Premier League, 5th October 2008
Manchester City v Liverpool
Next up for Liverpool is a trip to Eastlands and the City of Manchester Stadium today, to face the latest Premier League club to be taken over by overseas investors. In Manchester City’s case they were already owned by an overseas investor, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but are now in the hands of Abu Dhabi United Group and Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Always the wittier of the city’s two sets of supporters, some City fans now call their home “Middle Eastlands”.
The City takeover added to anxieties amongst Liverpool fans, especially in the first day or two of September. The first words about the Man City takeover, and the likely policies of the new regime at a club once owned by toilet-roll maker Franny Lee, came from Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim. Al-Fahim was in charge of negotiations for the Abu Dhabi group, and their spokesperson at the outset. He made some wild claims about the kind of deals his group would be making. If his claims, and hints, from the beginning of September had been true, Liverpool would have fresh competition for their place in the top four.
Dr Sulaiman spoke about Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been subject to interest from Real Madrid all summer: “Ronaldo has said he wants to play for the biggest club in the world, so we will see in January if he is serious.” Ronaldo had meant Real Madrid were the biggest club in the world, a comment that most Manchester United fans have decided to gloss over. But if they were up in arms, secretly, about Ronaldo’s opinion on who is the biggest club, they’d have had mixed feelings, including bemusement, about Dr Sulaiman’s opinion on the issue. He said: “Real Madrid were estimating his (Ronaldo’s) value at $160m (around £90m) but for a player like that, to actually get him, will cost a lot more, I would think $240m (around £134m). But why not? We are going to be the biggest club in the world, bigger than both Real Madrid and Manchester United.”
These claims were easy to believe at least at face value. Arab states are wealthy, as Liverpool fans all now know, if we’d ever been in any doubt before. He’d just broken the British transfer record (for Robinho), and with Abu Dhabi being a larger state than Dubai most deals tend to be discussed in billions of dollars as opposed to millions.
PCP’s Amanda Staveley is well-known to Liverpool fans; she’s the lady who has been heavily involved in the attempts by DIC, and other entities under the Dubai flag, to take Liverpool FC into new ownership.
She was hired by Shinawatra to work on the deal, and said of Dr Sulaiman: “He led negotiations and showed great determination and vision. He has pushed extremely hard to make sure this happened.”
Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, and a son-in-law to Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum – the Sheikh linked to Liverpool FC since, well, forever, is ultimately the owner of Manchester City. He said that although he wanted to see City turned into a successful, top four, side, he didn’t think it would happen overnight: “We are ambitious for the club,” he said on the club’s website, “but not unreasonably so,” he warned.
He said: “We understand it takes time to build a team capable of sustaining a presence in the top four of the Premier League and winning European honours.
“Whilst we want to bring in the best players in the world, we also want to see the academy continue to develop talent and give Mark Hughes the chance to bring home-grown players into the team.”
City v Reds
Back to today’s game again and the two sides go into it having gone through differing runs of form of late.
City’s 2-1 UEFA Cup win over Omonia Nicosia on Thursday sent them into the group stages 4-2 on aggregate. It also lifted the sense of gloom that had started to creep into the City camp following a 2-1 league defeat at Wigan, and the embarrassment of being knocked out of the Carling Cup by League 1 Brighton. Mark Hughes and his players will be aiming to prove that the game before that, a 6-0 hammering of Portsmouth, is closer to the truth about how good or bad they are.
Liverpool are unbeaten this season, and after Arsenal only managed a draw earlier today the Reds remain joint top on points, second on goal-difference, behind Chelsea. Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven were made to look fairly ordinary on Wednesday at Anfield as Robbie Keane scored his first Liverpool goal and Steven Gerrard his 100th. Last time out in the league Liverpool were also away in a North West derby, the Merseyside one, where they made light work of Everton in a 2-0 win.
