a colourful figure who is not scared to court controversy, as Liverpool fans will As he admitted on his arrival at Anfield, he wondered whether he could leave



The Goodison club have had 15 players booked and three sent off in their last three games with Liverpool….and lost the lot. In March at Anfield, they had


Kuyt and Crouch on target in internationals

Two of Liverpool’s strikers were on target for their countries last night in an evening of mixed fortune for Reds stars on duty for their nations.

Dirk Kuyt got Holland’s third goal in a 3-0 win over Belarus that sees them move two points clear of Bulgaria in qualifying group G.

Possibly more important to his country was Peter Crouch’s goal against Macedonia – the only goal of the game sees England stay top of E on goal difference from Israel, both with six points from six games.

Crouch is on fire for England right now, and a lot of England fans are probably extremely embarrassed about giving him so much stick in the early days of his England career. Sven Goran Eriksson probably wishes he’d made better use of him now too. His current boss at international level, Steve McClaren, was again gushing with praise for the Anfield forward: “His record of scoring goals for his country is phenomenal. I think he led the line really well. He took a lot of stick out there and he was unfortunate because a lot of the referee’s decisions seemed to go against him but he stuck at his task. He’s an opportunist and he took his chance very well – even if I did miss it at the time.”

McClaren had missed the goal because he was still in the tunnel looking at his notes: “I’ve done that a few times now,” laughed McClaren, “I had just finished the half-time team talk and was having a think about the second half. I didn’t know anything about the goal until I came down the tunnel and I saw it on one of the TV monitors. It was a very good goal. We’ve been criticised for a lot of our second-half performances and we wanted to start well after the interval. We did that perfectly.”

Crouch’s most important manager is club boss Rafael Benítez of course, and he’ll be glad to get Crouch back under his wing again this afternoon. Rafa can see how the press and public are praising him as highly as they ever will, but knows that the fickle nature of many of the journalists who follow England means Crouch will be getting stick again sooner or later. The other worry for Rafa is that if Crouch believes the hype there’s a danger he’ll take his foot off the pedal. Speaking yesterday, before the England game, Rafa was already expressing his concerns: “I am very happy for Peter but also worried. People are talking highly of him right now and as a manager that’s good because it’s always important for a player to have confidence.” Then the characteristic “but” from the manager: “But I also have to say to him, ‘Be careful!’ because things can change in a week in football. He must keep his feet on the ground. When people are saying nice things about you it’s sometimes easy to stop working as hard because you think you’re better than you are.”

Crouch was substituted towards the end of the game to eat up a bit of time, and received a standing ovation. Reds captain Steven Gerrard was also on duty for England in the game.

Over in Belfast some disappointed Reds players will want to forget about their country’s match. Northern Ireland caused a huge upset by beating Spain 3-2. Xabi Alonso played the whole game but it was his mistake that allowed Northern Ireland to score their first equaliser in a game he’d rather forget. Luis Garcia came off the bench on 63 minutes with Spain leading 2-1, only to see Northern Ireland get their second equaliser a minute later. The Windsor Park faithful went crazy on 80 minutes when they went ahead for the first time in the game, and in fact that’s how it ended, with all three goals for Northern Ireland scored by David Healey. Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina sat on the bench for the whole game, watching Casillas let the three goals in.
Two of Liverpool’s central defenders played 90 minutes each last night for their countries – Daniel Agger in Denmark’s 2-0 beating of Iceland, and Sami Hyypia in Finland’s 1-1 draw with Portugal.

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Peace and quiet ahead of derby

Robbie Fowler was probably secretly pleased when he saw the fixture list and the first Merseyside derby of the season falling straight after some international fixtures.

Many Liverpool fans would argue that he should still be considered as an option by his country, but Fowler is more than happy at 31 to be playing exclusively for his club. Forget all this stuff about him being a blue as a kid – he’s Red through and through now, as we found out when he got the chance to come home in January.

Peter Crouch is likely to continue up front for England tonight following his brace on Saturday, and Craig Bellamy played for Wales on both Saturday – in a European Qualifier – and last night, in the friendly defeat against Brazil. Holland play host to Belarus in their qualifier tonight, meaning Dirk Kuyt could also be playing tonight. It really does look likely that Rafa’s plans for the derby are “Fowler plus one other” up front.

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McClaren: 50-cap Stevie can get better

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard will win his 50th cap for England tonight in their World Cup qualifier against Macedonia, and England boss Steve McClaren says there’ll be a lot more added to that figure before he ends his career.

Technically called the England “Head Coach”, McClaren presented his vice-captain with a framed collage of some of the midfielder’s appearances for England and was full of praise as he handed it over. Speaking to the assembled media, McClaren said: “It’s a tremendous achievement – fifty caps at his age. He has great experience and is using that experience not just with England but with Liverpool.”

Well done Stevie, but there’s no time to relax of course. Everyone wants more from you; everyone wants more of that magic: “Steven Gerrard can get better. He can improve. He is one of those inspirational players whose inspires everyone else. He’s one of those players who at any moment can win a game for you. People like that are invaluable in your team.”

Gerrard had suffered under previous England boss Sven Goran Eriksson, because the Swedish coach couldn’t find how to play Frank Lampard and Gerrard together in the same team. Eriksson was also unable to drop David Beckham, after making him captain when he first became manager. Now that Beckham’s gone, Gerrard can play on the right-hand side of midfield, meaning Lampard can play the only role he knows how to play.

McClaren says he’s pleased with how Lampard and Gerrard are playing: “In the two games so far, Stevie and Frank have worked very well together. I stressed that point before the first game. The one criticism levelled at the players is that when they join up with England, they don’t play for England as they do for clubs.”

