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Masch - Reds can recover

Masch - Reds can recover

Mascherano: Positive outlook

Javier Mascherano feels Liverpool must follow Argentina's lead as they attempt to emerge from their current slump.

The Reds have suffered four consecutive defeats, their worst run of form for 22 years, and have seen the future of boss Rafa Benitez increasingly called into question.

Things do not get any easier either, with reigning champions Manchester United due at Anfield on Sunday for what promises to be an intriguing North West derby.

Should Liverpool suffer a further setback against their arch rivals, their dreams of taking the Premier League title will be all but extinguished.

Mascherano, though, is confident that Liverpool can bounce back from recent disappointments and has pointed to Argentina's qualification for the 2010 World Cup, in the face of heated criticism, as proof that adversity can be conquered.

"I am relaxed now that Argentina have qualified for the World Cup finals, I can concentrate only on Liverpool," said the midfield general.

"This is not a good situation at the club, and I want to give Liverpool my best.

"I am captain of my country, and we were really under pressure in the final two qualifying games; people said we were out, that was very difficult.

"But we won both those games. We have qualified. Maybe it will be the same for Liverpool now if we start to win, things will start to happen for us."

Capable

Liverpool could be without talismanic skipper Steven Gerrard and fearsome frontman Fernando Torres against United but, regardless of who takes to the field, Mascherano is adamant Benitez's men can prevail.

"If we can beat United then the confidence will be back, it is important to do that," he said.

"We beat them twice last season. We know what we are capable of. Hopefully our form will be like that on Sunday.

"It is a difficult situation, we have lost four in a row. But do not forget that this is a team who last season were doing very well, we must keep going and working.

"The team is not playing well, and a lot of players are not in the best form. That is not good and we are losing confidence, but we have to believe that we can overcome this."

He added: "Even without Steven, or Fernando, we believe we can still win matches. We won a lot of games last season without the pair of them on the pitch together.

"We are trying all the time to give our best. Maybe now we have to show character, personality and hard work.

"It is difficult. Liverpool is not a team that loses a lot of games. Now we have lost six games this season, that is different for us and difficult.

"We cannot let that bother us. We must think only of winning on Sunday. We can still win the league, but we must start winning and stop dropping so many points."

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 Liverpool look back to halt the record run of poor form Jamie Carragher
Showing the way: Jamie Carragher remembers dark days in the past and says now is the time for Liverpool to show character Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The last time Liverpool lost five games in a row, the West was still anxiously monitoring events in Moscow after the recent death of Stalin: 1953 was a bad year for the Reds. If nothing else, Rafael Benítez can console himself knowing that all crises are relative.

Anfield’s latest state of emergency has been brought to a strident pitch by the records that this Liverpool team have been working their way through.

They are the first team to lose four in a row since 1987 and today the arrival of a vengeful Manchester United side promises still greater shame. What cold dread must grip Scousers at the prospect of Gary Neville bearing witness to the making of that history.

Despite the best efforts of Benítez and his players to play it down, this game has taken on an apocalyptic tinge. Thousands of fans, from the Spirit of Shankly protest group, are expected to march on Anfield before the game in protest at the American owners.

Inside the stadium, Benítez’s selection and tactics will be scrutinised by an increasingly sceptical crowd, some of whom jeered the manager in the midweek defeat to Lyon. The vultures are circling.

All of which seems absurd if you rewind back to March. Having just beaten Real Madrid 4-0 in the Champions League, Liverpool went to Old Trafford and humiliated the champions 4-1, with Torres giving the previously impregnable Nemanja Vidic a game that will have him waking up in a cold sweat years after he has retired. It felt like a crucial shift in the balance of power and, sensing his moment, Benítez signed a new five-year contract. Just seven months in and the future is not what it used to be.

Despite some pretty uninspiring transfer business in the summer, there was serious optimism that, having lost just twice in the league last season, Liverpool could end their two-decade wait for the title. Instead, it has been back to the familiar sense of early-season crisis at Anfield.

It’s easy to forget how readily the c-word gets bandied around these parts. As recently as 2003, Gerard Houllier’s side went on their worst run in 49 years, going 11 games without a win. Houllier went on to manage for another season.

The record that Benítez can equal today stems back to the same 1953-54 campaign, when Liverpool finished bottom. It is indeed all relative.

With the exception of their last campaign, Benítez’s Liverpool have made a hash of things before the Christmas decorations have gone up in the High Street.

In Benítez’s first season in charge, 2004-05, Liverpool lost five of their first 11 games, including two in the Champions League. The following season they drew four of their first five league games and then got hammered 4-1 at Anfield by Chelsea.

In 2006-07 they lost four of their first nine league games and when they finally got things right in the league the following season, they contrived to get just one point from three games in the Champions League group stage.

In previous seasons, Liverpool have succeeded in recovering from those poor starts to find success. It is not just the breaking of records that makes this crisis seem more serious, it is that you can’t see them bouncing back from it. In contrast to the other clubs with title ambitions, it only takes one or two injuries to derail this side.

In theory, Benítez’s back-up players are superb. An Ajax-educated second striker with 34 caps for the Dutch national side by the age of 22? An Italian international full-back with nearly 200 Serie A games to his name? A Brazilian central midfielder who made his international debut at just 20?

