Saturday, March 02, 2013

Match Preview: Wigan vs Liverpool

Wigan welcomes Liverpool to the DW Stadium aiming to build on their impressive win at Reading last time out.

Wigan moved out of the drop zone with victory at Reading last weekend and they will be hoping to maintain their recent good home record against Liverpool.

The Latics have lost only one of their last six Premier League games against Liverpool after losing seven of the opening nine against the Reds.

Liverpool will come into the game fresh, with their last match coming in the Europa League on February 21st.

Despite crashing out of Europe, Rodgers is demanding Liverpool end the season strongly as they look to finish in the top six and therefore qualify for next term.

Liverpool has drawn their last two Premier League games on their travels and no team has drawn more games away from home than the Merseysiders this season.

Wigan defender Antolin Alcaraz could be back in contention to start against Liverpool after returning from his lengthy lay-off.

The Paraguay international played for the last seven minutes of last week's win at Reading after a six-month lay-off with a groin injury.

Fellow defender Emmerson Boyce also came through his comeback from hamstring trouble unscathed and winger Ryo Miyaichi (ankle) is close to returning after three months out.

Liverpool are waiting on the fitness of striker Daniel Sturridge ahead of the trip to Wigan.

Sturridge is struggling with a knock and Reds boss Brendan Rodgers will make a late decision on his fitness.

Long-term absentees Fabio Borini and Martin Kelly remain sidelined with shoulder and knee injuries respectively.

Philippe Coutinho is set to return to the side after being cup-tied against Zenit St Petersburg last time out.

Rodgers Sure Suarez Future Lies At Anfield

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers is confident that Luis Suarez will remain at Anfield during the summer despite interest from Bayern Munich.

The Bundesliga side has been tipped to make a £40 million move for the Uruguayan as soon as Pep Guardiola assumes control in July, yet Rodgers has no fears that he will leave Merseyside.

He told the Sun, “I haven’t seen anything different that would make me feel he wouldn’t be here and I had a great conversation with his agent a couple of weeks ago.

“He came in and rolled it out that he was so happy here and keen for the club to progress over the next couple of years.

“I’ve made him sort of my architect within the group and he and I communicate a lot so I get a feeling. It is not like I don’t talk to him. Is he deserving of that Champions League level?

“Of course he is but I would be confident enough he will be here because he is enjoying his football. I was talking about the future and development and he was reciprocal in his conversation that he is loving it here.

“He has really enjoyed the season — the most productive since he has been here. He is enjoying the style and the way of working. His desire is to see Liverpool progress and that is why he signed last summer. I don’t feel or see anything different would change my mind. Hopefully we continue to keep a great player like that.”

And while Rodgers is determined to finish in a Europa League slot at the very worst, he does not feel it will make or break Suarez’ future – or his chances of tempting players to Anfield.

He added, “European football is not going to define whether a player wants to come to Liverpool or not. Of course it is better if you are in the competitions but I’m sure there are players who will come here because they know there are improvements to come.”

Alex Pearce Closing In On Liverpool Switch

Reading defender Alex Pearce is closing in on a switch to Liverpool.

Pearce, 24, is out of contract in the summer and played under Anfield boss Brendan Rodgers in 2009.

The Kop chief needs to replace retirement-bound Jamie Carragher, and Pearce would not cost a penny.

West Brom and Norwich are also keen but the Republic of Ireland defender would jump at the chance of a move to Anfield.

Royals manager Brian McDermott knows the chances of keeping him are slim.

McDermott, who dropped Pearce after a poor display in the 2-1 defeat at Stoke on February 9, said: “We will see where he will be in the summer. At this moment in time nothing looks to be signed.”

Liverpool To Miss Out On Lazio Defender

Lazio defender Modibo Diakite will reject Liverpool this summer in favour of a move to Napoli, his agent has said.

