Saturday, May 05, 2012

FA Cup Final Preview: Liverpool vs Chelsea

Liverpool return to Wembley with their sights set on a cup double, while victory for Chelsea in Saturday's FA Cup final could be the first stage of a more significant success.

Kenny Dalglish's side lifted the Carling Cup at the home of English football back in February with a tense penalty shoot-out success against Championship side Cardiff.

But while the Reds have emerged as the knockout specialists this term, their Premier League form has been vastly below expectations and they are currently 16 points adrift of the top four and a staggering 34 off the summit.

That has led to rumblings of discontent among sections of the Merseyside faithful, with an on-going debate over whether lifting the FA Cup for the first time since 2006 to sit alongside the League Cup in the Anfield trophy room would mark this campaign as a success.

Such conjecture only serves to reinforce Dalglish's assertion earlier this week that Premier League placings have become 'an obsession' for many teams because of the financial rewards on offer for the clubs who qualify for the Champions League.

And for Chelsea to ensure that they compete among Europe's elite for a 10th successive season, then the most realistic route is for them to qualify as winners by defeating Bayern Munich on 19th May at the Allianz Arena.

Wednesday night's home defeat at the hands of Newcastle means Roberto Di Matteo's side are now four points adrift of the Magpies and fourth-placed Tottenham with just two games remaining, with their interim manager admitting that door to Europe now appears locked.

But such has been the upturn in fortunes at Stamford Bridge under their former midfield favourite, who scored the fastest goal in FA Cup final history in the 1997 triumph against Middlesbrough, few will be critical of the Italian even if the Blues finish the season empty-handed.

Appointed on an interim basis until the end of the season following the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas in early March, Di Matteo has galvanized a squad who looked bereft of confidence and direction, with their place in the UEFA Champions League final secured with a memorable triumph over Barcelona.

Both teams go into the showpiece on the back of midweek defeats, but Dalglish and Di Matteo opted to make a significant number of changes for their respective home reverses at the hands of Fulham and Newcastle.

Key men Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard and Luiz Suarez were just three of nine changes for the lacklustre setback against the Cottagers and are certain to take their place in the starting XI this weekend.

Andy Carroll, the Reds' semi-final hero after his late winner against Everton, played the full 90 minutes in midweek having missed the resounding success against Norwich with a slight injury concern and should partner Suarez.

Di Matteo's selection policy with the Champions League final on the horizon is eased somewhat with John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanovic all ruled out of the Munich meeting through suspension, so that quartet can expect to start on Saturday.

David Luiz and Gary Cahill, who missed training on Friday, have not featured since suffering respective hamstring injuries against Tottenham and Barcelona, and with the duo required on 19th May due to the aforementioned absentees it appears certain Di Matteo will not to rush them back into action.

Fernando Torres hit a hat-trick against QPR and also started the midweek clash with Newcastle, but is likely to be back on the bench with Didier Drogba often regarded as the man for the big occasion, with the Ivory Coast international having scored seven goals in seven Wembley outings in the FA Cup and League Cup.

Possible starting XIs:

Chelsea: Cech, Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole, Lampard, Ramires, Meireles, Mata, Drogba, Sturridge.

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

Gerrard On Rescue Mission

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is determined to win the FA Cup in order to save his club's season.

The Anfield outfit was expected to at least challenge for a top-four place in the Premier League this season but have fallen well short.

However, having won the Carling Cup in February - their first trophy for six years - another piece of silverware when taking on Chelsea at Wembley in Saturday's FA Cup final would provide adequate compensation.

"Winning big trophies breeds a lot of confidence and belief," said Gerrard.

"We are all aware we have underachieved in the league and the squad of players we have are certainly better than where we are.

"We will assess the season at the end but if we can win two trophies that will help us bring some success next season.

"I think people will judge us after Saturday. People will say, 'You didn't do well in the league' but we will say, 'We won two cups' and I think that is a fair argument."

Gerrard does not believe Chelsea will be distracted by thoughts of the UEFA Champions League when they walk out at Wembley.

The Stamford Bridge side face Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena later in May as they bid to win Europe's top club prize for the first time.

In addition, they are also looking to secure a top-four Premier League place which will gain them re-entry to the competition next season regardless of the result in Germany.

And although their task was made more difficult by Wednesday night's defeat at home to top-four rivals Newcastle, Gerrard expects Roberto Di Matteo's side to be focused at Wembley.

"I am sure the Chelsea players won't be thinking about the Champions League and top four once that game kicks off at the weekend," said the England international.

"Chelsea is an experienced team full of quality players and it will boil down to the small details on the day, who gets the big decisions and who gets that stroke of luck.

"I don't think there is much between the teams and I think it is a 50-50 game at the weekend.