Bring it on. It’s only when you name those abstract players as Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena and Lucas Leiva that you are fittingly underwhelmed.

Hopes of salvation are being pinned on Alberto Aquilani, the Italian international midfielder entrusted with being the heir to Xabi Alonso. He could well be on the bench this afternoon.

To meet the absurd level of expectation being thrown at him, he’s going to have to arrive at the game by walking across the Mersey.

Jamie Carragher, troubled by his own poor form, is clinging, with apologies to Nietzsche, to the hope that whatever doesn’t kill this team will make it stronger.

“The reason the players and the manager are at Liverpool football club is because we’ve come through those tough times,” Carragher said.

“Throughout your career you don’t have it rosy all the way through, you’ve got to fight to get to the top. We’re here for a reason and one of the reasons is we’re good at our jobs and because we’ve got the fight and the character. This is the time we’ve got to show it.

“We’re not playing well, but it’s a long season and we’ve still got things to go for. I know we’ll be written off but I remember the treble season: we didn’t start that very well. In 2005 we had a terrible season in the League but everyone remembers it for the Champions League and in 2007 – it sounds like every season we started badly! – we started poorly and ended up in the Champions League final.

‘‘It’s at the end of the season when the judgment’s made. It’s like being down at half-time in a game, you’ve got to keep fighting and that’s what we’ll do.”

Carragher knows as well as anyone the consequences of defeat on Sunday. This is a man who has scored two own goals in a game against United at Anfield. He knows what these games mean.

The prospects are far from encouraging, though. The number of players convalescing bodes ill. Benítez has pointed out that Liverpool beat United at Anfield last season without Torres and Gerrard, but that is not strictly true.

While neither players started they were both on the bench and Gerrard had come on as a substitute when Liverpool got their winner.

Liverpool is often stereotyped as a sentimental city and the club as excessively emotional. What is certainly true is that this club has a keen sense of what is symbolically valuable.

Liverpool need someone to come through for them this afternoon. If neither Fernando Torres nor Steven Gerrard can be patched up, the vultures will alight on the Kop roof in anticipation of the kill.


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To pinch a favourite phrase of Rafael Benítez’s, here are some facts.

Liverpool v Manchester United: Rafael Benítez is told facts of life - beat Manchester United
Crunch tie: Sunday's game may decide how much more time Rafael Benítez is given at Liverpool Photo: REUTERS

It would cost Liverpool less than £5 million to dismiss their manager but there is no guarantee that either of the men who would jointly top a wish list of successors, Fabio Capello and José Mourinho, would rush to Anfield.

There is also no raging hunger for Benitez’s removal but defeat to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United on Sunday would quicken the appetite for change – and that’s a fact.

A flying visit to both training grounds on Friday, for audiences with Ferguson at Carrington and Benítez at Melwood, revealed the calm in the champions’ world and the tension scarring Liverpool’s.

If Benítez loses to Ferguson, if United fans throw around beach-balls and taunts about titles, all the attempted improvements behind the scenes will crumble to dust.

Rarely has a game at Anfield been so laden with significance. Despite Benítez’s team patently losing their way on the field, the club have actually gained some direction off it because of two individuals who care deeply about this fallen giant of a footballing institution.

Kenny Dalglish has performed many great services for Liverpool down the years, scoring European Cup winners and managing the team to Doubles, and now enhances his reputation as a local hero by striving to galvanise the assorted factions.

Dalglish’s job lies within the academy but his legend status means access all areas, means everyone listening to his wise counsel. His friend Christian Purslow, the highly likeable and financially-savvy managing director, has joined the Scot in working overtime to unite everyone from dressing-room to boardroom and terrace. The task is far from simple.

The spanners in the works, of course, are George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the co-owners whose continued presence at Anfield is a source of profound embarrassment and frustration for the Kop. Yet the loathed Americans draw some of the fans’ legitimate flak away from Benítez.

Before kick-off, Liverpool loyalists will march in protest at Hicks and Gillett, waving “In Rafa We Trust’’ flags when perhaps they should be asking why he has overspent on so many underwhelming footballers such as Andrei Voronin, Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena and Lucas.

Squeaks of criticism do slip out but the Kop seems largely behind Benítez. Even the anger that erupted over the manager’s bizarre substitution of Yossi Benayoun during Tuesday’s home defeat to Lyon seems to have dissipated.

“I can guarantee you that over the last two days fans were very supportive,’’ Benítez said. “I was in a big store and four or five fans came up and were all very positive — nobody was asking me about substitutes. 'Just beat United’ was their message. We have better fans than United.’’

As Benítez spoke, his eyes drifted up to an inscription on the wall, a eulogy to the Kop from Johan Cruyff.

“There’s not one club in the world so united with the fans,’’ read the Dutchman’s tribute. “A mass of 40,000 people become the force behind the team.’’ For a footballer who graced the Nou Camp this was praise indeed.

“For [20] years Liverpool have not won the league but the fans are always behind the team, always supporting,’’ Benítez continued.

