Thursday, January 24, 2013

FA Cup Preview: Oldham vs Liverpool

Liverpool’s attempt to reach the FA Cup Final two years in a row continues this weekend with a trip to League One side Oldham Athletic.

The Lancashire club is relishing the opportunity to play the Reds, but who were humiliated in the third round of the competition last season 5-1 at Anfield.

There were five different scorers for Liverpool that day – Craig Bellamy, Steven Gerrard, debut goals for Jonjo Shelvey and Stuart Downing, and Andy Carroll.

The Latics had, however, taken the lead just before the half hour mark, before Kenny Dalglish‘s Liverpool turned fortunes around.

This weekend sees a stronger Liverpool side goes looking to progress in the tournament after seeing off non-league Mansfield Town 2-1 in the third round.

The Reds are likely to start new signing Daneil Sturridge, but as The Guardian are reporting this week, attempts to sign Philippe Countinho from Inter are ongoing.

Pepe Reina may be rested again after missing last Saturday’s 5-0 victory at home to Norwich with a thigh strain. Brad Jones will deputize in his place.

The game may be taken by manager Brendan Rodgers as an opportunity to rest and rotate his growing squad of players – expect to see the likes of Suso and Jonjo Shelvey return to action after recent games watching from the subs bench.

Liverpool's Improved Form Puts Europe Back In Sight

A little over a month ago, Liverpool were on terrible form. The club was stuck in the bottom half, averaging a distressing 1.29 points per game under Brendan Rodgers and struggling to find consistency as they dropped points against both ends of the table. Dreams of a return to the Champions League were dead, and even a return to the Europa League seemed highly unlikely.

Now, after a series of encouraging performances and improved results, things don't look nearly so bleak. Champions League action still appears an unrealistic goal, perhaps, but on current form a top half finish seems secure and qualification for the Europa League at least appears possible.

It can be dangerous to judge a side based on a win here and a loss there, but looking back over the past ten games finds a much improved 1.8 points per game average—enough to raise the season total to a more respectable 1.48 points per game. It's not the title challenging form it would have taken to get back into contention for the top four given how poorly Liverpool started, but across an entire campaign it would mean 68 points. And over the past ten years, 68 points is the average haul for the side that finishes fourth.

In fact, Tottenham—currently standing fourth in the table—are on pace to finish the season with exactly that many points. That the current fourth place side is likely to end the year on, or at least very near, the average for fourth place finishers over the past ten seasons is encouraging for anybody interested in using past results to predict future outcomes. It's rather less encouraging for Liverpool's lingering Champions League dreams.

That there are only seven points between Tottenham in fourth and Liverpool in seventh may not look a lot on paper, but with only 15 games remaining it means that if Tottenham maintain their current pace, Liverpool would need 2.27 points per game to equal them and hit that 68 point mark. They would also have to leapfrog Everton and Arsenal along the way, hoping neither side found a similarly rich vein of form.

It's not an impossible task, perhaps, but aiming for fourth seems almost certain to end in disappointment, no matter that Liverpool's improved form of late has been encouraging and that the players and manager deserve commendation for finding their feet following a difficult start. What may no longer be quite so far fetched, however, is the idea of landing a Europa League spot, especially if Chelsea go on to win the League Cup.

Chelsea would need to overcome a two goal deficit after losing the first leg of their semi-final to Swansea just to make it to the final, but if they were to win it, it would provide Liverpool with their easiest route back into Europe. That's because if Chelsea were to win the League Cup and subsequently qualify for the Champions League based on league standing, the Europa League spot awarded for winning England's second cup competition would pass to the Premier League's sixth place finisher.

And if Liverpool can maintain their current form of 1.8 points per game, history says they will finish at least sixth in the table when everything is said and done. On the other hand, for Liverpool finish in fifth and qualify for the Europa League should Chelsea fail to win the League Cup would take closer to two points per game the rest of the way—a difficult task, though one that might just about be possible if the squad continues to improve under Rodgers and is perhaps bolstered by another signing or two.

Liverpool's improved form may not quite be enough to get back to the top four this season, and it may have taken a long time in coming, but it can't be ignored that both performances and results have improved noticeably in recent weeks. Now, so long as the club doesn't stumble, a season that ends with at least some cause for hope and optimism doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. And, oddly enough, it would improve Liverpool's chances of a successful season greatly if the club's ex-manager could now lead Chelsea to victory in the League Cup.

Henderson Hopes To Give Rodgers Selection Headache

Jordan Henderson insists the selection headache Brendan Rodgers has every week can only be a good thing for Liverpool's prospects this season.

