Saturday, April 21, 2012

Match Preview: Liverpool vs West Brom

Liverpool will aim to improve their stuttering Premier League form when they host Roy Hodgson's West Brom on Sunday.

The former Reds boss returns to Anfield for the first time since being sacked in January 2011, knowing his Albion side can move within just one point of Liverpool with a win.

And there is much to encourage the Baggies given that Liverpool have just one Premier League win at home in 2012 - and that was against an under-strength Everton side.

But Kenny Dalglish has reiterated his desire to finish the league season strongly despite the looming distraction of the FA Cup final on May 5th.

Indeed, with just three matches until that Wembley date with Chelsea and a near full-strength squad to choose from, Dalglish will be hoping his players will use the remaining games to push their claims for a place in the cup final.

The incentives for West Brom are less obvious and Hodgson has already admitted that, with the club having achieved its primary goal of survival, they will not be risking injured players in the run-in.

But with several stars playing for new contracts and encouraging recent form with six points from their last three games, the Baggies should still prove tricky opponents.

Liverpool welcome back Pepe Reina after serving his three-match ban so Brad Jones' time in the limelight is set to come to an end.

Andy Carroll is expected to continue up front but Dalglish could rotate in midfield given the options available.

In defence, Jose Enrique is pushing for a recall and could return in a reshuffled back four at the expense of Jamie Carragher, whose error allowed Everton to take the lead at Wembley last weekend.

Hodgson insists he will not rush back Zoltan Gera or James Morrison as they step up their training following injury.

Marc-Antoine Fortune is also unlikely to feature after struggling with a knock, but Jonas Olsson could return after missing the win against QPR as a precaution.

Possible starting XI

Liverpool: Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Henderson, Gerrard, Spearing, Downing; Suarez, Carroll.

West Brom: Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Brunt, Andrews, Mulumbu, Dorrans; Odemwingie, Long.

Suarez Lauds Carroll Link-Up

Liverpool forward Luis Suarez claims playing alongside Andy Carroll makes life easier for him, with the pair showing signs of forming a devastating strike partnership.

Carroll has not enjoyed the easiest of times at Anfield since completing a £35million move from Newcastle to become the most expensive British player in history.

He has, however, shown signs over recent weeks that he is starting to settle on Merseyside and is capable of producing the kind of form which convinced the Reds to spend big on his services.

The England international has netted crucial goals in Premier League and FA Cup clashes and has looked dangerous alongside Suarez.

Liverpool's Uruguayan hit-man claims to be enjoying working with Carroll, with his physical attributes complementing his goal-getting abilities perfectly.

"I think it's great for us to have a player of his ability and style," Suarez told the Reds' official website.

"His height and his ability in the air and to bring the ball down makes it easy for us smaller forwards in the side to link up with him.

"You only have to be running alongside him and you find the ball at your feet.

"I think he's showing that his technique on the ground has really come on and I think in the games where he has featured recently we are now seeing the Andy that we've all been wanting to see and he's really contributing, which is important."

Roy Expecting Rough Ride

West Brom boss Roy Hodgson is not expecting a warm welcome when he returns to Anfield on Sunday.

Hodgson makes his first return to Anfield this weekend since being sacked by the Reds last year following an ill-fated spell on Merseyside.

The experienced manager was dismissed in January 2011 after just eight months in charge before returning to management with the Baggies only 37 days later.

Hodgson failed to win over the Liverpool faithful during his time at the club and he admits to not being liked by the Reds fans while he was in charge.

When asked if he will receive a good reception, Hodgson said: "I don't know. I wouldn't have thought so.

"There is no reason to give me a good reception because they didn't like me when I was there. I can't see they are going to like me now.

"There aren't that many people I worked with that are still there and people like Damien Comolli (director of football) have moved on. But it will be nice to see one or two players I worked with."

Hodgson believes Liverpool will be in buoyant mood and with the pressure eased on them after reaching the FA Cup final.

"I'm sure they will be in a buoyant mood," added Hodgson. "Their home form has not been that good so I think they will be concentrating on getting the three points and as close to fourth spot as they can.

"I don't see their FA Cup success having any bearing other than it will make them more confident and maybe take a bit of pressure off them in terms of the game.

"Had they lost the semi-final, then all the attention would have been on their home record, which hasn't been great this season."

Albion made sure of a third successive season in the top flight via last week's win over QPR but Hodgson is adamant his players will not ease up during the final three weeks of the campaign.