“I remember Igor Biscan saying that 'if you work hard the fans will be behind you whether you make mistakes or not’. This is the difference between our fans and other clubs’ fans. Against United they will be 100 per cent behind the team, supporting and pushing.’’

So will Dalglish, sitting in the smart seats, intently following every move by Benítez’s men. “Everybody at Liverpool knows Rafa is the right man to get the club through this,’’ Dalglish said.

“No one is panicking. It’s very important that everybody sticks together to get through this. Of course it’s not good for Liverpool to lose four games in a row. The supporters feel it equally as badly as everyone at the club does.

"The players will need to stand up and be counted. For anyone who has any affiliation to Liverpool, then it’s time for them to rally round and channel all their efforts in the one direction.’’

Such words were greatly appreciated by Benítez, who pulled Dalglish to one side at Melwood on Friday to say “thank you’’, realising how such comments will lift his standing among any wavering fans.

“Kenny knows the club and the city, he knows the fans,’’ Benítez said. “When we brought Kenny [back] we knew we were bringing someone with this experience who could help us to stick together.’’

Four hours earlier, and 30 miles away, another Scot could be found calling for patience. Ferguson would rather go beagling with the press pack than leap to Benítez’s defence but he was willing to make a general point about managers under pressure.

“Look, in modern-day football the manager is always going to be the scapegoat, no matter what happens,’’ the United manager said.

“It happens time and time again. You see what has happened to Gareth Southgate [sacked by Middlesbrough]. You scratch your head at that one because he’s a young manager and he’s only had three years in the job. That is the climate we are in. Managers are always going to suffer.’’

Ferguson has never forgotten the calls for his own head in 2005. “You had me written off,’’ he said dismissively of the media. “I was past my sell-by date and should have been puffing on my pipe. I don’t take it personally because it is just the industry we are in. A manager is subjected to that.’’

Benítez remains safe but not because compensation is beyond Liverpool’s admittedly stretched budget. The maths are relatively simple: if sacked, he would be entitled to the remaining four and a half years of his contract at approximately £4.5 million pa, totalling £20.5 million, but this assumes he will not re-find employment before 2014.

If Benítez joined Real Madrid, a possibility next summer, and was paid £4 million a year, Liverpool would be liable for the shortfall, totalling £2 million under the “mitigating the loss’’ procedure. Firing Benítez would not be expensive.

The charismatic Mourinho, not enjoying the best of times with Inter Milan, would immediately be linked with the post. Capello’s reputation is immense but he remains committed to England. One thing is sure, if Liverpool fall behind tomorrow, the United fans will inform Benítez that he’s “getting sacked in the morning’’.

Unlikely. Liverpool’s power brokers have admired the dignified way Benítez handled last weekend’s reverse at Sunderland triggered in surreal fashion by Darren Bent’s shot clipping a beach-ball and wrong-footing Pepe Reina.

Stewards will frisk United fans for beach-balls tomorrow but such searches tend to be quick patting-down exercises, particularly with an impatient queue pushing to get in. And only Baldrick or Rodney would turn up with the beach-ball already inflated. Some will be spirited through the turnstiles and then blown up ready for launching.

United’s famous lyricists have certainly been busy, reworking Anfield’s anthem for an airing on Sunday:

“When you bounce on the pitch, Hold your valve up high, And don’t be afraid of the ball.

At the end of the match, Speaks a Spanish guy

Of the pure injustice of it all.

Roll on, through the wind, Roll on, through the rain, Though your form be tossed and blown. Roll on, roll on.

With air in your sphere, And you’ll never roll alone, You’ll never roll alone.’’

Visiting fans will also be wearing Eric Cantona masks and T-shirts proclaiming “18 titles — and that’s a fact,’’ a riposte to a Liverpool banner from 1994 that declared: “Au Revoir Cantona and Man United. Come back when you’ve won 18 titles’’. United have now, so the pressure really does mount on Benítez.

There is an awareness within Anfield that the manager lacks certain people skills, the much-discussed coldness. Benítez, more forthcoming than usual on Friday, was keen to paint himself as a leader who consulted widely.

“I talk to Sammy Lee, who has won a lot of trophies and knows the city. I talk with people outside Liverpool, like journalists in Spain or friends who played football in the past and have watched our games on TV. They may have another point of view and maybe I use it.’’

And English newspapers? Benítez’s eyebrows lifted slowly like caterpillars entering a hurdle race. “Do you think I would change something from reading the press? No! I am not reading the press.’’ Or paying attention to phone-ins.

“In England you have 60 million managers. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is right – after the game.’’

Benítez stressed that he alone knew the best way to motivate each individual under his command.

“Some need me to push them really hard, others need me to support them a bit. We have a better squad than people think. It’s a question of time.’’

Sunday may decide how much more time Benítez is given.

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FOOTBALL is a sport littered with quirks - and Liverpool will discover that once more tomorrow when they contest a game worth so much more than three points.

While a win against Manchester United would not be good enough to thrust the Reds back into the top four – they can, after all, only move their tally from 15 to 18 – there is no disputing it would disperse in a flash the storm clouds that have been gathering.

It has, undoubtedly, been one of the most difficult periods Rafa Benitez has experienced as Liverpool manager but there is little doubt that even this most pragmatic individual realises just what defeating their biggest foes could do for his side.

