Saturday, April 23, 2011

Match Preview: Liverpool vs Birmingham

Injury problems have once again disrupted Liverpool’s preparations in the build up to the visit of Birmingham City this weekend. Both Jamie Carragher and Andy Carroll suffered injuries at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday and remain doubtful for Saturday’s game, stretching an already depleted squad, which is hanging on by its fingernails to the hope of European football next season.

They may be missing players through injury, but Liverpool will undoubtedly be feeling good about themselves after showing immense character to rescue a point from their trip to North London. Dirk Kuyt’s 102nd minute penalty – unsurprisingly the latest goal scored in Premier League history – showed nerves of steel whilst the performances of academy graduates John Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Jay Spearing drew much praise from the national media.

Coming on the back of a morale boosting 3-0 win over Manchester City, there is clearly a belief amongst the Reds that they can compete with the top teams in the league. Throughout this season, however, it has been the performances against the sides propping up the table which have given most cause for concern.

Against the teams currently in the bottom half of the Premier League, Liverpool have taken just 25 points from a possible 54 (their record against the top ten, 24 from 45, reads significantly better), and most recently this has manifested itself in defeats at West Brom and West Ham. Home defeats against Blackpool and Wolves, as well as a draw against Wigan, however, suggest this problem is not simply one of away day blues.

Birmingham have not been an easy team for Liverpool to face in recent years, indeed under Rafa Benítez the Reds never came out of a league match on top, although there was the small matter of a 7-0 victory in the FA Cup. The last seven league meetings between the two sides have all ended in draws whilst Birmingham did the double over Benítez in his first season in England. A first league win in the fixture since the 8th May 2004 would be timely in the continued chase for 5th place.

Liverpool has major worries over both Carragher and Carroll after the draw at the Emirates Stadium. Carroll slipped in the penalty area and suffered a knee injury which, although not as serious as was first feared, threatens to keep him out of this weekend’s match. Carragher, who was knocked unconscious in a clash of heads with Flanagan, has recovered remarkably quickly, but there remain doubts as to whether the medical department will clear him to play.

Should both be ruled out, Liverpool’s squad will be stretched almost to breaking point. Sotirios Kyrgiakos would be the most likely option to replace Carragher, whilst Dirk Kuyt may well be called upon to play up front should Carroll be ruled out. Maxi Rodríguez would be the most likely candidate to fill Kuyt’s vacant place on the right flank, though it was the returning Jonjo Shelvey who came on for the final twenty minutes against Arsenal when Carroll was withdrawn.

Birmingham are boosted by the return of centre back Martin Jiranek, who suffered a groin strain in the Carling Cup Final, meaning that Liam Ridgewell could be slotted back into his favoured left back position. That is likely to be the only change from the team that lost 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday as Birmingham look for the few points they need to cement their place in the Premier League.

Starting XIs
Liverpool (possible): Reina; Flanagan, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Robinson; Kuyt, Lucas, Spearing, Meireles; Suárez, Carroll

Birmingham (probable): Foster; Carr, Jiranek, Johnson, Ridgewell; Larsson, Ferguson, Gardner, Fahey, Hleb; Jerome

Kenny Eyes End To Seven-Year Jinx

Kenny Dalglish is confident his Liverpool side can break a seven-year jinx on Saturday by beating Birmingham City in the league.

Rafael Benitez failed to gain three points against the midlanders during his Anfield tenure - while Roy Hodgson could only manage a goalless draw at St Andrew's earlier this season.

Emile Heskey, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen were the scorers the last time we overcame Birmingham in a league match back in May 2004 - but Dalglish isn't concerning himself with history.

"The past doesn't matter," he told "It's what happens on Saturday that's going to determine the result. Obviously we'd love it to change and improve our record against them."

Liverpool would be third in the league if the season started when Dalglish re-took the reins in January - proof of the potential within the squad, according to the gaffer.