The 25-year-old was on Brendan Rodgers' shortlist of replacements for the retiring Jamie Carragher, but the Frenchman looks set to snub Anfield in order to remain in Italy after his contract at Lazio expires this summer.

Diakite's agent Ulisse Savani told Radio Sei: "Diakite should leave Lazio in June on a free transfer to accept the offer from Napoli."

This new information contradicts Savani's comments from January, when he explained Liverpool would be Diakite's 'first option', claiming the Anfield outfit would be too good to turn down.

Liverpool has also been linked with Swansea's Ashley Williams, Lyon's Dejan Lovren and Feyenoord's Stefan de Vrij as the Merseyside club's search for a new centre-back continues.

It seems certain they will now miss out on Diakite, who joined Lazio in 2006. Having previously been a regular at the Stadio Olimpico, the Frenchman has not made a league appearance this season and has only appeared as an unused substitute on six occasions.

Liverpool And West Ham Still In Bony Hunt

Liverpool and West Ham will have the chance to bid for Wilfried Bony at the end of the season after the striker failed to secure a switch to Russia.

The free-scoring Ivorian has signalled his desire to leave Vitesse Arnhem and had hinted he would look to move to one of Russia's top sides this month.

However, the Russian transfer window closed on Tuesday night and no clubs made an offer for him - meaning West Ham and Liverpool are free to reprise their interest in the summer.

Vitesse interim director Erwin Kasakowski believes the forward will complete the season in Holland - although clubs in Ukraine could look to snap him up before their window slams shut on Friday.

Kasakowski told Dutch newspaper AD: "No club in Russia came to us with an offer, so Wilfried will finish the season at Vitesse."

Skrtel Admits Frustration With Bench Role At Liverpool

Martin Skrtel has revealed that things are not ‘ideal’ at Liverpool at this moment in time, with the Slovakian defender frustrated with his lack of starting opportunities in recent weeks.

The former Zenit St Petersburg has enjoyed a first team role at Liverpool almost as soon as he arrived at Anfield in 2008 for a fee of £6.5 million. His partnership with Daniel Agger at the heart of central defence has been broken up in recent times however. Although he is currently unavailable due to a thigh injury, the defender has found himself on the bench more often than not in the early stages of 2013.

"I have to wait, what else can I do?" he told Denik Sport, Sky Sports report. "When I was healthy, I was training with the team, giving 100 per cent and doing all I could to prove to the coach that I belonged in the starting XI. I was waiting for a chance, one then came in St Petersburg, but then I was not playing again. However, now I'm injured and we'll see what happens when I'm back fit.

"It's hard to tell, but I would say it wouldn't (change). The coach has his ideas about the line-up and the question is if I would be in it if I was fit. I would say it's likelier I wouldn't. The most important thing for me is to recover as soon as possible and resume training."

Skrtel has started just three games for Brendan Rodgers side since the turn of the year. After featuring for the club in their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at the beginning of January, his only other starts have come in Liverpool’s FA Cup defeat to Oldham, and the 2-0 loss against his former club Zenit a week and a half ago. Despite Liverpool’s limited options at the back, Skrtel does not seem overly confident of retaining a starting spot anytime soon, and admits he is aware of interest in his services emanating from Anzhi and former club Zenit.

"It would be useless to think about a transfer during the season even if it is true that you can move to Russia till the end of February," he said. "I have come across such views that it would not be correct to consider leaving a club where you have been on the bench in four or five fixtures. On the other hand, it is hard to put up with it. For three years at Liverpool I was playing in almost every match and even in the national team I have played a lot of games.”

Despite his concerns, Skrtel maintains that all of his focus will go into finding himself in Rodgers’ first eleven plans sooner rather than later.

“I have had various thoughts but certainly I'm not going to make any hot-blooded decision. I repeat this - I want to be fit as soon as possible and fight for the place in the starting line-up.”

Reina Insists He Has No Problems With Rodgers

Pepe Reina has denied reports that there is a rift between him and manager Brendan Rodgers, insisting he has a good relationship with the Liverpool manager.