"There are four matches left where I hope we give good performances that bring us more points," continued Hodgson.

"I can assure everyone interested in the club, particularly our fans, there is no letting up from us.

"We will train in the same way, will prepare for the games in the same way, as if we needed to win every one.

"You want to finish as high as possible. You have a basic goal to stay in the league and a second goal to get as many points as you can and finish as high as possible.

"There is no doubt we will be trying to do that but it is nice to approach it without that horrible feeling if you don't win or get a point, you are sinking further into the mire.

"I've been in that situation with Fulham and West Brom last year and it is a much nicer feeling to go into the games knowing if you lose, it doesn't mean you are relegated."

Kenny Dalglish Tells FA To Show Fans More Respect

Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, has accused the Football Association of showing a lack of respect to supporters craving tickets for the FA Cup final.

An allocation of just 25,000 each for Liverpool and Chelsea, allied to more travel chaos for Merseyside fans trying to get to and from London on May 5, has once more brought ticketing policies and kick-off times into focus.

Dalglish suggested that the fans were always last on the list of priorities for the governing body.

“I don’t know what the club’s opinion is but for me, and not just for this club but for every fan, I think they should be given a bit more respect than what they’re actually getting,” Dalglish said.

“The FA has rebuilt Wembley but I don’t think the 25,000 is any greater number of tickets than what it was when I was playing. I don’t know, but that’s for the FA to answer. The fans should be given more respect and taken into consideration more.

“There’s a lot of things to be taken into consideration for a kick-off time like the police and television, but the fans seem to be the ones who come third. As a fan I would be disappointed.”

Liverpool’s managing director, Ian Ayre, is understood to be discussing travel arrangements with Network Rail in an effort to postpone engineering works scheduled for Cup final day. Network Rail said the work was announced months ago and would not be changed. Thousands of Liverpool supporters will be struggling for means to get home after the 5.15pm kick-off.

“Travelling is out of our control. I’ve not got a timetable for trains or a timetable for work schedules on trains,” Dalglish said. “Look, I won’t support anyone other than the fans. It would be better if they were given greater consideration when they’re looking at a kick-off time.

“I don’t think anyone’s got a voice for them. We have enough on our plate concentrating on what recent work is being done here. Maybe someone else in the club would give you a better answer. At the end of the day if the fans are not there, it wouldn’t be such a good occasion. I can’t solve it other than for Liverpool not to get to the final and I would not want that would I?”

Branson Calls For Cup Rethink

Virgin boss Richard Branson has asked the Football Association to rethink the timing of next month's FA Cup final in the light of travel problems faced by Liverpool fans.

Major maintenance work means rail travel, of which Virgin are the main providers, is likely to be severely disrupted over the Bank Holiday weekend.

That means supporters travelling from the north-west to Wembley for a 5.15pm kick-off on May 5 and hoping to return on the same day will be affected.

"We have a strong relationship with Liverpool Football club and twice recently have worked with them and Network Rail to bring many fans to Wembley," said Branson in a letter emailed to the Liverpool Echo.

"On this occasion we would ask the FA to look again at the timing of the game."

The FA did not respond to Branson's call for a rethink on the kick-off time but stressed they felt there would be enough coaches to ferry fans back and forth.

"In light of the disrupted rail service to London, The FA can confirm that National Express, a partner of Wembley Stadium, will provide dedicated services between Liverpool and Wembley for the FA Cup Final," said an FA spokesman.

"The dedicated coaches will depart Liverpool Coach Station at 10.15am on Saturday May 5 and travel direct to Wembley Stadium arriving at 2.30pm so fans can enjoy the pre-match build-up.

"Fans will be dropped outside Wembley Stadium with coaches not departing until the game has concluded after either 90 minutes or extra-time and penalties - meaning Liverpool fans will not miss a minute of this season's final.

"We went on record last year to state that the 2011-12 FA Cup final would have a later kick-off time while May 5 was announced almost 12 months ago to allow the Premier League to conclude in plenty of time for England to prepare for this summer's European Championships."

But with all but three of Virgin's Liverpool to London trains having been cancelled that day and the last return service leaving just after 8pm, some fans still face being stranded in the capital.

Branson insists that had the FA been more flexible in their plans, and listened to the advice of the train company and Network Rail, the problems could have been lessened.

"The decision by the FA to schedule the cup final on a Bank Holiday weekend and start at 5.15pm rather than the traditional 3pm has been made for the FA's commercial reasons at the expense of the travelling football fan," added the Virgin boss.

