Sunday, September 29, 2013

Match Preview: Sunderland vs Liverpool

Managerless Sunderland play host to Liverpool at the Stadium of Light, live on Super Sunday, still seeking their first Premier League win of the season.

Kevin Ball takes charge of his first Premier League game as Sunderland caretaker boss following the sacking of Paolo Di Canio last Sunday.

Di Canio was axed last week 24 hours after the 3-0 defeat to West Brom left the Wearside club rooted to the bottom of the table.

Sunderland have just one point from their first five league outings and Ball will be hoping to boost his chances of landing the manager's job on a permanent basis with a positive result against Liverpool.

Liverpool travel to Wearside aiming to get back to winning ways after two straight defeats to Southampton in the Premier League and Manchester United in the Capital One Cup.

The gloss to Liverpool's impressive start to the season has been taken off in the last few weeks and Brendan Rodgers will be keen to see them get back to winning ways at the Stadium of Light as they strive to keep pace with the leading pack.

Sunderland will be without star striker Steven Fletcher after he injured his shoulder in last weekend's defeat to West Brom.

It means Jozy Altidore is expected to lead the attack and he could be supported by Emanuele Giaccherini, who scored in the midweek Capital One Cup win over Peterborough.

Defensive duo Wes Brown (calf) and Phil Bardsley (foot) remain sidelined as they work their way back to fitness.

Fabio Borini is ineligible to play against his parent club after joining Sunderland from Liverpool on transfer deadline day.

Lee Cattermole made his first start of the season against Peterborough and he could keep his place in midfield.

Luis Suarez is set to start his first Premier League game after coming through his return from suspension against Manchester United unscathed.

The Uruguay international played the full 90 minutes in midweek after serving his 10-match ban for his bite on Branislav Ivanovic and he is expected to keep his place in Rodgers' starting XI.

Rodgers is waiting on the fitness of vice-captain Daniel Agger after he missed the defeat at Old Trafford with a knock.

Full-back duo Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho remain on the sidelines through injury meaning Rodgers has a decision to make whether to stick to his 3-5-2 formation he played against Manchester United.

Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho is out after undergoing shoulder surgery last week, while two former Sunderland stars Simon Mignolet and Jordan Henderson are set to face their old club.

Mignolet Aware Of Revived Sunderland

Having recently completed a degree studying 20th century socialism, one might imagine Simon Mignolet joining in the applause at the demise of the politically provocative Paolo Di Canio at his former club Sunderland.

Instead, the Liverpool goalkeeper has only positive memories of his brief spell with the combustible Italian, recalling the galvanising effect the manager's arrival had at the Stadium of Light as the club fought relegation last spring.

Mignolet was also in the Sunderland side when Martin O’Neill – another coach he holds in affection – made the same short-term impact on his appointment a year earlier.

So the Belgian knows what is coming for Liverpool in the North East on Sunday, with Sunderland often finding their best form with a change of manager.

“If a new manager comes in, then every single player inside that dressing room wants to perform well and show what they are capable of. That is mostly what happened,” says Mignolet. “When a Premier League team decides to sack their manager, it is for that kind of response. From an opposition point of view you just don’t know what to expect. When it is your former team you always look closely at it. I am always having half a look over my shoulder to see how they are getting on.

“I still know a lot of players and other people at the club. I was there for three years and it is never nice to see them struggle. You feel for the lads because you know they’re trying to do the best but it’s obviously not going for them and also for the people around the place. If you’re a masseur or a physio or in any job, if you’re there and it goes against you, then it’s obviously not a nice environment to be in.”

Di Canio’s sacking after a players’ revolt suggested Mignolet left a flammable environment when he moved to Anfield, but he says the tension must have rapidly developed after he left.

“I had a good relationship with him. I never had a bust-up with him,” he says. “The first two weeks when he came he observed a lot. After a couple of days he changed a few little things and we had two massive results against Newcastle and Everton and got ourselves safe for the next season. So for me he was a good manager to work with.”

Life at Liverpool seems serene by comparison, although there is always a gentle simmering at Anfield when you lose consecutive games.