"But I suppose it helps us, because that we can't do much in the league and have not got anything else going on so we can solely focus on this game."

Liverpool To Compete With Napoli For Uruguayan Midfielder

It appears as though Liverpool will face some competition for the signature of Bologna midfielder Gaston Ramirez after it was revealed that Napoli are interested in signing the Uruguayan.

The Daily Mail reported last week that Liverpool had bid £16.3million for Ramirez who has scored eight league goals in 32 appearances in Serie A this season

Ramirez only recently signed a new long term deal with the Italian side but it seems they may be willing to listen to offers for a player who has impressed in an underachieving side.

While Liverpool are seemingly interested, the Bologna vice president Maurizio Setti has confirmed that Napoli are also chasing the midfielder.

“The player is being followed by a lot of clubs, including Napoli,” Setti told Radio CRC on Wednesday, as reported on Football Italia.

“There is nothing of substance yet, but he has a number of offers and a lot of scouts come to watch him play. Ramirez is a player who can make the difference for any team in the world because he is a champion.

“Like all Uruguayans, who are well suited to Italian football, he will improve season after season.”

The 21-year-old has been capped nine times by Uruguay and could join international teammates should he decide to move to either Liverpool or Napoli.

Napoli has Edinson Cavanni, while Liverpool boast their own Urugayan striker in Luis Suarez, as well as central defender Sebastian Coates who played with Ramirez at youth level.

Liverpool Linked With Dempsey

Liverpool chairman Tom Werner has hinted at an interest in Fulham star Clint Dempsey.

The Anfield hierarchy normally keep transfer targets as confidential, but Werner has implied the club could be watching his fellow American.

Dempsey has scored 22 goals this season and, with just one year remaining on his contract, has also been linked with a move to Fulham's London rivals, Arsenal.

FA Cup finalists and Carling Cup winners Liverpool are expected to make changes to their squad this summer after an extremely disappointing Premier League campaign.

This would come after spending more than £80million on the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam in the last close-season.

"We never talk publicly about transfer targets, however, any team would be lucky to have Clint Dempsey playing on their squad," said Werner.

Fulham, though, will fight to keep hold of Dempsey and manager Martin Jol has previously insisted the USA international is not for sale ahead of summer talks with the player over a possible contract extension.

Regarding the prospects of keeping Dempsey at Craven Cottage, Jol told Sky Sports in April: "Hopefully we will, because he's still here for next season as well. So we won't sell him, so that is easy."

Liverpool Eye Up Nigel De Jong

Liverpool are eying up a summer bid for Manchester City’s Nigel De Jong, according to this afternoon’s reports.

Reports leaving Anfield this evening suggest that Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish is set to test Manchester City’s resolve by tabling a summer bid for midfielder Nigel De Jong.

The Merseyside club has endured one of their worst Premier League campaigns do date, currently sitting eighth in the table – three points behind bitter rivals Everton.

Dalglish spent big in last summer’s transfer window and is yet to reap in the rewards; with signings Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam all so far failing to make the grade at Anfield.

However, the Liverpool board have told Dalglish that despite the failures of last summer’s signings, they’re still willing to back any realistic targets the Scot has on his radar this summer, with Nigel De Jong said to be the top of his list.

Liverpool are crying out for a holding midfield player following the injury to Lucas, as well as poor performances from bit part players such as Jay Spearing and Charlie Adam, and De Jong could be just the right guy to shore up the shaky Anfield ship.

De Jong was one of City’s most consistent players last season and many have been surprised at the lack of game time he’s seen this term, with Mancini opting to play Gareth Barry in the holding role with three attacking midfielders just in front.

And the Netherlands international is likely be partial to a summer move away from the Etihad in order to gain first-team football once again, with a bid in the region of £15m thought to be enough to tempt City into selling.

Eyes On Boro Starlet

Sky Sports understands that Middlesbrough starlet Bryn Morris is being targeted by Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

The 16-year-old, who is widely regarded in England as one of the best players of his generation, can play in midfield or defence.

Morris is already a key figure in Kenny Swain's England Under-16 side and is also the captain.

The Teesside-born youngster is seen as one of the gems of Boro's highly acclaimed youth academy.

Boro already recognize Morris's talents and included him in their FA Youth Cup squad, despite his tender years.

But Morris, who has just returned to the country after leading England to third in the Montaigu Tournament in France, is attracting strong interest following a string of impressive displays for the international side.

Whilst Boro's proud record of bringing through players means they hope any player will recognize the chances available to them at the club, they are fearful Morris could be lured away.

Sky Sports understands that England's top clubs are now on Morris's trail including Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Morris cannot sign a professional deal because of his age, meaning Boro would only be due a compensation deal if he were to leave the club.