The midfielder has made 26 appearances in all competitions for the Reds, despite battling for a spot with club captain Steven Gerrard, Joe Allen, Jonjo Shelvey, Lucas Leiva and Nuri Sahin, who departed for Borussia Dortmund earlier this month.

And the 22-year-old, who arrived from Sunderland for £16 million in the summer of 2011, believes the stiff competition for places at Anfield has driven him on to improve as a player.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good players in the team so it’s a headache every week for him – and that’s a good thing!” he told the club's official website.

“It makes everyone push on in training and try to improve, so if we keep playing like that we’ll be alright.”

Henderson has been in good form recently, and admits that having attackers of the calibre of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and new signing Daniel Sturridge makes life as a midfielder a lot easier.

“They’re world-class players and there’s a lot of movement in front of me,” he added. “They’re always available to give the ball to so it makes it easier for the midfielders.

“Daniel is a really talented player. He’s scored a few goals and played well too. He’s a big plus for us and he just needs to keep working hard and keep going forward."

Liverpool now find themselves level on points with Arsenal having played a game more, and Henderson is convinced they can still mount a late charge for the Champions League places.

“The top four is a realistic aim, but we just have to take each game as it comes, keep chipping away as we have been and hopefully get a good finish to the season,” he concluded.

Gerrard Eyeing Up Beckham’s England Record

England captain Steven Gerrard insists he is determined to break David Beckham’s international appearance record.

The 32-year-old Liverpool midfielder was honoured by the Football Writers’ Association at a gala tribute dinner at the Savoy hotel in London on Sunday night, with current England boss Roy Hodgson among those in attendance.

Gerrard, 32, won his 100th England cap in the friendly against Sweden in November, taking him a step nearer to Beckham’s landmark of 115, which is the most-ever for an outfield player.

Gerrard, who made his England debut against Ukraine back in 2000, and played in both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, believes that Beckham’s total is now within reach.

‘My personal ambitions are to get as many caps as I can,’ Gerrard said.

‘I have got David Beckham’s record in my sights, so I am going to try to beat that because he is a special player.’

Liverpool Youngster Up For Starting Place Fight

The competition for places at Liverpool has increased after the signing on Daniel Sturridge coupled with Fabio Borini's return from injury and youngster Suso has said that he is ready to fight for his place in the staring XI.

However, Suso has not figured since the FA Cup third round win at Mansfield on 6th January and he has admitted that he will have to be at his best at training if he wants to get back into the side.

He told the official LFC website, "With Daniel Sturridge coming in and Fabio Borini back from injury there is going to be extra competition for places. Playing for Liverpool's first team is going to be difficult and it should be because it is one of the best teams in Europe.

"The competition is good for me because it makes me determined to work even harder and to get better. But the most important thing is always the team."

He added, "I'm really happy with the way this season has been going. I think I can still do better but it is my first year and I am getting experience with every game.

"The Premier League is really difficult and I am only 19 years old so I need to keep working to improve and try to learn from all the great players that we have here with lots of experience.

"The biggest thing is that you cannot fall asleep in this team. You always have to work hard every day and show the boss and everyone here that you are playing well. There are a lot of good players and not everyone can play every week but if you don't, the next week you need to show that you are doing well."

Southampton Ready To Hijack Liverpool’s Move For Coutinho

Liverpool’s move for Inter Milan midfielder Philippe Coutinho is in danger of being hijacked by ambitious Southampton.

The Saints new boss Mauricio Pochettino is a big fan of the Brazillian schemer and, according to reports in Italy, is ready to meet Inter’s £10million asking price.

Liverpool were in pole position to land the 20-year-old and are thought to be prepared to pay £8million to get their man, after an initial offer of around £5million was turned down.

However, with chairman Nicola Cortese keen to flex his financial muscle following Pochettino’s appointment last week, Southampton are set to gazump the Reds by going straight in with the asking price.

If the Saints are successful it would be the second time in two weeks that they beat Liverpool to the punch after they stole Norwegian defender Vegard Forren from under the Merseysider’s noses.

Coutinho has caught the eye after making 15 appearances for the Nerazzurri this season, scoring two goals.

Liverpool Fly Out To Italy To Negotiate Coutinho Transfer

A Liverpool delegation flew out to Italy on Wednesday to negotiate the transfer of Inter playmaker Philippe Coutinho, understands.

The Anfield officials, led by managing director Ian Ayre, are hopeful of agreeing a deal for the 20-year-old Brazilian.

Liverpool had a bid of around €7.7 million rejected for Coutinho last week but are confident an improved offer will be accepted by the Serie A giants.

Inter have placed a valuation of €11-13m on the attacking midfielder, who has played a single full international for Brazil.