"It reflects on how well the players have done," he said. "Their approach has been fantastic since we came in and their determination to get results has been superb. It's a work in progress but there are quite positive signs.

"If you support Liverpool Football Club then I think you will have enjoyed what's gone on, but like Oliver Twist we'd still like to get a wee bit more."

Liverpool go into Saturday's 3pm kick-off on the back of a victory against Manchester City and a draw at the Emirates, results gained with several Academy graduates on the teamsheet.

Dalglish is keen to moderate the hype surrounding players such as 17-year-old Jack Robinson and 18-year-old John Flanagan, but he admits it's not easy with all the media coverage of football today.

"It's easy for us - though it might be difficult for the press," he said. "The lads find it quite easy. They're good lads and they're well grounded. I don't think we'll have a problem, and I don't think they'll get carried away.

"They can be immensely proud of the way they've played in the games they've been involved in but we won't get carried away.

"We've got some experienced heads and so have they at home - their parents and relatives. They'll be able to keep their feet on the ground.

"It's difficult for local lads to progress in football. Sometimes they're dragged from one thing to another but for these lads to have got as far as they have shows you they've got some determination. They also respect the profession they're in and what they have to do to be good at that profession. They are quite strong individuals."

One of the experienced heads at Dalglish's disposal is Steve Clarke.

Speaking to us earlier in the week, he revealed how the coaching staff goes about keeping young players grounded.

"We keep on at them every day in training," he said. "When you come into work you can reflect a bit on the previous performance but in football the next game is always coming up. There is no point dwelling on what you've done - it's what you're going to do in the following game.

"They've got good people around them, they'll get good advice and they seem to me to be very level-headed boys. I'm sure they'll continue to progress."

Clarke and Dalglish will pit their wits against a man they know well this weekend in Blues boss Alex McLeish.

But our first-team coach isn't expecting any favours despite City having steered themselves clear of the drop zone in recent weeks.

"I know Alex through his time in Scotland, I think I played against him a few times," said Clarke. "He will have been coming to the end of his career as I was starting out in mine!

"I know him well and he's done a good job there. Winning the League Cup with Birmingham was a big thing. They've almost got enough points in the league but they're not quite in a position yet where they can relax and so it'll be a difficult game for us."

Speculation Is Growing That Pepe Reina Wants To Stay At Liverpool

Pepe Reina looks set to stay at Liverpool for next season, despite speculation mounting that he was fed up with not winning trophies, according to The Sun.

The Liverpool goalkeeper appeared set to leave the Kop in the summer, with ex Liverpool goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov and Hugo Lloris looking likely replacements, as well as a list of other names in the pipeline.

Mihaylov was recently quoted as saying he was sure Reina was leaving to head to a club in Spain.

“I know from my agent Pepe Reina wants to go back to Spain," he said.

"His desire dates back one or two years. He's one of the best keepers in the world but his form is not as it should be in a club like Liverpool.”

While Reina had signed a six year deal six months ago, a £20 million release clause was inserted into his contract, giving weight to Mihaylov's beliefs.

But it appears Mihaylov might be wrong, as Reina has praised Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish on a number of occasions now, indicating that the goalkeeper might indeed stay with Liverpool after all.

"He's a legend in Liverpool - and I mean a legend because sometimes that word is used too much for other people.

“Kenny knows exactly what the [Liverpool] people think and what the supporters want to see.”

Dalglish has ensured a resurrection of Liverpool, with the club going from facing relegation to challenging for Europa League qualification. If Reina does believe that Dalglish knows what Liverpool people want, the goalkeeper will surely know that the people want trophies and Champions League qualification, which is what Reina wants too.

Dalglish recently made a personal appeal to Reina to stay with Liverpool, telling reporters: “I can't speak for Pepe Reina on how he sees it and believes it's going.

“I can only tell you about how me personally and the club as a whole feels about him.

“Whatever he feels about us going in the right direction or not is up to him, but he doesn't look too unhappy to me.