While questions are starting to be asked about the quality of some of Liverpool’s signings, Mignolet is unequivocally the most successful of the summer.

“He will be the best signing of the season and worth 10 points this year,” a senior Liverpool figure said once the £9 million deal had been struck. The confidence, thus far, is justified. Mignolet can already claim a heavy assist in six of the 10 the club’s 10 points to date.

It is to his credit that, after a few days of anxiety when Pepe Reina was loaned to Napoli to enable Mignolet to be number one, no one has since queried the merits of the decision.

It is easy to see why Mignolet provokes such certainty that he will succeed, given his quietly authoritative manner and studiousness on and off the park. There cannot be many modern players who have completed a degree while becoming an established international.

“I finished the degree last season. It’s political science,” explained Mignolet. “I don’t really like to say it’s politics, everybody’s going to say ‘he’s going to be a politician’, which is not true.”

So plenty of theoretical discourses with Di Canio, then? “No, no, no! I’m obviously interested in history, that kind of stuff, but I’m never going to be a politician after my football career. I started the course when I was in Belgium. My parents wanted me to have something behind me in case something went wrong, say an injury. When I arrived in England I had to finish six more courses.”

Mignolet has made an equally impressive start to his latest assignment – joining the ranks of Liverpool’s great goalkeepers.

Rodgers Plays Down Second-Half Stat

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is not worried about his side's second-half form this season.

The Reds have not scored after half-time in the Barclays Premier League since May 12 at Fulham, and that has contributed to them dropping four points in their last two matches - against Swansea and Southampton.

And, while Rodgers cannot explain why they have not scored any later than the 37th minute, he is not reading anything into the statistic.

"It is well documented we haven't scored a goal (in the second half) and sometimes that trend surprises you when you hear that," he said.

"Probably in some of the games in the second half we have sat a bit deeper and have seen out the results, but Swansea we didn't.

"It doesn't concern me. It is something we will work on.

"As the game (the 1-0 Capital One Cup defeat at Manchester United) went on the other night, I thought we were going to get that goal, but I can't say I'm overly concerned."

Rodgers is certain, however, it is not a fatigue issue.

"We have obviously had players who have come back and were gaining fitness," he said.

"Overall, the condition the team is in is very good.

"Sometimes it (not scoring) is just how it rolls out in the early part of the season, and for us we just need to keep working.

"Throughout the team we had good performances the other night. We just need to keep believing, keep our confidence and the wins will come."

Defensive lapses at corners have resulted in two single-goal defeats in their last two outings, and Rodgers knows that has to improve, although overall he does not see a great deal wrong with their displays.

"I think the performance against Southampton wasn't so good. We weren't as proactive in the games as we normally were," he added.

"I thought our performance at Old Trafford was excellent. The only negative was we conceded a very poor goal from a corner, but apart from that I saw a lot of the characteristics from the team that I would want.

"Our passing was good, the speed of our game was crisp. We sit (fifth) in the league on the same number of points as Manchester City and Chelsea and we are very determined to continue with a very good run in the league at the weekend.

"It (the team) will always be evolving, You can never be satisfied because you are always looking to improve.

"The consistency of the group has been good for the last seven or eight months and we've had very few blips.

"I expect us to rebound back and go again."

Liverpool faces Sunderland, a team rebounding from the sacking of Paolo Di Canio, at the Stadium of Light on Sunday.

"There is an upturn you normally find when a manager comes in," he said.

"It is unfortunate Paolo lost his job. They had a victory in the week (in the Capital One Cup) and obviously Kevin Ball (caretaker boss) will go into the game looking for the players to put on a performance again.

"We know the capabilities of Sunderland and I am sure they will come out fighting for a result.

"For us, in order to continue climbing, we are determined to go and win."

Rodgers has been impressed with the performances of Martin Skrtel since his return to the side for the league victory over Manchester United earlier this month following an injury to Kolo Toure.

The Slovakia defender's opportunities appeared limited after the arrivals of Toure and Mamadou Sakho, but he has shown his battling qualities to hold down a regular place for the last four matches.