Questions regarding Reina’s future at Anfield have arisen this season, particularly following the news that Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes will not renew his contract at the Nou Camp in 2014. Valdes’ announcement sparked speculation that Reina’s days at Liverpool were numbered, with the role of Barcelona’s number one custodian awaiting for him.

However, Reina has reiterated his desire to remain at Anfield in past weeks, and has since paid tribute to his healthy working relationship with Brendan Rodgers, who defended the shot stopper throughout the season when questions were raised regarding his form. Reina believes the northern Irish manager’s philosophy will reap great rewards sooner rather than later, something Reina wants to be a part of.

"I have a great relationship with him," Reina told the club’s official website. "We have a lot of ideas in common and the way we see football is quite similar.

"Our understanding about tactics and feeling for football is very similar. I'm very happy with our manager.

"It's about learning and he's certainly making sure we learn every day in training about ways to win. That's important because at the end of the day, what you want to do is win.

"If you play good football, you'll definitely be closer to winning more games. That's where we are and my relationship with the manager is very good.

"If the players follow the philosophy we'll definitely become a great side - a difficult and strong side to beat and a competitive one."

Liverpool Step Up Quest To Find The New Gerrard & Carragher

Brendan Rodgers stands before Anfield’s next generation. They are the teenagers hoping to succeed Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher as the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club. Maybe they are expecting a pat on the back, a congratulations or gentle massaging of the ego. Instead, Rodgers’ message is forthright.

“You may think you play for Liverpool,” he remarks. “Let me tell you now. You don’t. Until you play regularly for the first team, you are not a Liverpool player and you should not say you are a Liverpool player. If anyone ever asks you, all you should say is one day you hope to play for Liverpool.”

There is a brief hush around the Tom Saunders Lecture Theatre at the club’s academy in Kirkby, long enough for that particular sentiment to register. For the next 40 minutes, Rodgers spells out the particular demands and sacrifices required, as the manager puts it, “to do what it takes”.

“Do you want to live the footballers’ life or live the life of a footballer?” Rodgers asks, before warning of the perils of pursuing sports cars and celebrity parties ahead of sporting excellence. This is an insight into football’s greatest fear in the modern age, where promising adolescents become millionaires before they have played 30 games. The world at their feet at 17, washed up at 21.

Liverpool urgently need to reverse a worrying trend since their academy was built 14 years ago. For many Premier League clubs, discovering and nurturing local talent is an aspiration. At Anfield, it is an obligation. Carragher retires this summer. Gerrard is 32 and asking himself how long he has left. Those two embody the current Liverpool. Someone has to redefine it when they are gone.

“It’s important for identity and this club is about identity,” says Rodgers. “All I want is good players, whether they are from Liverpool, Spain or Ireland, but I also inherently believe if you have someone from this area you will get that extra passion because this is their club. You want those from your own family with you.

“Carra and Stevie would have always got to where they are. You need good people to help you get there quicker, but it’s always the players’ responsibility. Everyone here needs to understand the dirty work to get there.”

The senior coaches and players have spent the day coaching at The Academy. It may seem nothing especially unusual, first team staff taking time to underline the requirements to those coming through. In a turbulent recent history at Liverpool, it is unprecedented.

Luis Suárez and Gerrard are playing five-a-side with the eight-year-olds, the Liverpool captain hosting a question-and-answer session of his own. Pepe Reina is trying to stop the ambitious under-12s beating him in a penalty shoot-out.

Every other first-team player is involved at some level on site, joining in the small-sided games with each of 198 of the academy playing staff aged eight to 21, and embracing a mentoring program Rodgers is pushing.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Carragher observes, his son among those enjoying the coaching sessions with the likes of Gerrard and Suárez.

The manager also spoke at length to parents to offer a reminder that whatever issues they encounter as they seek the best for their son they should approach him or his staff. Such is the inclusiveness he is encouraging, last week he arranged for under-14 players to be ballboys in the Europa League game against Zenit St Petersburg.