“I have always believed he is one of the best in the Premiership, if not the best, maybe even in football.”

And so through Dalglish’s personal appeals to Reina, the Spaniard is looking poised to stay with the Anfield club.

Liverpool Chase Bayern Munich Captain Philip Lahm

Liverpool are reportedly plotting a surprise move for Bayern Munich captain Philip Lahm.

According to Sportingo, the Reds and Chelsea are both chasing the £23 million-rated full-back and Bayern are already looking for a potential replacement.

Although it would seem unlikely that the Bundesliga giants would sell their skipper, Liverpool and Chelsea are both reportedly prepared to test their resolve in the summer.

The Blues are thought to be in the market for a world class right-back, with Jose Bosingwa's career at Stamford Bridge stagnating and Branislav Ivanovic not a particularly useful attacking option on the flanks.

Liverpool, meanwhile are known to be after defensive reinforcements and a deal for Lahm would certainly represent quite a coup for the Anfield club.

However, it would be a surprise if Liverpool did launch a bid for the 27-year-old with Glen Johnson and the increasingly impressive Martin Kelly already providing Kenny Dalglish with capable options on the right.

A more pressing issue for Liverpool is the acquisition of a new left-back with the injury-prone Fabio Aurelio currently the only senior player at Anfield who is a natural in that position.

Liverpool is reportedly closing in Newcastle's Jose Enrique as they look to solve their left-sided woes in time for next season.

Johnson Committed To Reds

Glen Johnson has insisted he has no regrets about joining Liverpool and is looking forward to a bright future with the club.

The England international has endured long periods of frustration since making the move to Anfield from Portsmouth in the summer of 2009.

He could not help the Reds qualify for the UEFA Champions League last season under Rafa Benitez and was criticized by Roy Hodgson at the start of this term following a series of disappointing performances.

Injuries have also hampered Johnson's progress and he now finds his place under threat from youngsters such as Martin Kelly and John Flanagan.

However, the right-back maintains that he never looks back at the moment he came to the club and wishes he had made a different decision.

Johnson feels the Reds are heading in an exciting direction under Kenny Dalglish and new owners Fenway Sports Group, and is eager to play a part.

Asked if he had any regrets about joining Liverpool, Johnson told the Daily Telegraph: "No. Not at all.

"I definitely see my future here. It has never entered my head that I made the wrong choice.

"I am not the sort of person who, just because things are going badly, would jump ship.

"It was difficult for the club at the start of this season but we are over the hill now and everything is looking bright.

"The new owners coming in was like a cloud being lifted. Everyone feels like we are over the worst of it, we have fantastic owners, a fantastic manager and a fantastic coaching staff. With a few signings this summer, we will be a force."

Johnson knows from his time at Pompey how important it is to have stability at a club, and he is enjoying life with Liverpool since FSG took control.

"They have spent a lot of money," he said. "If it was me, I wouldn't spend that much unless I was dedicated to it.

"They do not want to be part of the club, they want to take it on. Why else would they buy it? It is exciting times.

"Kenny has brought the smile back to everyone's faces, and Steve Clarke [the first-team coach] has been fantastic.

"I feel a lot more settled now than I did. I had always lived in London before. It was a big change."

Spearing Relishing Reds Run

Jay Spearing believes his patience has paid off at Liverpool after earning a run in the first team this term.

The 22-year-old was reduced to a bit-part player at Anfield under previous managers Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson and started just three games last season.

Now with Kenny Dalglish at the helm Spearing has been given a new lease of life and is set to make his 12th start of the season against Birmingham on Saturday.

Happy to have a foot firmly in the first-team door, the combative midfielder is keen to seize the opportunity after his hard work paid dividends.

"I have had to be patient for two or three years now and different managers have given me different opportunities," he told the Daily Star.

"I used to come in and then be out the next week. At that time I wanted to nail a position down as much as possible.

"It didn't happen for me then. But thankfully, now it has and I just have to keep it going and make the most of my chances."