Impetus would be rediscovered, momentum would gather again and a feel-good factor that has gone missing after four successive defeats would be emphatically restored; you wouldn’t get the same sense of purpose, say, from beating Birmingham City.

Just look what happened last season: United arrived in town with a new £30m striker to lead their line and were expected to dismantle a team that had been robbed of its two most important players, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, in the days before.

Yet Liverpool roared back from conceding an early goal to win 2-1 and took so much heart from that performance that their unbeaten start to the campaign lasted way into November.

What’s more, it gave them the heart to turn around deficits against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic that had looked impossible, while they also won at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park shortly after flattening their biggest rivals.

So while Benitez - who will take charge of his 200th Premier League game as Liverpool manager on Sunday - knows a victory cannot take his team any higher than fifth, he is well aware that rewards in the long-term could be far greater.

“The main thing we took from last year is that we can win any game,” said Benitez.

“It was good to win away but we showed character last season to win without two key players; we showed character, quality and how important are the people we have behind the place.

“It is really important because we can change everything. We know the gap will be 10 points if we lose - or four points if we win. Four points behind them without doing really well would be a fantastic position.

“We have to approach the game with total confidence that we can beat anyone. The fans will be 100 per cent behind the team and the players will be so focused that it will be easy for me to give the team talk.”

If Benitez does happen to take three points off Alex Ferguson for a third game in succession, it would give him the second best tally of wins by a Liverpool manager (114) during their first 200 games.

His record is better than Bill Shankly (106), currently equal to Bob Paisley’s and only places him behind Kenny Dalglish (120) in the all time list; Ferguson, for the record, managed just 87 victories in his opening double century.

Records, however, have been the last thing on Benitez’s mind in the last few days. He’s been working away at Melwood, trying to find solutions as to why the wheels have come off in the past three weeks.

But rather than moping around, Benitez has tried to find the happy medium between disciplinarian and motivator to cajole a response from his embattled squad; what he has seen in return has greatly impressed him.

“I’m just thinking about how to change things,” said Benitez. “You cannot go to every press conference and keep talking about pressure, pressure, pressure. We have to have confidence in ourselves - and we are training well.

“We were doing the same before Lyon. We would have been talking differently if we had taken the chances we had when it was 1-0. But experience tells you that you have to keep going and doing the things you have done in the past.

“We were winning doing these things. Before the game people can talk but maybe after the game everything will have changed. If we beat United, next week I am sure the headlines will be different. Everything can change.”

Added the Anfield boss: “When the players are working hard, you cannot blame them for anything. We have had some meetings and we have analysed things. We know we are not doing well but we can see the reason why and the atmosphere is quite positive.

“When you are not winning some games in a row, you have to be careful and analyse things properly. You cannot be too negative. When I push the players, it is because I know they can improve. So the main thing for me has been the mentality.”

Benitez is not a man who will let a situation get on top of him and nor is his central defender Daniel Agger; the Dane knows the Reds have been poor of late but says there is only one way to turn the tide.

“We just have to carry on,” he pointed out. “We were not good enough against Lyon but we have to keep doing the same things. We have trained hard and have got to carry on. We have got to turn it around.

“Every footballer wants to win. We have got three points to play for against United and we really need them. There is always pressure at Liverpool Football Club but that doesn’t matter. We will go for the win.”

* TOMORROW will be Rafa Benitez’s 200th league game in charge of Liverpool. He has tasted victory on 113 occasions and the only Reds manager in history with a better record over that period of matches is Kenny Dalglish (120). Bob Paisley also had 113 wins at the same stage, while Alex Ferguson won just 87 of his first 200 in charge at United.

* LIVERPOOL did the double over United last season with a 2-1 home victory followed by a stunning 4-1 triumph at Old Trafford in March. It was the first time the Reds had beaten United twice in a league campaign since 2001/02.

* THE Reds’ win over United at Anfield last season was the first time since 1966 they had come from behind to win a league game against their fierce rivals.

* THERE has been only one goalless draw between the sides in the Premier League. That came at Anfield in September 2005.


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Liverpool are still lacking those special reserves

The depth of talent in Rafael Benítez's squad has never been so shallow

alberto aquilani

Liverpool's Alberto Aquilani comes on as a substitute during Wednesday's reserve win over Sunderland. Other than the £20m Italian, there was not much on show for the watching co-owner George Gillett. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

In football the word "crisis" is apt to roll too easily off the tongue. Portsmouth have had a difficult start this season and did not take a point from their first seven matches, but only when they were running out of money to pay the players' wages did they face a crisis. Liverpool are not in crisis, not yet anyway. It is just that they are experiencing so many problems coming from so many directions that they appear to be courting a crisis with the ardour of lovelorn suitors, complete with bouquets and boxes of Milk Tray.

Off the field there is the matter of the debt that Liverpool's US owners ran up buying the club and are now trying to restructure. But it is events on the field that have been talking up the latest prognostications of gloom and doom and refuelling speculation about the future of Rafael Benítez as the Liverpool manager.