"I thought he was brilliant the other night. I called him into the office to recognize his performance was excellent," the Northern Irishman said.

"He defended crosses into the box, he was clever in his defending.

"It was great credit to his professionalism when he wasn't in the team he continued to work and was fighting every day to show he could play in the team.

"It was always the case when you got your opportunity you had to grab the shirt and he has done that and played very well."

Asked what had changed for Skrtel, he added: "Maybe before, he was more of a marker in terms of one-versus-one defending. He is a real strong competitor.

"For how we wanted to play, it was that balance between being aggressive and reading the game and the ability to play, and I think he has shown he is a terrific player and that was never in doubt.

"But there were other players here and we needed other characteristics in the team."

Liverpool Boss Wants Pastore

Liverpool are ready to swoop French giants Paris Saint Germain for the services of attacking midfielder Javier Pastore.

The Argentine is supposedly unhappy at life in the French capital following his big money move from Palermo in 2011.

He has failed to impress on a regular basis and has become disillusioned with life sitting on the bench under Laurent Blanc.

His agent Marcelo Simonian, states in the metro that his future at the club could be decided within the next few months.

The news is sure to attract the attentions of boss Brendan Rodgers who is thought to be keen in bringing the playmaker to Anfield.

Rodgers failed to make a big name signing this summer and Pastore was rumoured to have been just one of the players he was looking at.

The 24-year-old would fit into Rodgers style of play naturally having been known to get the ball on the floor and play defence-splitting passes

Liverpool Have Another PSG Player On Radar

Liverpool will be on alert as long term target Jeremy Menez's contract extension with PSG continues to be ignored by the club’s hierarchy. The owners of PSG have recently come out and said they have intentions to keep the player but as yet talks haven’t even started.

Le10 Sport have reported that the French international's contract with the French champions runs out in July 2014 and his representatives have still not been approached by the club to extend his current deal beyond this. In January, Menez will be able to speak to clubs regarding a pre-contract agreement with the possibility that Liverpool could land the winger on a free next summer or at a reduced fee in the winter transfer window. It has been revealed that meetings to discuss his contract haven’t even been set by PSG.

The Daily Star reported in March that Liverpool were lining up a £6m bid for Menez as the player was becoming unsettled in the French capital due to the arrival of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura, Edinson Cavani has also joined this year Their signings have resulted in Menez having less opportunities in the PSG first team. Rodgers will be keen to pick up a player who can play either on the wing or as a forward.

Liverpool have already raided the French club in the in the last few weeks by signing French international defender Mamadou Sakho. The player arrived in Liverpool towards the end of the transfer window after he was experiencing the same issues as his teammate Menez. Due to the influx of players coming into the club Sakho refused to extend his contract which also ran out July 2014. The player was concerned about making the France squad for next year’s World Cup and therefore decided to jump ship and find a new club.

Reina Doesn’t Expect Anfield Return

Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina says it appears unlikely that he will play for the club again.

The Spaniard, currently on loan at Napoli where he has been reunited with former boss Rafa Benitez, does not expect to return to Anfield at the end of the season.

“At the moment it’s difficult to think about being a Liverpool player next year,” Reina told the Daily Mail. “They have a young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and the manager prefers him to me.

“That’s the reason why I’m here and he will be at the club next year as well. There’s no reason to think I’ll be a Liverpool player from now on but we’ll see where the future takes us.

“It’s been a good move so far and I don’t regret what happened. I would have preferred to say goodbye in a different way.”

Reina admits he had been happy at Liverpool and was not expecting to go anywhere in the summer.

“It did come as a surprise,” he said. “It was the club (Liverpool) who made the move. I was on my holidays and nobody told me anything.

“Suddenly Napoli called and said they were agreeing terms with Liverpool and Liverpool just rang me two days later and said the same. They probably had their own reasons.”

Rodgers Must Show Progress to Keep Liverpool Job

Ian Ayre, the Liverpool managing director, has warned manager Brendan Rodgers must demonstrate progress to owners Fenway Sports Group in order to keep his job but is not under pressure to end the club's four-year Champions League absence.