“We were meant to be in Dubai having a break this week,” says Rodgers. “I cancelled it after we lost to Oldham and told the players we were coming here instead. I couldn’t get it out of my mind the idea of players walking around Dubai after we had gone out of the Cup. I said 'no’. You have to earn those rewards. This is more important.”

It was not so long ago different areas of this football club were perceived as factions rather than departments. Liverpool’s academy was the first purpose-built facility of its type in 1999, the aim then precisely as of now – to maintain a conveyor belt that produced Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Steve McManaman and Carragher.

There have been an assortment of good professionals who have come through since, but nothing comparable to the 'centre of excellence’ crop who pre-dated the move to Kirkby. Even Gerrard had barely spent time here before being summoned to Melwood.

It is a moment of symbolism when the current academy director, Frank McParland, introduces Rodgers to his development squad as 'the boss’. During the Gérard Houllier era and most of Rafael Benítez’s reign, there was only friction. They would go years without stepping into the place, no deference considered necessary from the academy director to the manager. Those who worked under successive regimes do not only see a different relationship, but a different club.

“We are one club compared to what it was then,” says McParland, who took on his role in 2009. “There are clear lines of communication. The relationship offers the players a pathway. It’s the best time there has been in terms of that relationship.”

This season, the edict was issued that from the under-nines up, the fluid, passing style and formation of the first team was to be replicated.

“When I came in I sold the owners that idea so that if it doesn’t work out for me, at least you bring in a different manager who wants to play the same style and then it evolves,” says Rodgers. “I want to create a shortcut so that everyone who comes in immediately understands what is expected in terms of style of play. It saves time, money and effort. This is the first year of that and, naturally, there are growing pains.

“The alternative is you have no plan. You start one way, that doesn’t work so you bring in another manager who wants it completely different. Half your squad plays one way, the other half another. All you get then is stockpiling of players. Then it’s the club’s fault if you’re not successful, not the players.

“The ideal is to bring us all together on one site. The environment here is terrific, but ultimately I’ve already advocated to the board the benefits of bringing us all together. If I’m here a long time, that’s what I want to see happen.”

Liverpool’s last flurry of world-class youth products emerged in the mid-90s before that separation. McParland was a community coach in those days, promoted in the final year of Benítez’s reign working alongside academy technical director Rodolfo Borrell, who was recruited from Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy. The network of scouts is spread across South America as much as Speke nowadays. The aspiration is to recruit the finest global talent while keeping the Scouse heart beating.

“There will be a number of top, Liverpool-born players coming through in the next five years. I will say that for definite,” says McParland. “We’ve done well getting some through recently, but I don’t think you say they’re proper Liverpool players until they played 100 first-team games. I think we’re doing alright, but there is no massive success until you get a situation where they’re playing every week and the boss can’t drop them.

“We have a massive network of scouts working for us - impossible to put a number on it because we have contacts everywhere but you have to remember we also have to look beyond Merseyside. We want the best of the best, not just from this area, but from London and Lisbon. But we also want that team of Carraghers the crowd sings about. That genuinely is the aspiration.”
One theory is Liverpool, just like Manchester United, simply enjoyed a golden period in the mid-90s it is impossible to replicate. Look around the league, even across the continent, and few of the elite clubs are packed with academy talent.

“Throughout Europe it’s a small percentage of under-21 players in the first team,” says Rodgers. “The recurring question is whether those top players are a product of nature or nurture? There are some you see straight away and you know they’ll be a player, and then others who haven’t got quite everything but they will fight to be the best they can be. You want both.”

Borrell spent 13 years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi among the most prodigious talents he oversaw.

“Some players are born to this, but not many,” he says. “Messi, Dalglish, Cruyff and Gerrard are rare. The type of game in Spain makes it easier to produce a certain profile of player, but England has other qualities. The football here is not better or worse, just different and English football is creating better facilities and a structure which can only be positive for the future.