Should Benítez's team lose at home to Manchester United tomorrow they will be 10 points behind the Premier League leaders. More pertinently, such a result would increase the doubts about Liverpool's ability to renew their membership of the Champions League by again finishing in the top four. Being relegated from Europe's richest tournament would cost the club almost as much as being relegated to the Championship. No parachute payments here.

As it is, Liverpool are in danger of having their progress in the Champions League end before the knockout stage after losing 2-1 at home to Lyon on Tuesday, a performance that confirmed the feeble impression left by their 2-0 defeat at Fiorentina that was followed by further losses against Chelsea and Sunderland. The excuse that they were without Fernando Torres and lost Steven Gerrard again after 25 minutes forfeited any credibility it might have had when Chelsea, still missing the suspended Didier Drogba, cruised past Atlético Madrid 4‑0 on Wednesday night, Manchester United having seen off CSKA Moscow with a polished display on an artificial pitch and despite the absence of Wayne Rooney.

In Benítez's five years at Anfield Liverpool have won one European Cup and reached the final of another. They have also won the FA Cup. But in the League, the winning of which used to be the club's raison d'être, Liverpool remain not-so-nearly men and on present evidence it could be argued that the depth of talent in Benítez's squad has never been so shallow. Compared to the ease with which Alex Ferguson's United team adapted to the plastic surface in the Luzhniki stadium, Liverpool could have been playing on broken glass against Lyon.

What is important now is how Liverpool react to their worst run of defeats for 22 years. Before Tuesday they had not lost four games in succession since the spring of 1987, when Kenny Dalglish's side were beaten by Tottenham, Wimbledon and Norwich in the League and Arsenal in the final of the Littlewoods Cup. The run cost Liverpool the championship, in which they finished runners-up to Everton, but the following season, having signed John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton from Watford, Newcastle and Oxford respectively, they regained the title while playing the best football seen from an English team up to that time.

Liverpool used to get over problems of form and bad results by pretending they had never happened or at least not dwelling on them, such was the strength of the club's structure on and off the pitch. In the early 70s Bill Shankly's side went goalless for five matches, the last of them a 0-0 draw at Wolves. After the game reporters approached Shankly to find out what had gone wrong with his attack. Shanks went white and backed away. "We don't talk about these things," he protested. "We never talk about them." The hacks were left speechless as well as quoteless.

By contrast Don Welsh, the manager at Anfield when Liverpool last lost five in a row, followed the boy scout code of smiling and whistling during all difficulties. The run occurred early in the 1953‑54 season that ended with Liverpool relegated after 50 years in the First Division. After a 3‑0 defeat at Arsenal had sent them down, Welsh breezed into the dressing room with words of comfort: "Never mind, lads, the reserves lost too." Some comfort.

Strange nobody asked Benítez about the Liverpool's reserves after the Lyon game. Not that he would have had much to say on the matter. What reserves?


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Defender swoop on cards - reports

Stoke's resolve to keep defender Ryan Shawcross is set to be tested with Liverpool preparing a big-money bid, according to reports.

The former Manchester United trainee was linked with a switch to Anfield in the summer as well as his former club, Everton and Arsenal. But 22-year-old Shawcross insisted the speculation did not affect him and that he was happy to stay at the Britannia Stadium, with a new deal thought to be in the pipeline. But the Reds' uncertain start to the season and a long-term injury suffered by summer signing Sotirios Kyrgiakos has increased the chances of Rafa Benitez attempting to make a mid-season swoop. Shawcross could cost a fee approaching the £10m mark which would represent a sizeable investment for Liverpool given their current financial situation.


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Squad sheets: Liverpool v Manchester United

Liverpool

Probable starters in bold, contenders in light. Photograph: Graphic

Despite a planned protest against the owners before the match, there will be a show of unity and determination at Anfield tomorrow once the game begins. Inside the stadium the fans' efforts will be directed solely against Manchester United. Liverpool did beat these opponents twice in the league last season, but the club looks to be in a decline steepened by injuries. United, in contrast, should be able to field a stronger line-up than the one that beat CSKA Moscow in Russia on Wednesday. Kevin McCarra

Venue Anfield Tickets Sold out Last season Liverpool 2 Manchester United 1 Referee A Marriner

This season's matches 6 Y20, R1, 3.50 cards per game

sportingbet odds Liverpool 7-4 Man Utd 7-5 Draw 21-10

Liverpool

Subs from Cavalieri, Gerrard, Babel, Skrtel, Voronin, Ngog, Spearing, Degen, Plessis, Dossena, Ayala

Doubtful Johnson (groin), Torres (groin), Gerrard (groin)

Injured Aquilani (ankle, 31 Oct), Riera (hamstring, 31 Oct), Kyrgiakos (knee, 31 Oct), El Zhar (hamstring, 31 Oct), Kelly (ankle, 9 Nov)

Form guide LLWWWW Disciplinary record Y13 R0

Leading scorer Torres 8

Manchester United

Subs from Foster, Kuszczak, Welbeck, Brown, Fletcher, Evans, Neville, Gibson, Scholes, Carrick, Macheda, Tosic, Rafael, Fabio, Obertan

Doubtful Fletcher (groin), Rooney (calf),

Evra (ankle), Giggs (thigh)