Last season’s fixture at Eastlands saw Liverpool frustrated against a City side determined to get a point. City had no other plan in mind than to shut up shop, and they managed it well, Richard Dunne in particular. Dunne is a doubt for this game, having missed the UEFA Cup game on Thursday. This season City are top-scorers in the league, suggesting a change of approach under Hughes.
Liverpool have only conceded twice in the league, but let a soft one in against PSV on Wednesday night with the score at 3-0. Rafa rested Mascherano on Wednesday, but hinted he’d be making use of the Argentinean for this game, which could stop Xabi Alonso from making his 100th league start for the Reds. Babel and Torres are expected to recover from knocks they sustained in that match.
Liverpool’s next league goal would be their thousandth in the Premier League, and former Red Didi Hamann will be hopeful of a place in the City side to help stop it from happening. Liverpool’s Albert Riera will also be hoping to start against his former club; he was on loan at City for the second half of the 2005-2006 season.
Peter Walton referees the game, his third top-flight match this season. He’s booked five players so far in those games, with no sendings off yet.
The last meeting between these two sides was at Anfield, when City fans protested at the treatment of Sven Goran Eriksson by Shinawatra. Liverpool won 1-0, it was the last home game of the season. But Liverpool boss recalls the away fixture far more readily: “I remember this game really well. It was a good game and we played really well but could not score. We had chances in the first half and at the start of the second half Torres had two chances and there was one at the end, so I was really disappointed that we could not score because we deserved to win.”
Liverpool’s season hit an awful patch starting with that game, although it had been under threat of falling apart prior to that thanks to the beginnings of the off-field troubles that were never far away from the surface last season. Rafa doesn’t want another bad patch to start here: “At the time we were in a good moment. We had a lot of confidence and the team was playing well so the timing was bad for us. It is important to recognise that it is different this time, though. It is another season with different players so hopefully the outcome will be better for us this time.”
Draws in games like this will seriously hit any hopes Liverpool have of challenging for the league. It’s a tough game, but winnable, and Liverpool really have to go for it: “The only similarity is that we are playing well now as we were then so we have to try and make sure that we are ready and that we take our chances if they come.”
Rafa was reminded of the fact that City’s Tel Ben Haim was playing for Chelsea when Torres made him look pretty useless on his way to getting his first Liverpool goal: “That is a better memory but Ben Haim was a Chelsea player then and now he is with Manchester City so, like I said, it is a different game.”
Daniel Agger is said to be unwilling to sign a new contract for the time being thanks to finding his place in the team blocked by the incredible form of Martin Skrtel and of course Jamie Carragher. Rafa continues to have good quality players unable to players as much as they would like to, and in fact feels he now has a better squad than ever: “You know that if you want to win games and try to win trophies that you have a good squad, I have said this is the best squad we have had since I came to the club.”
That means he has a harder time picking a team, but he’s not complaining: “It is not easy for me to pick a team when so many of the players are confident and playing well but it is better to be this way than for your team to pick itself because only some of your players are playing well.”
And with Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard playing as well as could be expected, he’s likely to have to disappoint one of them tomorrow to find room for Javier Mascherano, who he said he’d rested for today’s game rather than make use of him at any point against PSV: “Javier was fit, he was fine, but we had four days between the PSV game and the trip to Manchester City, so I felt the player could be held back for the game on Sunday. Everyone was fit, but I knew we had Lucas who could come on and play in midfield. I preferred to think of the next game and keep Javier for that.”
As a former player for Everton and Manchester United, City boss Mark Hughes has an extra incentive to beat Liverpool, who he chose to pay a string of compliments to ahead of the game: “I sense that this season they will have a real go at trying to win The Premier League. They’ve had a great start; they look confident, strong and assured.”
He went on: “They will run the top teams very close. It is a big test for us as they are playing exceptionally well at the moment. Hopefully we will be in a position to cause them problems as we have some good players in key areas of the park.”
Live on UK TV: No
Location: City of Manchester Stadium, Eastlands, Manchester