Teams: Arsenal v LFC – Plessis starts

A great chance for Damien Plessis today as he makes his league debut for the Reds away at the Emirates. Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has made a number of changes for this league game against Arsenal, the second of three matches between the teams in a week.

Liverpool’s two targets for this season now are to finish fourth and of course to go as far as possible in the Champions League. With fifth-placed Everton five points behind the Reds it was no surprise to see Rafa take the chance of resting some of his squad to allow them to be fresh for Tuesday.

Rafa’s view will be straightforward – if Liverpool were to slip up today they would still be no worse than two points above Everton, and have games left with which to open that gap up again. But slipping up on Tuesday and it’s all over in that competition, there won’t be any more chances.

So as well as Plessis getting his first chance, other players from Liverpool’s squad are being given an opportunity to remind the manager who they are and what they can do. Finnan is back at right back, so Carra’s back where he’d rather be in the centre of defence, alongside Skrtel, which allows Sami Hyypia a chance to rest his older legs. Alvaro Arbeloa gets the left-back spot.

It looks like Rafa is staying with the 4-2-3-1 formation that has worked so well of late. That would see Plessis, a former Lyon player highly-rated by Rafa Benitez, playing alongside the Brazilian youngster Lucas in the centre of midfield. The row of three in front of that normally consisting of Kuyt, Babel and Gerrard, is today looking likely to be made up of Riise, Pennant and Benayoun. Up front on his own in place of Torres is Peter Crouch.

This is a chance for Liverpool’s fringe players, and if they play to their best abilities it should still be a competitive match and the Reds will still be in with a chance of a good result. The attitude shown earlier in the season when Rafa allowed fringe players a chance in FA Cup games could see Liverpool embarrassed.

Arsenal: 24 Almunia, 31 Hoyte, 10 Gallas, 5 Toure, 30 Traore, 27 Eboue, 4 Fabregas, 19 Silva, 16 Flamini, 26 Bendtner, 32 Walcott
Subs: 1 Lehmann, 13 Hleb, 17 Song Billong, 22 Clichy, 25 Adebayor

Liverpool: 25 Reina, 3 Finnan, 23 Carragher, 37 Skrtel, 17 Arbeloa, 21 Lucas, 47 Plessis, 16 Pennant, 11 Benayoun, 6 Riise, 15 Crouch
Subs: 30 Itandje, 4 Hyypia, 8 Gerrard, 9 Torres, 10 Voronin

Referee: Phil Dowd

Result: Man United 3 Liverpool 0

Barclays Premier League – March 23rd 2008 – Result

Man United 3 Liverpool 0

At the risk of sounding like an Evertonian bleating about decisions from 20 years or more ago, any Liverpool fan must be wondering how might this game have turned out had referee Steve Bennett had more about him than the arrogant ego-driven approach to the first half. No doubt the refereeing community will close ranks around their own, but secretly they must be cringing at the latest incident of a referee single-handedly changing the outcome of a game through awful decisions.

Manchester United hadn’t played particularly well in the first half, but they’d put a performance in that requires some fight from the opposition. Liverpool looked uninterested, Reina playing the first half as though he’d spent the bank holiday weekend with Charles Itandje. Jamie Carragher was out of sorts; Steven Gerrard was out of the game completely, both as player and as captain. It was no surprise when Wes Brown scored, but his goal didn’t seem to stir any fight in a Liverpool side who were unchanged from their last game, the win over Reading eight days ago at Anfield. United had made eight changes for the game, Liverpool none, although this will be largely glossed over by those who criticise Rafa relentlessly for his rotation. Continue reading Result: Man United 3 Liverpool 0

Half-time: Man U 1 Liverpool 0

steve-bennett.jpgHalf-time and as well as being a goal down Liverpool find themselves down to ten men against United’s twelve. It’s an age-old complaint from football supporters, but this referee is one of the worst in the game.

Liverpool have hardly been at the races in the game, Reina in particular has looked out of sorts and has to accept some of the blame for Wes Brown’s opener. United looked most likely to score first, United’s Van der Sar a spectator for the first half. What he could see from his goal were errors from Reina including throwing the ball to an opponent 25 yards out, and almost knocking the ball into his own net when a Giggs cross seemed to confuse him. He did seem to have the sun in his eyes for this first half, but that’s hardly an excuse for what has been one of his worst games in a Liverpool shirt.