Injured Park (knee, Oct 31), Hargreaves (knee, Nov 3)

Suspended None

Form guide WDWWWW Disciplinary record Y14 R1

Leading scorer Rooney 6

Match pointers

• This will be Rafa Benítez's 200th league game in charge of Liverpool – if his side lose it will be the first time they have lost three league games in a row during his reign

• United have lost one of their last seven league trips to Anfield

• The last five league meetings between these sides in Liverpool have resulted in a a total of six goals, three of them in last season's match

• United have delivered the most crosses this season (232) but Liverpool have played the most successful crosses (55)


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Redkopi Discussion Panel: Four Defeats and Lucas

Up for discussion in this week’s RedKopi Discussion Panel;

  • Four successive defeats
  • The Lucas and Mascherano midfield partnership
  • Have we got the manager, the squad, the players, the spirit and the belief to secure a first Premier League crown this season

This week’s panel: Mark Broomy is joined by TIA columnist Tetteh Otuteye, Craig Rimmer, Matthew Watson and Sam Wanjere.

*************************

“For The Kop, though, this was not meant to be another year of hole-plugging and Scouse defiance. It was supposed to be the campaign when a 20-year wait came to an end.”

- The Guardians Paul Hayward

*************************

Mark: The River Mersey sits turbulent, discordant and raucous for another week. Not since April 1987 have Liverpool suffered four successive defeats.

We suffered our fourth Premier League defeat of the season at the Stadium of Light, a result that left Liverpool a distant eighth in the Premier League, seven points behind the leaders Manchester United.

Position

Team

Pld

W

D

L

F

A

GD

Pts

8

Liverpool

9

5

0

4

22

13

9

15

Matthew: “Beach ball or not, we were atrocious against the Black Cats on Saturday. We were totally out-muscled by a very resilient and organised side, who on another day, could have easily been two or three up by the hour mark. It was a nightmare, from start to finish.

BabelThe three at the back did not work. We looked all over the place at times and failed to create any real clear cut chances until the last ten minutes. It was a shame that the game was decided by such a freak goal, but that can be no excuse for what was an awful performance. Sunderland well and truely deserved the three points. A vast improvement needed.

Mark: On Tuesday night, despite Martin Kellys impressive full debut at right back our defeat to Lyon left our hopes of Champions League progress on a knife edge. Yossi Benayoun’s 41st-minute opener was cancelled out by substitute Maxime Gonalons and an injury-time winner from Cesar Delgado.

Sam: “To me, against Lyon, we had a much better game than the fare we’ve seen lately, and were in control for much of the match. Looking at stats from the Beeb, we had identical possession, identical shots (both on and off target, with six each!), and one more corner (6:5). We fouled more though, 11 to seven, suggesting we were either put under more pressure or panicked more.

Babel This to me the Lyon encounter was our best game in a while, with our youngsters shining on the night. All of Lucas, Insua, N’gog and the precocious Kelly did us very proud. Though not entirely back to his offensive best, I still thought Agger was solid at the back and will find his shooting boots soon. I didn’t feel entirely deflated and thought if we can play that way against the Mancs we will have a chance.

I express worry about our lengthening injury list but have optimism in our depth. Our Reserve players, alongside fringe ones like Voronin, might still help us hold the fort pending the arrival of our core axis (Gerrard-Torres) while Aquilani enjoyed a 15 minute run-out for the reserves on Wednesday night during our 2-0 win over Sunderland at Prenton Park.

We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves to be honest, and I have this gut feeling things are about to turn for a surprising finale to this season.

Mark: Despite recent results, one of the things that has impressed me the most this season has been the form of Lucas in the centre of midfield. Lucas has come under close scrutiny following Alonso departure. So far I feel he has proved he has a bit of everything, he’s young, he’s very calm on the ball, he is an excellent passer and he can also get forward. ”

Sam: “Is there a more maligned player on our team today? I feel that any “issue” with Lucas extends beyond “replacing Alonso”. The club’s going through a very difficult phase, with fans getting increasingly frustrated with the current state of play, and for whatever reasons its Lucas we’ve pinned our angst on.

We love history at Anfield so I’ll remind our fans about a number of things; on March 14 2008 Lucas contributed to our win over Man U (away), ironically playing in Alonso’s place. On April 14 his goal almost gave us another come-from-behind win in the CL at Chelsea. Despite our loss at White Hart Lane, Lucas was solid in central midfield. He hardly put a foot wrong against Deberecen at Anfield, constantly disrupting their play and finding Reds with his passes.

Tetteh: “Lucas has been pushed into the deep end this season and he has held his own. He’s gotten more physical, is better in possession, has made several crucial tackles and is growing with each match he completes for our team. He has showed tremendous mental strength to stay focused and maintain some self-belief despite a rough season last year where he was occasionally booed and sometimes unfairly singled out for blame in bad team performances.

I have been pleased that he has improved so much since last year, and although he isn’t a direct replacement for Alonso and has had to take many steps forward to fill that void, he has more than held his own – arguably our best player in at least one or two matches so far, and only pipped to the man of the match when Yossi scored his hattrick against Burnley.”

