Liverpool’s march towards their capture of the FA Cup last season included their best-ever away win in the competition, against Birmingham City. Since that 7-0 victory opponents Birmingham have been relegated from the top flight and now face the Reds again, this time in the Carling Cup. Nobody is expecting a repeat, and in fact in many ways Liverpool are wary of a deep desire for revenge from the Midlands side, who’ve also won all of their last five games.
Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez describes tonight’s tie as “tough”, and he says he’s called on winger Jermaine Pennant to help out by revealing any extra information about his former club. Rafa said: “This Birmingham game will not be like last season, it will be a very tough game. It will be different players this time and not the same situation as last season. I have spoken to Jermaine Pennant about the game and he believes Birmingham really want to do well this time. They want to win and will approach the game intent on staying in the competition.”
Rafa points out that a team struggling in the league last season were low on confidence, but this season that’s turned around thanks to their good league form one division lower: “It will be a different kind of game. They are doing well in the Championship and it will be much tougher than last season when they were in a difficult position in the Premier League.”
Liverpool won’t be sending a full-strength squad for this game, Rafa choosing to rest many of the first team squad ahead of the Arsenal game in the league on Sunday. He’s hoping that Birmingham will also be prioritising tonight’s match in a similar way: “Maybe they will be thinking of revenge and the last game, but maybe also they will be thinking of their priorities this season, and that must be to get back into the Premier League. It is okay to want to progress in the cups but the league is more important and cup ties can give clubs with smaller squads a lot of problems.”
One of the players being left at home tonight is captain Steven Gerrard, meaning there’s a very good chance of a start for Jermaine Pennant against his old club. Pennant signed this summer after being on the losing end of that 7-0 game in the spring. Rafa was asked what Pennant had been able to reveal about his old club: “I have asked Jermaine about how they will play, which players will be used,” said Rafa. “We know a lot but he will have special knowledge. It is certain that it will be a very difficult game. They press opponents, are physical and good in the air.”
Rafa is hoping that the Birmingham fans appreciate what Pennant did for them during his stay and also why he had to move on: “I hope the Birmingham fans will understand what a good player Jermaine was for their club and that we paid them very good money for him. It was good business for both clubs. Maybe they will not be cheering him but I feel they will appreciate the business and what happened.”
As well as Gerrard, Rafa is leaving Jose Reina, Luis Garcia and Sami Hyypia behind. Pennant should get Gerrard’s place and Jerzy Dudek’s ban is now over meaning he’ll get Reina’s place. Daniel Agger hasn’t played since breaking his hand on international duty last month but is likely to step in for Sami Hyypia. Gabriel Paletta is also included in the party and may get a start ahead of Jamie Carragher. If he does then Robbie Fowler has a good chance of being captain again, and seems likely to line up alongside Craig Bellamy who has recovered from his recent calf injury.
Sami Hyypia sent his team-mates off with a warning about getting rid of any complacency. He said: “The Birmingham lads who played in that Cup tie last season and had to suffer that 7-0 defeat will remember the match and they will be really up for it this time around. They'll be ready for the fight and Steve Bruce will tell them to be more awake than they were last time, when we scored two very quickly. I guess Steve Bruce will be trying everything he can to make sure that doesn't happen again.” Hyypia scored the opener in under a minute that night.
He went on: “Maybe there was some luck in us scoring two so quickly, but we were up for the game and we decided to start very quickly and we got the reward. The whole 90 minutes from then on for us was very good, we scored some excellent goals and never let Birmingham into it. This Carling Cup tie is a totally different game and they will want to make up for last season as well as to progress in the tournament themselves, we know it will be a lot tougher this time around.”
Hyypia has just been named the Player of the Year in Finland, the sixth time he’s won the award in eight years. He’s happy with how Liverpool have defended in their recent games and says that it’s important to keep this going: “We're defending well and keeping another clean sheet at the weekend was really important. When you achieve that then you have a chance of taking something from the game. Clean sheets are great for the whole team and for a keeper's confidence.”
Jose Reina has been the subject of criticism from many this season as part of the inevitable search for a scapegoat for some poor form from the whole team. He’s made some mistakes but made some great and important saves too, and Hyypia wouldn’t hear it that Pepe was lacking confidence: “I wouldn't say that Pepe Reina hasn't been confident because he is a confident lad, but you have to remember that we are only human beings. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes and you just have to keep your head up and do better next time.”
As Sami says, it’s been the whole team, not just one or two: “The start of the season has been strange. Individually we haven't been at the same level as we were last season, but we're getting there and when we get the away form sorted out then I think we're going to go higher and higher.”