The game started in a typical North West derby fashion, if anything a little less high-speed than normal. Wayne Rooney had a case for a penalty when another off-colour player – Jamie Carragher – lunged for the ball in the box and although contact with Rooney was minimal, contact with the ball was non-existent. Rooney stayed on his feet and his shot was blocked by Reina, but given Bennett’s performance from then on it’s a shock he didn’t give the Manchester side the penalty anyway.

On 11 minutes Bennett made it clear, it seemed, he wasn’t going to give any room for error. Mascherano went to ground in an attempt to win the ball from Paul Scholes, and his booking was harsh. In itself it certainly wasn’t the worst tackle of the game so far, possibly Mascherano’s first foul, and in games like this suggested the referee’s book was going to be full by the end of the game.

Yet that idea seemed unlikely given the way Bennett treated the rest of the half. Foul after foul was committed by Manchester United, foul after foul that went unpunished. For some bizarre and frankly inexplicable or justifiable reason Bennett instead chose to pull Anderson and Vidic to one side for a talking to rather than book them for fouls that were as bad as Mascherano’s had been earlier.

The obvious imbalance in approach to the two sides was riling Mascherano, who complained to Bennett more than once. Not in a violent or aggressive way, but with a smile on his face asking why this was happening. Bennett, ever the centre of attention in games he referees, had no intention of explaining. His arrogance is exactly why referees get such a bad name.

As the half went on and United had got a goal that was always coming, Liverpool needed a half-time team talk urging them to make more of an effort and show their true abilities. Perhaps a change would be in order, if not on half-time itself then in the first fifteen minutes of the second half.

All of that went out of the window when the referee proved his arrogance and his ego were going to be the subject of headlines tomorrow. As the half came to a close Fernando Torres was once again fouled. The referee gave the foul, but yet again allowed the United player to get away without a booking. Torres was booked for asking why the fouls were allowed to continue unpunished. It was no surprise to see Mascherano come towards the referee to ask once again – if he was booked for a minor challenge on 11 minutes, clearly impeding his impact on the game, why were United players getting away with so much? He was sent off for asking, the referee deciding this was dissent and giving him a second yellow.

Whether Liverpool would have come out for the second half with the necessary fight added to their approach in order to get something from the game or not is irrelevant now. Bennett was never popular with United after sending off Ronaldo twice in the past, but his performances in Liverpool matches have never been lacking in controversy. Clearly unable to rise above the mind-games tried by Ferguson in the press this week, this referee ought to be suspended until he learns to put his ego and his arrogance to one side. He’s not biased to one side over another – just feels his name should be in the body of all match reports rather than mentioned at the bottom.

Continue reading Half-time: Man U 1 Liverpool 0

Teams: Man United v LFC

No changes from Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez today for the trip to Old Trafford. Eight changes from Alex Ferguson, which should (but won’t) finally end the never-ending focus on Rafa’s rotation policy.

For Liverpool the back four has Aurelio and Arbeloa at full-back, Carragher and Skrtel in the middle. Many expected Carra to be at right-back for a more defensive outlook to the game, but Rafa is happy to stick with the team that won last-time out.

It’s the same formation that has been used in the recent winning run, Mascherano and Alonso partners in central-midfield with Steven Gerrard part of the row of three that support top-scorer Fernando Torres. The other two are Dutch pair Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt.

For United Wayne Rooney plays, the Scouser who seems happy listening to songs from the Stretford End declaring how much they hate Scousers, even when Liverpool aren’t playing. Ronaldo is United’s top scorer and also starts, one of just three who played in United’s last league game.

Liverpool’s need for three points comes from their aim of getting a top-four finish, Everton’s draw yesterday means that defeat today for Liverpool gives their most-local rivals a chance of leapfrogging them in next week’s derby. For United it’s the title they are aiming for, and the other top-four sides play each other later in the day.

Referee Steve Bennett can’t have failed to have missed the worried noises coming from Alex Ferguson over the course of the week,  whether he’s got the ability to referee the game openly remains to be seen. Mind games are almost over now though, and it’s time for the players to show what they’re capable of.