Coutinho’s public stance is that he is happy to stay at Inter but Liverpool has been given encouragement that a deal is possible this month, given the state of finances at the Italian club.

The player signed for Inter from Vasco da Gama when he was 16, though he spent a further two years at the Brazilian club before moving to Italy. Coutinho had a productive spell on loan at Espanyol in the second half of last season before returning in the summer to Inter.

Despite starting only three of the club’s Serie A matches this season – and making 10 league appearances in total – Coutinho is regarded as an emerging star.

Speaking to Sky Italia earlier this week about Liverpool’s interest, he said: “The Liverpool offer? I'm happy with these offers, because it means I am doing my job well.

"But I think Inter have faith in me and I want to show my value here. I don't feel that I'm on my way out. I hope to stay at Inter. The young players feel the faith of the coach and of the club."

Chelsea & Liverpool Target Leaves Aulas Sweating

Lyon is being forced to play a waiting game over the future of Chelsea and Liverpool striker target Bafetimbi Gomis.

The 27-year-old has helped fire his club to second in the Ligue 1 table this term, but is out of contract at the Stade Gerland at the end of the season.

And, if the former Saint-Etienne starlet does not pen a new deal with Les Gones in the coming days, then he can expect to be on his way before the end of the month.

"Lyon does not want a player of such quality to become a free agent in six months," chairman Jean-Michel Aulas told L'Equipe.

"The objective is either to prolong his contract or transfer him out."

Speculation has linked the French international with a move to the Premier League, with both the Blues and Reds reported to be keen on the player.

And, with just over a week left in the transfer window, Aulas appears to be getting frustrated at the situation, having predicted a quick resolution just under a fortnight ago.

"Of course, all the talk is about him moving to England, but there are other European clubs interested in him too. I'm sure things will begin to accelerate in the next couple of weeks and we expect things to be sorted soon," he was quoted as saying by Sky Sports.

Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benitez has already made one addition in the transfer window, with Demba Ba moving to Stamford Bridge from Newcastle United.

However, the west London outfit is far from flush in the position, with mis-firing Spaniard Fernando Torres the only other senior option available at Stamford Bridge.

Gomis would add an extra dimension to the Chelsea attack if they were to bring him to west London, although competition is likely to be fierce for the signature.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have also made a signing in the position this January, with Daniel Sturridge arriving at Anfield.

But, much like the Blues, manager Brendan Rodgers is short of senior options, with Luis Suarez the only other out-and-out striker currently available on Merseyside.

Were Liverpool to sign Gomis, he'd also add to their side in a number of ways, but it appears the ball is currently in the player's court as he decides on his Ligue 1 future.

Manchester United Consider Move For Reina

Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina has emerged as a transfer target for Manchester United as the Red Devils considering offloading David de Gea, according to the Daily Star.

Reina, it is claimed, is set to leave Anfield at the end of the season, but Liverpool will inform Manchester United that they must pay in the region of £15 million to secure the signature of the 30-year-old.

The Spain international has been linked with a return to Barcelona, where he started his career, and Reina's father has encouraged the Liverpool custodian to return to the Camp Nou.

Barcelona are on the lookout for potential replacements for Victor Valdes, who has informed the Catalans that he will not sign a contract, although Tito Vilanova could seemingly be contested by Sir Alex Ferguson in pursuit of Reina.

The Manchester United manager is reportedly considering allowing De Dea to leave OId Trafford - the young Spaniard has also been linked with Barcelona - and Reina would certainly be a more than adequate replacement.

Given his strong bond with Liverpool, however, Reina could be forgiven for vetoing a transfer to Manchester United, even if Brendan Rodgers has reportedly started looking for his long-term successor.

Reina’s Agent To Discuss Barcelona Talk

Pepe Reina’s representatives are set to sit down with Liverpool in the next few days to discuss the goalkeeper’s future at the club.

The Spaniard’s father recently expressed his desire to see his son replace Victor Valdes at Barcelona, and Reina’s agent, Manuel Garcia Quilon, will now hold talks with the Reds in order to establish where the 30-year-old figures in Brendan Rodgers’ plans.

Reina has three years remaining on his current deal at Anfield, but his father, Miguel Reina, said: ‘I am absolutely convinced Pepe would be more than delighted to return to his Barcelona, where they made him into an upstanding man from the time he arrived at the age of 12 until he left.

‘I say it publicly: I would be delighted to see Pepe back at Barca, of course I would. What father would not like to see his son at Barca? He has already been there but to return would be extraordinary.

‘Pepe has shown sufficient proof of the calibre of goalkeeper he is and right now – and sorry for the lack of modesty – he would be up to the task and the ideal keeper for FC Barcelona.’