Mark: “His performance that day against Burnley was eyecatching. He had just returned from international duty with Brazil the day before that game and prior to our game he had to have an injection for a knock he picked up on international duty, however, he pushed himself through the pain barrier and turned in a brilliant performance. With Mascherano still in Argentina for treatment on his injury, Lucas played the holding role alongside Gerrard and frequently won back possession and spread the play intelligently

Matthew: “Before I start, I’d like to state that I am not one of the people who have consistently come on here and ‘slagged’ Lucas off, rain or shine. But the truth is he isn’t good enough.

There has been a slight improvement from him this season, granted. He seems to be getting more stuck in and timing his tackles better, but still, he offers very little offensively. He still jerks responsibility for me. He never seems to look or command for the ball. He just seems to hide at times.

Saturday was another prime example of this. Playing alongside an inexperienced player like Spearing and with the absence of key players, we needed him to stand up and be counted. He didn’t.”

Craig: “Whilst Lucas has undoubtedly improved this season and deserves credit for overcoming many of his doubters, I still feel that his game is perhaps too limited when paired with Javier Mascherano in midfield. I always felt that some of his critics were overly harsh on Lucas last season and that he was often used as a scapegoat when others equally performed poorly, although in fairness he did put in some poor performances last season. He is, of course, only young and playing regularly for Brazil at such an age must stand for something.

He likes to keep things simple and looks to move possession on quickly rather than keeping the ball, which can at times be a good quality. But, whilst his pass completion stats may be very good, he will very rarely attempt a risky or incisive ball and seems to desperately lack an attacking instinct.”

Mark: “He has been asked to replace Alonso so far this season when in reality he is perhaps better suited to fill in for Mascherano.”

BabelSam: “He’s more like Mascherano, in fact near identical. Same energy, prone to the odd bad tackle, but even then, more offensive. I feel that Lucas is best played alongside a different player, this season that player being Gerrard. Gerrard will do more offensive work, leaving Leiva to clean up alongside him, and protect the defense behind. I don’t think Lucas-Masche is working – at least as of now. But then again, playing Gerrard and Lampard together has confounded all until Capello showed up!

Craig: “I agree that Lucas is more suited to the ‘Mascherano’ role than the ‘Alonso’ role and the issue this season had been that pairing Mascherano and Lucas together has resulted in a lack of creativity and ability in possession from midfield. I don’t feel Lucas is creative enough to play this role and the recent defeat to Lyon was a prime example of this, with the Reds midfield lacking creativity and unable to gain an element of control over the game.

I feel that when Alberto Aquilani is fit there will be a choice between Lucas and Mascherano as to who will partner the Italian, and I can only see Mascherano’s defensive ability winning that contest.”

Matthew: “His partnership with Mascherano is too defensive and lacks creativity and control. You are right when you say that he is more suited to a ‘Masch’ like role, but we don’t need, nor want two players doing that role and Mascherano is on a completely different level to Lucas anyway.

We all know Mascherano’s role. He is the destroyer. His job is to offer cover to our defence and break up the oppositions play. Masch doesn’t offer an awful lot offensively, although this season he has improved in that sense with his passing and cross field balls that he has tried more often. I really do think that this has come on because of playing with Lucas. Maybe Masch feels he has to do this to make up for Lucas?

For me, the person who plays alongside him needs to offer something offensively to make up for this and help link up with our forward players. With Alonso we had someone who made us tick. He was a player who would always keep the ball moving and offered something creatively with his passing ability.

This season we have neither with Lucas. A steady player, but just not what we need. Aquilani sounds like the right sort of player, but lets just hope with all the expectation resting on his shoulders to deliver, he can do. Because, by god. We need him too!”

Sam: “Let’s also remember Lucas is only 21. He is a lot like Kuyt in character, with both going through a phase of doubt and criticism, yet hanging on to become team lynchpins. We can do with more of such.”

Mark: “Kopblog editor Gerry Ormonde recently commented “Lucas deserves a huge amount of credit for the effort he has put in and for never letting his head drop even when it seemed at times he has been surrounded by doubters”

Sam: “Regardless of what detractors claim, Lucas has been very consistent this season, with solid performances in just about every game I’ve seen. He gives 110%, works hard, never puts his head down (as has been observed by others), and just won’t quit.”

Tetteh: “Lucas still has his critics and still has a fair amount of improvement to make before he’ll win over some of his doubters. But his status in our team reminds me of the way UTD fans treated Darren Fletcher a few years ago when only Alex Ferguson seemed to understand why he was in the team. That trust from the manager was crucial and Fletcher is now a very important member of Uniteds squad.”

2009/10 Top Goalscorers

Player

Premier League

Europe

FA Cup

League Cup

Total Goals

Fernando Torres

8

--

--

--

8

Dirk Kuyt

3

1

--

--

4

Yossi Benayoun

3

1

--

--

4

Steven Gerrard

3

--

--

--

3

Glen Johnson

2

--

--

--

2

Ryan Babel

2

--

--

--

2

David Ngog

1

--

--

1

2

Mark: “Moving away from Lucas… Everyone at Anfield is determined to secure a first Premier League crown this season…… Have Liverpool finally got the manager, the squad, the players, the spirit and the belief to go all the way?”