With first-team openings few and far between last term Spearing was forced to venture out on loan in search of games, landing at Championship side Leicester.

Despite loving his time at the Walkers Stadium, the player was forced to admit he may have to drop down a division on a permanent basis.

He added: "I hadn't played as much as I would have liked, so I went to Leicester, played some games and loved every minute of it.

"We were lucky enough to get into the play-offs. I knew that if I kept grafting and kept showing different managers that I wanted it, one day it would come for me.

"It was hard. There were times when I thought to myself, 'What's going on? Am I going to break through at Liverpool?'

"It is something I have been wanting to do for four or five years, not just this season, and there have been times when I thought I might have to look elsewhere.

"It is one of those things when you need the support of family and friends to keep you going and I believed in myself and knew at some point if I kept going it would come."

Kenny Dalglish Finds Fringe Benefits But Summer Exodus Still Likely

Kenny Dalglish has praised Liverpool's fringe players for their contribution towards the club's upturn in fortunes, although that will not prevent a cull of the squad at the end of the season.

Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, David Ngog and Christian Poulsen have rarely featured since Dalglish became manager in January and Liverpool are likely to consider to offers for all in the summer. Cole has started just two Europa League games under the new manager and Jonjo Shelvey was preferred to the former England international when Dalglish was forced to withdraw the injured Andy Carroll against Arsenal last weekend.

Despite the club reportedly securing the biggest kit deal in English football with a £25m-a-year contract with the Boston-based Warrior Sports, Liverpool are looking to raise additional transfer funds in the summer and will offload players currently out on loan, such as Alberto Aquilani, Emiliano Insúa and Paul Konchesky. Yet Dalglish says he has had no problems from those he has overlooked.

"The important thing for us is the players who aren't playing because their attitude is really important. They have been brilliant," the Liverpool manager said, speaking ahead of Saturday's home game against Birmingham City. "They came in on Monday morning and trained fantastically well. Most of them are forward players, apart from Christian, and it's difficult for us to get them a game because our injuries are at the back. They are deserving of a game because of their attitude and the way they have gone about their work."

One player who has voiced his disaffection at Liverpool is the Serbia international Jovanovic, who admits he "made a mistake" in moving to Anfield on a free transfer last summer having been signed by Rafael Benítez. But Dalglish countered: "I don't know what's going to happen with Milan. He's been injured and still has a problem with his knee so if you are not fit it's difficult to be selected."

The Liverpool manager believes there is a new-found belief in the squad since his arrival, with the signings of Carroll and Luis Suárez instrumental in lifting the mood of the club. He said: "I had belief in them [when he took over] but they had to get belief in themselves. The first game at Old Trafford after they went down to 10 men after giving a penalty away in the first minute to the same referee we've got on Saturday [Howard Webb], it was fantastic the way they hung on in there.

"OK, we lost at Blackpool, but you could see they were determined to get something out of the game. They've been fantastic in training, their approach and their attitude, and I think getting Luis and Andy was a big thing in January. That lifted everyone. I think also bringing the youngsters in, if they're good enough to play, in a strange way gives the other first-team players a lift seeing some young faces in there."

McLeish - Carroll Rejected Scots

Alex McLeish has revealed he tried to lure Andy Carroll to play for Scotland while he was national team manager.

The Birmingham boss will come face-to-face with the man mountain on Saturday when they play Liverpool.

Carroll qualifies to play for Scotland through his grandmother who was born in that country but he spurned McLeish's advances and also his successor's Craig Levin.

Liverpool shelled out a British record £35million in January to prise him from Newcastle as a replacement for Fernando Torres.

Carroll has since cemented his international future with England as he opened his account at international level in the friendly against Ghana last month.

"Andy Carroll has come on leaps and bounds and I did try and get him to play for Scotland when I was manager," said McLeish.

"I was aware that he had got Scottish connections through his family. He was 19 at that stage, a reserve player really at Newcastle, and I was quite hot on trying to get him to play for Scotland at that stage.

