29-year-old speedster is being tipped to make a January exit from current club Manchester City, and Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson is thought to be one of the parties interested in a move for the player.

Speculation surrounding the player leaving Eastlands has circulated after Wright-Phillips' father, Arsenal legend Ian Wright, was quoted as saying he wants the former Chelsea player to get first-team football.

"I'd love him to get out of there on loan at least. We're talking about someone who is still in the England squad, so Fabio Capello obviously rates him," said Wright.

"I can just see him getting further and further down the pecking order. I want him to go somewhere he'll get a fair crack at the first team."

Liverpool were linked with the player last January, when former manager Rafa Benitez was thought to be interested in bringing the player to Anfield.

Hodgson is also thought to hold the player in high regard, and could see the player as an additional attacking presence alongside Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt.

The Reds boss is thought to have been given a transfer budget in the region of £35 million, with new Liverpool owners NESV keen to see attacking talent thrive on Merseyside.

Hodgson has reportedly ear-marked 'five or six' players to bolster the Anfield ranks, and the Metro links Wright-Phillips with a potential Liverpool move.

New Liverpool Supremo Targets £15 Million Double French Raid

New Liverpool director of football strategy Damien Comolli has seemingly added to rumours Dimitri Payet is on his way to England by heaping praise on the winger.

Former Tottenham director of football Comolli has even gone as far as to rate him as more naturally talented than Luka Modric.

Comolli has been brought into the Anfield side to help manager Roy Hodgson identify the players they need to improve Liverpool’s league position and he has already drawn up a shortlist.

Payet seems to be at the top of that list, with Japan’s Keisuke Honda not far behind. Having served as director of sport at Saint Etienne, Comolli knows exactly what the 23-year-old would bring to Liverpool’s side.

“On a natural class level, Dimitri is stronger than a player like Modric, (who) I saw very closely at Tottenham,” he told France Football.

“It is a very high level. We never stopped repeating to him: 'It is only up to you to join a French team'.”

Liverpool boss Hodgson has admitted he is looking to challenge the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the January transfer window and has already picked a fight with AC Milan for CSKA Moscow ace Honda.

Furthermore, new Anfield owner John W Henry has made funds available to his manager but has insisted the club will not waste money on older players and has urged Liverpool’s decision makers to concentrate on youth.

Liverpool have also been linked with Payet’s young team mate Blaise Matuidi so Comolli will be hoping he will be able to sign both for around £15 million.

However, the co-president of the French side, Roland Romeyer, recently ruled out any outgoing transfers in January, telling the same publication: “We have built a roster for the season.

“There will be no departures during the winter transfer window. Should there be any movement, it would be the other way. Depending on injuries, for example, we could sign a player. But this is only a theory.”

Liverpool FC Takeover Has Helped Team's Results, Says Steven Gerrard

Liverpool FC captain Steven Gerrard believes John W Henry’s takeover of the club has been a factor in the team’s improved form, admitting "it’s nice and refreshing to know we’re in safe hands now".

American Henry completed his buy-out of the Anfield giants last month after a turbulent period under his compatriots and previous Liverpool owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

A seventh-placed Barclays Premier League finish last season preceded a woeful start to the current campaign, which saw the team stuck in the bottom three under new Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson.

Defeat in the Merseyside derby against Everton greeted Henry in his first game as owner, but since then Gerrard and company have put together a five-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

England midfielder Gerrard re-iterated that off-field matters were no excuse for the team’s poor form, but believes a more settled boardroom has played a part recently.

The Liverpool skipper said: "I think it helps.

"Listen, everyone wants to go onto the football pitch with everything right off the pitch and Liverpool had a hard 12 months with what’s been going on off the pitch.

"We certainly wouldn’t use it as an excuse for results on the pitch but it is nice and refreshing to know that we’re in safe hands now, everyone wants to move the club forward and everyone can concentrate on the football and on making headlines on the back pages rather than the front."

Gerrard, whose side travel to Stoke on Saturday, maintained: "At the beginning of the season our target was top four and that hasn’t changed, but at the moment I don’t want to get carried away.

"We are still in a position in the league we are not totally happy with so we need to keep this run going and see where it takes us."

Gerrard this week took time out to visit Salisbury Amateur Boxing Club in Liverpool to support his friend Paul Smith, who defends his British super-middleweight title against James DeGale next month.

And the England star believes some footballers could benefit from spending time in such down-to-earth environments.

"Maybe they could learn something," he said.

"I think it would certainly be an eye-opener for those type of players. I think sport, first and foremost, is about dedication and hard work, you get to the top of the game by putting all the hard work in and then you get your rewards at the end."

Gerrard, however, has never opted to don the gloves himself.

He said: "I’ve never even fancied the training!

"To be honest I’ve got so much respect for boxers, with how hard they train and the condition they get themselves in and sacrifices they make. I think that’s why I’ve got such a big interest in boxing, really.

"It fascinates me, the courage and bravery they show to get in the ring and fight in front of so many people. They put their careers on the line every time they fight and it’s fascinating to see and watch."

Pepe Reina Denies He Wants To Leave Liverpool

Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina has denied reports he has told manager Roy Hodgson he wants to leave the club.

Reina, 28, signed a six-year deal with the Reds in April and told the club's website: "It is completely untrue.

"I have not told the manager that I wish to leave in January, or at any other time. It is important our fans know this.

"I have a long-term contract at Liverpool and I am fully committed to the club."

Reina was signed by ex-Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez in a £6m move from Villarreal in July 2005 and has become a key member of the side having racked up more than 250 appearances for the Merseysiders.

The Spain international has consistently been linked with a move since the summer, despite the club enjoying a new-found stability since the takeover by New England Sports Ventures [NESV].

Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan, now managed by Benitez, have been linked with Reina but he has moved to end any speculation over his future as the Reds try to climb the Premier League table following a poor start.

"Our new owner [John W Henry] met me and some of the other players last week and I was very happy with what he told me," added Reina.

"The entire squad and staff are working very hard to get us back competing at the top of the table. We will not be distracted by inaccurate media speculation."