Manchester United: 1 Van der Sar, 6 Brown, 5 Ferdinand, 15 Vidic, 3 Evra, 7 Ronaldo, 18 Scholes, 16 Carrick, 8 Anderson, 11 Giggs, 10 Rooney
Subs: 29 Kuszczak, 4 Hargreaves, 17 Nani, 22 O’Shea, 32 Tevez

Liverpool: 25 Reina, 17 Arbeloa, 23 Carragher, 37 Skrtel, 12 Aurelio, 20 Mascherano, 14 Alonso, 18 Kuyt, 8 Gerrard, 19 Babel, 9 Torres
Subs: 30 Itandje, 4 Hyypia, 6 Riise, 11 Benayoun, 15 Crouch

steve-bennett.jpgReferee: Steve Bennett

Kick-off: 1.30pm GMT

Confident at last, Reds ready for battle

Liverpool play Manchester United on Sunday once again hoping to dent their old rivals’ title hopes rather than boosting their own, and also looking to get three points to help hold onto fourth place.

If the confidence they’re showing off-the-field in interviews translates to confidence on the field then it will be a tough match for the current league-leaders. Over-confidence can be a worry and even an incentive to opponents, but it’s better than the completely shattered confidence on display by Liverpool at the mid-point of the season. That lack of confidence arguably ended any faint hopes Liverpool had of challenging for the league this season.

There’s little doubt that off-field problems have played a major part in the issues on the field. There was the Reading match in December, thrown away with Rafa forced to think of the Champions League fixture that he had to win or be unreasonably sacked a few days later. A week later and the owners who’d been plotting behind Rafa’s back to sack him watched as Liverpool were unable to break down a Manchester United side who’d once again arrived at Anfield hoping – and managing – to snatch a goal against the run of their ultra-defensive play. Rafa had been waiting for a well-publicised meeting with the owners in the build-up to that game, but rather than put him out of his misery and clear the air ahead of the game they waited until the late evening afterwards.

There are of course no guarantees that either game would have been won if the owners hadn’t been interfering in that way, but they were the first league defeats of the season, two of only three in total in the league this season. Still in December and Liverpool struggled to beat Derby on Boxing Day before going on a run of four draws and a defeat (their only other league defeat) against teams they were expected to beat, dropping eleven points from the fifteen on offer. Just before Christmas George Gillett spoke in public about Liverpool FC and didn’t speak again until March. There were reports of refinancing difficulties, which coincided with claims Gillett and his partner Tom Hicks had fallen out, and in the middle of this run came the Klinsmann revelations. Continue reading Confident at last, Reds ready for battle

Result: Reds 2 Reading 1

Javier Mascherano’s first ever goal for Liverpool brought the Reds an equaliser, yet another for Fernando Torres gave them the lead, and in the end the three points. Liverpool survived a late penalty claim to remain three points ahead of Everton who play their match tomorrow.

Liverpool: 25 Reina, 17 Arbeloa, 23 Carragher, 37 Skrtel, 12 Aurelio, 14 Alonso, 20 Mascherano, 18 Kuyt (11 Benayoun, 80), 8 Gerrard (4 Hyypia, 90), 19 Babel (6 Riise, 83), 9 Torres
Unused subs: 30 Itandje, 15 Crouch
Booked: None
Goals: Mascherano 19, Torres 48

Reading: 1 Hahnemann, 19 Rosenior, 22 Bikey, 16 Ingimarsson, 3 Shorey, 11 Oster (30 Kebe, 72), 15 Harper, 28 Matejovsky (4 Cisse, 74), 10 Hunt, 9 Doyle, 24 Long (12 Kitson, 63)
Unused subs: 32 Federici, 5 Sonko
Long 59, Ingimarsson 65,Matejovsky 74, Bikey 79, Cisse 87
Goals: Matejovsky 5
BBC Stats: (Liverpool – Reading)
Possession: 63% – 37%
Shots on target: 8 – 3
Shots off target: 11 – 4
Corners: 7 – 2
Fouls: 7 – 22

Referee: Andre Marriner

Attendance: 43524

Reds v Reading – Xabi returns

Two changes made by Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez for today’s clash with Reading. Sami Hyypia drops to the bench with Jamie Carragher back to centre of defence from right back, Alvaro Arbeloa taking up the right-back spot today.

Attempts to overplay the significance of Xabi Alonso’s decision to stay at home with his wife as she gave birth to their first child, son Jon, have perhaps been dispelled by the Spaniard’s appearance in the starting line-up in place of Lucas.

Rafa has once again chosen to go with the formation that sees Fernando Torres supported by Ryan Babel, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt.