"As is now customary on Bank Holiday weekends, the line is partly closed for improvement work.

"This is Network Rail's massive renewal program, scheduled more than two years ago, which will improve reliability on the line.

"The FA were told of these plans and of the impacts of a late kick-off, but chose to ignore the advice of Virgin Trains and Network Rail.

"If the FA had engaged with the industry we could have worked out a range of options well ahead of time and timed the match to minimize the disruption."

The matter was even discussed in Parliament on Thursday with Transport Secretary Justine Greening telling the House Of Commons: "The underlying problem that we are trying to solve is that the FA Cup starts later than it was originally planned to start.

"I have spoken to Network Rail (NR) and Virgin and Department for Culture Media and Sport.

"It is very difficult to change the NR work which is really important for maintenance and safety and has been planned for 18 months but Virgin have said that they are planning to put on longer trains on the Sunday so that we can make sure that fans have a good opportunity to get back."

Six MPs have signed an early day motion, calling on "all involved to take the action necessary to ensure disruption is minimized as much as possible".

Liverpool Walton MP Steve Rotheram called on ministers to "bang heads together" and make sure there were scheduled services from the capital back to the north-west.

"Will you get the relevant authorities, Virgin, Network Rail and the Football Association, round the table and bang their heads together until common sense prevails?" he said.

Liverpool Trial South American Quartet

Liverpool's are set to take further advantage of their relationship with Uruguayan side Nacional, by trialing four of the club's youngsters.

Rodrigo Amaral, Leandro Otormin, Gaston Pereiro and Daniel Baldi will all begin a trial with the Reds this week.

The moves follow Sebastian Coates' arrival at Liverpool last summer, which former director of football Damien Comolli at the time claimed would spark a link between the two sides.

"This is very important for us because this step has been taken thanks to the Nacional name and what the club has achieved in the last few years," he said.

"It is fundamental for the kids to travel, to discover the world and take on this life experience. It will be unforgettable for them, and we want them to make the most of this experience."

It's expected that the quartet will take part in 10 training sessions before returning to their parent club on April 29.

The brief trial is one of the benefits which came from the signing of Coates last summer, as Liverpool continue the trend of looking to bring in young players.

Jordon Ibe, Seyi Ojo, Dan Smith and Joao Teixeira have all recently joined Liverpool as part of their re-modelling, with the onus of bringing through young players rather than continually paying out for expensive, albeit established, professionals.

The troubles of those big-money purchases this season has given extra clout to their youth policy, which has bared fruit over the past 18-months, with John Flanagan, Martin Kelly, Raheem Sterling and Jack Robinson all making their first-team Liverpool debuts.

Swiss Youngster Set To Reject Liverpool

Swiss starlet Granit Xhaka is unlikely to move to the Premier League this summer after revealing that he is close to joining German side Borussia Monchengladbach.

Xhaka, who plays for Basel, impressed during the Swiss side’s run to the last 16 of the Champions League this season, reportedly attracting the interest of suitors such as Liverpool.

However the 19-year-old, who has been capped six times, has indicated that he is likely to join Monchengladbach at the end of the current campaign.

Speaking about a switch to the Bundesliga side to Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung, Xhaka said: "Personally, I have nothing to hide. For me, everything is settled. Now it's up to the clubs to decide."

Basel is thought to be demanding a fee of £8m for the young playmaker’s services.

Kenny Praises Rafa Legacy

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has complimented former Reds manager Rafa Benitez on the work he did to lay the foundations of the current Academy structure.

During his time in charge on Merseyside, Benitez implemented wholesale changes to the youth system over at Kirkby and appointed many of the current pool of coaches including Pep Segura, Rodolfo Borrell and Frank McParland.

The changes undertaken by Benitez are generally accepted to have played a significant part in the subsequent increase in youth team players coming through the system.

This season has seen first-team game time for the likes of Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Raheem Sterling, whilst the U19s finished third in the inaugural NextGen Series.

Dalglish admitted to LFC TV: "I think it's been fantastic and it's a great credit to the changes that Rafa made three years ago, bringing in Pep, Rodolfo and Frankie.

"The way it has moved forward is a credit to anyone who has helped in any way, shape or form.

"It was Rafa who brought these people in and we should always be grateful to him for doing that.

"In years to come, if we get some players through it, I'm sure he'll be just as proud as any of the players are. And he should be proud about what he's set up here."