Gerrard has been used on the right by Liverpool to great effect. It’s not exactly rocket science to assume he might do alright there for England too. McClaren seemed to be hinting that Eriksson could have worked this out too if he’d put a bit of thought to it: “That’s an international manager’s dilemma, when all these players come together, to gel them into a team, put them positions where they naturally play for their clubs and get performances for international teams as they do for clubs. That’s what we are trying to get here. We have not had to do much work.”

Of course McClaren could just be celebrating too soon, but at least he knows that the players aren’t forced to make major changes to their games so that they can play for their country: “It’s natural. That’s the key. You don’t have these players for very long, preparation-wise. You put them in the team, in the places where it’s natural for them. It’s natural where Stevie and Frank are playing and that’s why they are effective.”

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Spanish Reds ready for Belfast

Luis Garcia’s goal for Spain on Saturday was his country’s 999th ever goal. Despite what they may try to claim, the rest of the Spanish players will be desperate to be the one who gets the 1000th one.

After that 4-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein, Spain’s next match is against Northern Ireland. Joining Garcia in Spain’s squad are his Anfield team-mates Xabi Alonso and Pepe Reina. Garcia was scored after coming on from the bench, with Xabi playing the whole game.

Football fans from Northern Ireland are still celebrating David Healey’s winner in the qualifying stages of last year’s World Cup, and no doubt the Liverpool trio have been told all about this by the England contingent at the club. Even more likely is that the Spanish lads have constantly reminded the English players about it, enjoying plenty of laughs at the expense of Gerrard and co.

Garcia doesn’t want to go back to Melwood now and hear the same sort of stick levelled at him. Luis said: “It will be a lot harder against Northern Ireland than against Liechtenstein, but we won’t accept anything less than returning with three points. We know some of their players from the Premier League; it will be a really tough game.”

Xabi was also quick to say how much he enjoyed being in the county, another part of the world where Liverpool fans can be seen in great numbers: “Every time we come here it is always nice for us as there are plenty of Liverpool fans and the people are friendly. Everyone wants to play in a good atmosphere and we expect that at Windsor Park.”

With Liverpool’s Spanish flavour these days, and the success brought to the club at the same time, Liverpool are also a popular side in Spain now. I’d not be surprised to hear Liverpool players of the future visiting Spain with their own countries to say similar things about Spain. At the same time, should Spain find themselves playing an international on Merseyside in the future, they might be pleasantly surprised at how many Spain shirts they saw.

Xabi Alonso, like Luis, is prepared to show the Northern Irish team plenty of respect and he also says it will be a tough match: “We know this side beat England so we know it is not going to be easy and we will give them respect. It is difficult to beat any side away from home in international football.”

Spain go into Wednesday’s game top of Group F on goal difference. With two teams qualifying from the group and no prospect of a play-off, goals could be important come the end of the qualifying phase.

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Kirkland injury not major this time

England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland has been sent home early from England duty. You can guess the reason – he’s got another injury.

Kirkland is still officially a Liverpool player, but is on loan to Wigan Athletic for six months. The intention is that he’ll not come back to Anfield again as a Liverpool player; the deal will be made permanent in January should Wigan wish to make it so.

For that to happen, Kirkie needs to start making some appearances for them.

This injury is one of his long-standing problems, the reason given by England coach Steve McClaren being that Chris has a “stiff back”. Despite this, and his history of back problems, it’s not considered bad enough to rule him out of Wigan’s next league game next weekend.  If this is true then McClaren is already showing signs that he’ll use common sense where players well-being is concerned. On the other hand that next game is against one of the easier sides in England’s group, with a long way still to go. I wonder how much sympathy McClaren will have if he’s got to the stage where his team have to win to qualify.

People understandably call Chris injury-prone, and he couldn’t really deny that. However most of Chris’s injuries have been completely unconnected to each other. His problems are down to sheer bad luck rather than any genetic conditions. He’s got a plate in his finger after breaking it in training one time, and he missed a long spell during his West Brom loan after a collision left him with a badly bruised kidney. He’s had such a long time with bad luck that if there is such a thing as karma he’ll be due a hell of a few good seasons at some point. Don’t be surprised if he helps get Wigan into Europe and even more unlikely, actually helps England to win a penalty shoot-out.

Kirkland should have been involved as one of the subs for Wednesday’s England game but the England and Wigan physios felt that he’d be better off out of it. He’s only got a bit of sciatica, which is painful but probably not enough to stop anyone from playing if they really want to play. The physios also felt that the flight to actually take part in the game would do him more harm than good, especially given the fact he is so tall.

Former Liverpool player, now Wigan manager, Paul Jewell sent thanks to the England camp for allowing Kirkland home: “England did the right thing by letting him stay at home, and we thank them for that.”

Liverpool bosses will also be pleased. No matter how good Kirkland is, there’s just not enough room for him at Anfield, where Pepe Reina is first choice ahead of Jerzy Dudek. The sooner he is off the wage bill the better for all sides. I personally feel that one day Chris could still prove to be England’s number 1 keeper, but he really does need to stop smashing mirrors near black cats.

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Crouch on fire for a now grateful England

Liverpool’s Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard scored three of England’s five goals last night between them, as their country opened their qualifying campaign for the next European Championships with a victory over Andorra.

A year ago Peter Crouch was embarking on his Liverpool career to the sounds of a lot of criticism, mainly from people who didn’t like his height. Boos when appearing for England are an embarrassing memory for most England fans now, although Liverpool fans won’t let them forget their nastiness. Crouch has recovered to such an extent though that new England boss Steve McClaren, taking charge of his first competitive match as manager, had high praise for the forward: “He's phenomenal!” said McClaren after the win last night.  

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