“We are always comparing players, but I won’t say we will have a new Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. To find another Gerrard or Carragher is difficult. I want a player with his own name, making his own impact and I’m sure that will happen.”

Rodgers concludes his speech to the development squad, some of who have already enjoyed a taste of the senior action. He tells them to honour and learn from their predecessors, but to strive to ensure the perennial quest to find the next 'big thing’ from Anfield ends with them.

“The past is incredible but we can’t be hostages to that,” says Rodgers. “Don’t be one of those sitting in the pub at 55 blaming everyone else saying how you could have been this or that. It is down to you to learn from Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. It is down to you to make it happen.”

U18s Progress To Youth Cup Quarters

A devastating brace from Jordon Ibe sent Liverpool through to the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup after the Reds' 3-1 victory over Leeds United at Anfield on Thursday night.

Two first-half strikes from the winger and a late Jack Dunn tap-in were enough to send the visitors crashing out as the Reds set up a clash with Hull City in the last eight of the competition.

After a slow start to proceedings with a distinct lack of opportunities for either side, Ibe created an opening for himself in the 11th minute.

The pacy winger skipped past Alex Mowatt with ease before charging deep into Leeds' half and dragging a powerful effort narrowly wide.

Shortly after, Ibe was furious at not being awarded a penalty for what appeared to be a clear foul.

After cleverly weaving his way into Leeds' box, Ibe was blatantly tripped by Afolabi Coker - but the referee surprisingly waved play on.

Eoghan Stokes, who replaced the injured Lewis Walters, made an instant impact for Leeds when he found the net in the 24th minute - but it was deemed to be in unfair circumstances by the referee.

Mowatt's corner was headed back towards the substitute, who shoved goalkeeper Ryan Fulton to the floor as he nodded the ball into the gaping net.

The energetic Ibe caused problems for the visitors yet again when he fired Liverpool into the lead just before the half-hour mark.

Dan Trickett-Smith showed excellent awareness as he stretched to intercept a pass in Leeds' half before releasing Ibe down the left flank.

The youngster shifted the ball past Mowatt before drilling a low shot that deflected beyond the outstretched arm of Eric Grimes and into the bottom corner.

Liverpool's constant pressing did not relent as the hungry Ibe provided striker Jerome Sinclair with an opportunity minutes after finding the net himself.

An extravagant flick from the winger sent Sinclair surging towards goal. The frontman twisted and turned away from several opposing players before rifling the ball agonizingly into the side netting.

Just over five minutes before the break, a rapid counter-attack from the Reds punished the exposed Leeds defence.

Once again, Ibe utilized his stunning pace to harm the visitors. After receiving possession in Liverpool's half, the 17-year-old sped down the wing and glided past Corey Roper before driving a ferocious shot across Grimes and into the far corner of the net.

The restart brought a more conservative approach from Liverpool as the Reds looked to consolidate their lead. The home side's backline remained sturdy but a slightly misplaced pass allowed Leeds an opportunity shortly after the hour mark.

Luke Parkin latched onto the loose ball and immediately slid it through to Stokes. Despite finding himself in space, the youngster rushed and sliced his 20-yard attempt well wide.

With little over 20 minutes remaining, the visitors began to pile on the pressure as they looked to salvage their status in the competition.

Parkin inadvertently gifted Stokes a chance when he attempted to control a cross but flicked it into the substitute's path. Stokes reacted by swiftly hitting a half-volley that fortunately soared over the crossbar.

The visitors enjoyed better fortune in the 70th minute when another substitute, Lewis Cook, was more successful in his attempts to find the net.

Leeds' No.15 controlled Mowatt's cross before drilling the ball into the far corner of the net to bring United back into the tie.

Fortunately for the Reds, that goal was merely a consolation as Liverpool maintained a firm defence and struck in the closing seconds through Dunn to book their place in the quarter-finals.