Reading were beaten at home by Liverpool in the League Cup earlier in the season, Fernando Torres bagging his first Reds hat-trick and bagloads of confidence. By the time the teams next met, in the League just days before Liverpool’s final Champions League group game, Rafa had one eye on the fixture that could have seen him sacked by owners looking for an excuse to get rid. He withdrew key players well before the end and was accused of throwing in the towel. It was a short while later the true reasons emerged, reasons that have seen sustained protests against the current owners.

Before today’s match another meeting was held by Spirit of Shankly, the Liverpool Supporters’ Union, who handed out leaflets to other fans before the game urging them to “Boycott all LFC Merchandise – Don’t buy the Club for Hicks!”

Liverpool: 25 Reina, 17 Arbeloa, 23 Carragher, 37 Skrtel, 12 Aurelio, 14 Alonso, 20 Mascherano, 18 Kuyt, 8 Gerrard, 19 Babel, 9 Torres
Subs: 30 Itandje, 4 Hyypia, 6 Riise, 11 Benayoun, 15 Crouch

Reading: 1 Hahnemann, 19 Rosenior, 22 Bikey, 16 Ingimarsson, 3 Shorey, 11 Oster, 15 Harper, 28 Matejovsky, 10 Hunt, 9 Doyle, 24 Long
Subs: 32 Federici, 4 Cisse, 5 Sonko, 12 Kitson, 30 Kebe

Referee: Andre Marriner

Result: Liverpool 3 Newcastle 0

Barclays Premier League – March 8th 2008 – Result

Liverpool 3 Newcastle United 0
Pennant 43,
Torres 45,
Gerrard 51

The dark days of winter are starting to turn to the brighter days of spring, clocks move to summer time soon (or this weekend in the US), and things seem to be brightening up for Liverpool fans at long last. But spring sunshine can often be a false sign of the end of winter which is why the saying “Never cast a clout until May is out,” was probably coined. It was probably coined even before the days of football and its seasons that end in May but that’s the month when Liverpool fans can truly start to see if the Siberian winter of the Hicks-Gillett era is finally over, or if the likely Hicks-DIC era turns out to in fact be little better. Continue reading Result: Liverpool 3 Newcastle 0

Team v Newcastle – Pennant, Yossi and Lucas come in

With one eye on the second leg Champions League clash with Inter Milan in midweek Rafa was never likely to field a completely unchanged side for today’s home clash with Newcastle. The cynical actions of Mark Noble of West Ham who was lucky to get away with just a yellow for an off-the-ball strike at Mascherano means Rafa had at least one change forced on him.

In for Mascherano comes Brazilian youngster Lucas, and Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt are both rested, replaced by Yossi Benayoun and Jermaine Pennant. Torres is up front after two hat tricks in his last two home games.

Hyypia is again on the bench, Rafa giving Martin Skrtel another chance to impress alongside Jamie Carragher. Still no sign of Daniel Agger.

One-time Reds hero Michael Owen returns to Anfield for the second time as a Newcastle player, knowing he’ll get a mixed reception from fans who in some cases still feel betrayed at his decision to allow his contract to run down to the point where it had 10 months left to run, no doubt hoping for a Bosman a few months later, and his reported decision to not call Real’s bluff a year later to return to Anfield instead of joining Newcastle. Despite that Rafa has continued to show interest in the player on-and-off since. Many fans consider his contributions over his time at Anfield are enough to forgive his actions in the summers of 2004 and 2005.

Former Red Kevin Keegan is of course the Newcastle boss these days, in his second stint in the role. Continue reading Team v Newcastle – Pennant, Yossi and Lucas come in

Result and Reaction: Liverpool 4 West Ham 0

Barclays Premier League – March 5th 2008 – Result

Liverpool 4 West Ham 0
Torres 8, 61, 81
Gerrard 83


Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez: “At the end I was really pleased with the performance of the team. It was important to win tonight because we have been talking about this game in hand for a long time, but now when you see the points on the table it is much easier and better for the confidence. We have three more points and we are closer now, it depends on us. If we can beat Newcastle we will approach the Inter game with a lot of confidence.”

Liverpool have employed a system in recent games that is sometimes described as 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or more accurately 4-2-3-1. Rafa has used the system previously as Liverpool boss, but although its reintroduction has coincided with a steady run of form and good results, Rafa said it’s not the only reason: “It is more than the system because we have used it in some games before. We were talking the other day about Ryan Babel and how he needed to settle down, and also Torres is on fire. Some players are playing really well now and that is the difference for the team because everyone has confidence that we will score. Continue reading Result and Reaction: Liverpool 4 West Ham 0