Rodgers was appointed in June 2012 and signed a three-year contract with The Reds.

After a difficult start he guided Liverpool to seventh in the Premier League in his opening season - an improvement on the eighth place finish achieved in the previous campaign - and begun his second term with three successive league wins including over champions Manchester United.

The club's number one priority remains qualifying for the Champions League, a competition in which despite being British football's most successful side with five victories, Liverpool haven't featured in since 2009 and have failed in four successive seasons to qualify.

Liverpool have spent upwards of £109m combined in the three transfer windows since Rodgers' move from Swansea City and after retaining wantaway striker Luis Suarez this summer after rejecting two offers from Arsenal, a top four assault is expected.

While admitting playing top tier European football is an ambition for Liverpool, Ayre says Rodgers must provide evidence of evolution in order to remain in the Merseyside hotseat.

"We base Brendan's performance on progress," Ayre said.

"We don't say to him that you have to finish in that position, you've got to achieve this.

"We set a very clear plan with Brendan when he came into the club. We were very clear and had a very open discussion with him about what the club's ambition was and what we wanted him to come in and specifically do and he's moving forward in all those areas.

"As long we keep progressing and we can see he's moving the club towards where it wants to be then he'll be the Liverpool manager.

"It's not about individual positional targets it's about him improving Liverpool football club and our opportunity to get back to where we believe we should be."

Liverpool finished 12 points adrift of the top four last season but signed eight new players during the summer transfer window.

But perhaps the most significant deal of the off-season involved retaining Suarez - a scorer of 30 goals in all competitions last term - who eventually made a u-turn in his wish to leave Liverpool after the club stated he was not for sale.

Following a 10-match ban for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic Suarez made his first appearance of the season in the League Cup defeat to United at Old Trafford and Ayre says the primary motivation for keeping the hothead forward, whose career in English football has been littered with controversial moments, was linked to attaining Champions League qualification.

"This football club is the most successful British club in that competition in the European Cup and the Champions League so we absolutely want to and expect to get back there," Ayre, who joined Liverpool in 2007, said.

"Last season we were happy that we improved the group and the squad and we've had a good start and it looks good so far.

"We hired Brendan to change our philosophy and how we play football and to start something that we're all committed to," he added.

"If you're committed to that then someone like Luis Suarez is exactly who you need because of his ability and what he can achieve so it was never our ambition to change that and as I say he's still there and that's the end of it."

Agger And Allen Fitness Update

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers delivered a positive update on the fitness of defender Daniel Agger at his pre-Sunderland press conference at Melwood.

The Denmark international missed the Reds' 1-0 Capital One Cup defeat at Manchester United in midweek after completing almost an hour against Southampton last weekend.

Asked for an injury update, the manager told reporters: "We are what we are from the other night.

"Daniel Agger will hopefully come back into the reckoning; he has trained in the last couple of days. Other than that, it will be more or less the same squad.

"I can only work with the players that I have available. We have got a few injuries and most of them have been unfortunate injuries.

"I can only concentrate on the players we have available now and we'll maximize what we can out of that group. They are working very hard and working well."

Joe Allen will not be involved, however, with the Welshman requiring further recovery time from a hamstring complaint before he becomes available again.

"We felt leading up to the Swansea game that Joe's hamstring was getting better," said Rodgers.

"But he still has a bit of time to go on that. He's obviously working hard with the medical team but he's not fit yet."

The boss was questioned on the fitness of top scorer Daniel Sturridge too and quickly quashed any suggestions that the striker could be rested following the return of Luis Suarez.

"There's no taking him out. With Daniel, we've seen this season that even when he's not 100 per cent fit he's still an amazing player," the Northern Irishman added.

"He's still a player that will put defenders on the back foot. His pace and power is getting up to speed.

"He's a player that is very important for our team. He's a catalyst at the top end and even when he's not at 100 per cent he's still a top player."

Suarez played the whole match at Old Trafford on Wednesday and Rodgers provided two pieces of good news on behalf of the Uruguayan.

He said: "He's fine. He became a father for the second time so he's on top of the world."