"But unfortunately he said 'no' and we all know what he has already achieved in his career.

"Certainly since he has gone to Liverpool, he has formed a great partnership with Luis Suarez."

The Sun Boycott Remains As Strong As Ever

On Monday, shortly before RTÉ released a public statement about the issue, a text came through: Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton would not now be appearing on the Sun-sponsored ‘Premier Soccer Sunday’.

The decision to remove them from the show was thanks to the tireless campaigning of Irish Reds and came as a huge relief. The two players stopped playing for Liverpool a long time ago but any introduction for either of them will always include the club’s name. In effect their appearance on the show would give ammunition to the tiny minority who think it’s possible to be a Liverpool fan and a Sun reader. It would also give ammunition to the sick, small-minded, individuals who feel that it’s acceptable to abuse Reds based on the Sun’s false version of events.

Having already spoken on the issue to The Irish Independent, and Dublin radio station Spin 103.8 before the announcement was made it was clear that the story was gaining a lot of attention in Ireland. After the announcement had been made there came another request to talk to Irish Radio, this time to the national station Newstalk.

There was some disappointment at the lack of any word from either player about the position they’d been in. RTÉ just said they wouldn’t now be appearing on the show – they didn’t say why.

If the two had made it clear that they fully support the boycott and pulled out as soon as they were informed of the sponsorship situation it would have helped repair their reputations and raise even more awareness of the boycott.

Their reputations are of course for them alone to worry about – it’s up to them to decide if their status amongst supporters was damaged during the time taken for them to be withdrawn. It’s up to them to decide if any damage can be fixed by just leaving it to heal of its own accord. And of course any hit their reputations might have taken is nothing compared to what their appearance on the show would have done.

Awareness still got a massive boost from the coverage afforded to the story. People previously unaware of the boycott have been made aware there is one, and why. The response to posting a link to the full transcript on Twitter was for a number of supporters already aware of the boycott to express their shock at how bad the Sun’s fabricated version of the disaster really was. Younger Reds are getting the full details and coming to the same conclusion that the younger Reds of 22 years ago made – to boycott.
The boycott is also increasingly coming to the attention of supporters around the world. And of course it isn’t just supporters of Liverpool who join in the boycott after seeing the lies that were told.

A point raised quite often is whether or not Liverpool fans should be dictating how ex-players can make a living. The simple response is that ex-players get these offers because they used to play for Liverpool and were given huge support from those fans; to turn work down when it relates to that one boycotted publication isn’t a great deal to ask in return.

Another point raised regularly is whether there is anything The Sun can do to bring an end to the boycott after 22 years. It’s a fair question: what will it take?

It’s a question that only the families and survivors can answer and there’s little point asking them before the truth – not the lies the Sun headlined ‘The Truth’ – is made public.

The Sun wasn’t the only newspaper to print the lies fed by a Conservative MP and the high-ups in South Yorkshire police. But it was the only paper that didn’t follow it up with an immediate retraction. Instead The Sun waited years, waiting until fresh attention was drawn to their lies, attention that came after Wayne Rooney spoke exclusively to them.

Their apology was seen as insincere, all the more because it included a dig at the Liverpool Echo for writing about the boycott and the backlash to the Rooney story.

The Sun’s lies have got in the way of the truth coming out. They have allowed small-minded scum to have sick fun at the expense of survivors and the families of the victims. They added to the trauma and suffering.

The panel set up in 2009 following Andy Burnham’s appearance at the memorial service is quietly suggesting that the truth might finally be close. That truth will come as a huge comfort to those affected by Hillsborough.

Until that truth does come out, until that truth becomes the accepted version of events so that small-minded scum are shouted down by those who excuse their behaviour, there is absolutely no chance that the boycott will end.

Until then no true Liverpool supporter will allow The Sun into their home in any form; printed, electronic or as the sponsor of a TV show they watch.

Don’t buy the Sun.