Boro remain hopeful that Morris sees his long-term future at The Riverside.

Liverpool Report £50m Losses

Liverpool have reported a loss of almost £50million for the last financial year as the scale of the club's stadium folly becomes clear.

Owners Fenway Sports Group wiped out debts of £200m when they purchased the club in October 2010.

But they were also forced to write off a further £35million related to the abandoned HKS-designed Stanley Park project of predecessors Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The accounts also reveal a further £8.4million was spent on contract terminations, including pay-offs to former boss Roy Hodgson and former managing director Christian Purslow.

And current managing director Ian Ayre believes when exceptional items such as this are factored in, the report shows Liverpool are now on the right track despite the alarming numbers involved.

"I guess people will focus on the loss of £49.4m and there's no business - or people running any business - who are going to be pleased with any loss," Ayre told the Liverpool Echo.

"But I think the important indicator here is this £59m charge for exceptional items and as a business that's been in a transition, it's about moving from where we were to where we want to be.

"We have written off a huge amount on the stadium project. A big chunk of that £50m loss relates to the HKS project - which is now defunct - and associated costs around that."

Following their takeover in 2007, Hicks halted the established plans for a new ground in Stanley Park and chose to engage Dallas-based architects HKS instead.

They came up with an ambitious glass and steel design, but this was scrapped by FSG soon after taking over.

But there were residual costs associated with the project - such as legal, planning and design fees - that still required settling.

Ayre added: "With new ownership that was kind of milling around within the club's accounts and there was a very definite need to move that out.

"It is a huge loss but that goes with a lot of other things that nobody was really happy with in that period.

"So rather than dwell on it, we've very smartly made the decision to remove it from the club's accounts.

"It is a big write-off but it means that it's gone forever now and we can move forward now without that around our neck.

"And it also means that we are in pretty good shape in being a sustainable business. It's a positive step forward."

Ayre insisted the money spent on contract terminations was less unusual.

"It's nothing untypical of anything in football. Contracts are typically fixed term," said Ayre.

"When you make a decision to terminate somebody, the right and proper thing to do is honour the pay-out of that contract.

"This relates to Roy and to some of his backroom staff and also to Christian Purslow leaving. It's standard across football.

"It's unfortunate to have to have them - nobody wants to see anybody go - but in certain circumstances it's right to make a change and that's what that relates to."

The accounts do not include the kit deal signed with American company Warrior Sports, which is worth at least £25million a year.

And Ayre believes the true story of these figures is the comprehensive action FSG have taken the clean up the mess left by the previous regime.

He added: "If we had not written off these extraordinary costs, we would have been looking at breaking even."

"We have reduced interest charges from £18m to about £3m. That puts us in a much stronger position to utilize our revenues more effectively on the team.

"These figures in many ways represent the commitment of the owners, in paying down the acquisition debts and in other areas.

"What is reflected in these accounts was going on around the time they actually came into the club.

"It's not where we are today. It's a year on, so it was a big commitment at an early stage

"The owners have continued to make changes and commitments.

"They have made some great investment at the start; they cleaned up a lot of what was a problem at Liverpool and they have invested in both the team on and off the pitch.

"They continue to do that and look at what's right - and what works and what doesn't work."

Liverpool Possible Destination For Unai Emery

Liverpool is a possible destination for Valencia coach Unai Emery, according to Valencia Plaza.

Emery is set to leave Los Che when his contract expires on 30th June, with the Mestalla faithful having grown disillusioned with the club’s failure to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga.

Memories of the heady days of Rafael Benitez are still fresh in Valencia and Emery’s inability to move his side beyond third spot is causing Los Che to look elsewhere, despite the Spaniard having to operate with a significantly smaller budget than the Blaugrana and Los Blancos.

But even if Emery’s stock has reached an all time low at the Mestalla, it is sky high elsewhere, with a number of clubs queuing up to secure the 40-year-old’s services.

Heading that group are Greek champions Olympiacos and Basque outfit Real Sociedad.

Olympiacos are keen for Emery to succeed countryman Ernesto Valverde, who has departed Greece after two successive title winning campaigns, while Real Sociedad want to steer clear of relegation worries next season with the former midfielder at the helm.

However, a possible switch to Liverpool could trump all offers for the current Valencia coach.

The Reds have endured a disastrous Premier League campaign under Kenny Dalglish and £110M lavished in the transfer market under the fan favourite has failed to bring Champions League football back to Anfield.

While Dalglish could lead Liverpool to a domestic cup double if he can plot the downfall of Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley this weekend, the club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, could choose to place their trust in Emery for next season.

Should Emery make the switch to Merseyside, he would be following a path first trodden by Rafael Benitez, who swapped Valencia for Liverpool in 2004, with spectacular results as the Champions League was won in 2005.