Sam: “Do we have the right manager at Anfield? To answer this, it would be instructive to look at what our team is like (overall). If Rafa’s such a bad manager, why (as I’ve asked lots of times before) do players like Torres, Reina, Kuyt and Gerrard keep playing for him? Why is it that every season end he is linked with the giants of soccer, the Real Madrids’ and Juves’? Our squad lacks depth, which is as clear as daylight to the sighted. We lack strong alternatives at right back, striking, our wings, and all in all, lack personnel we can interchange in our favored 4-2-3-1.

Despite this, we keep overachieving – and again, all without having funds to buy the quality we need to go to the next level. Our current spirit reminds me of someone who’s made it in life having overcome inferiority complex earlier on. No matter what they end up achieving, there are moments they remember what they used to be and get deflated. We do act inferior at times to the rest of our competitors, esp. members of the Big Four. Our fans Jekyll and Hyde support doesn’t help either, abandoning the team (silence) when we’re down. This is an area we can definitely improve.

BabelBack to our manager, is he the right one? With what I’ve enumerated above, and plenty more, we’ve still been able to win a CL title, return to another final, win the European Super Cup and FA Cup, and push Man U all the way to the title last season. We’re yet to drop below fifth in the league (while consistently proving a handful in Europe), all without financial support from (non-existent) owners, and competing against cash-rich teams. I don’t see a better manager for us than Rafa. We will win the League, this year, the next or wherever. Our chief opponent isn’t from the Big Four, but from within us.

Craig: “This is the eternal recurring question which comes up every season. Liverpool came so close to achieving that elusive 19th title last season and there is a real sense among many fans now, considering the recent desperate form, that last year may have been a major opportunity missed.

The debate which has been raging this week has concerned Rafa – whether his time has come or whether he should continue. I don’t feel this is even really up for debate at the moment.

True this is a crucial time for Benitez to prove himself and is arguably the toughest period of his tenure in charge at Anfield. But Liverpool are not really in a position to be sacking established managers, with an apparent lack of money, resources and adequate replacements. Getting rid of Benitez would certainly result in us taking a step back further in the short-term and it was only a matter of months ago that everyone was lauding the manager for his achievements.

The club needs stability so ultimately the man in charge has to be considered the right man for the job. Whether he will be the right manger ultimately I guess only time will tell.

In order to win such a tough league you have to have a squad of top quality players. The Reds proved by coming so close last season that they do have some outstanding players, capable of winning major honours. However the recent injury crisis has served to highlight what many had feared, Liverpool don’t have the necessary strength in depth, especially when compared to the likes of Man United and Chelsea.

It is frustrating because Liverpool do have a very similar squad to last season and on that evidence they can be genuine title contenders. But I always felt that it was absolutely necessary that the squad was improved over the summer in order to move forward. This was’nt achieved; whether due to a lack of funds or a lack of nous in the transfer market no one really knows.

But the squad short in too many areas. Strikers are a prime example, Fernando Torres may be possibly the best striker in the world but others are needed to back him up and one really should have been signed in the summer. It is frustrating to see Peter Crouch, Robbie Keane and Craig Bellamy, three players who have worn the Red shirt in recent seasons, all performing well for their respective clubs. Whilst all departures had their reasons, surely at least one should still be sat on the bench at Anfield?

In terms of spirit and belief, I think last season provided the team with good experience and proved that many do have the resolve and belief despite narrowly missing out. However I feel that there is a chronic lack of confidence and belief in the team at the moment, which doesn’t help the poor form. I think there also sometimes seems to be a lack of leaders; perhaps trying to hold on to Sami Hyypia for another year would have been a good idea in hindsight.”

Tetteh: “I think we have what it takes to be involved right up until the end once again this season. But then again, so do UTD and Chelsea, and City are also looking somewhat dangerous. Arsenal are threatening to be a force to be reckoned with as well.

So although I believe we have what it takes to push our title challenge right up until the last couple of fixtures, I’m also convinced it’ll be one of the closest races in a very long time between more than just 2 teams. To win those kinds of races, in addition to the manager, the squad, the players, the spirit and the belief, you need a little bit of fortune, especially with injuries and the occasional close refereeing call that goes your way.

I’m hopeful we’ll lift the title this year, but it’s far too early to be either overly optimistic or pessimistic. So I’ll get back to you in February.

Sam: “A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are. In my time at Anfield we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool reserves.” Bill Shankly


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Liverpool’s Greatest… Goalkeeper

The secret of any great team starts from the back. As Liverpool found out when mounting a title charge in the early 2000’s – you cannot hope to win the title if you have a problematic keeper. Your keeper should have the respect of the rest of the team in their ability.

In the first of our series, several of Anfield Online’s contributors have each come up with their own choice for Liverpool’s Greatest Ever Goalkeeper.

Shortlist: Bruce Grobbelaar | Elisha Scott | Ray Clemence | Pepe Reina

Bruce Grobbelaar

Bruce Grobbelaar - spaghetti legs against Roma

Bruce Grobbelaar - spaghetti legs against Roma

For me, the greatest goalkeeper in my memory has to be Bruce.

Whilst growing up, he could surely not have imagined that one day he would play for England’s most successful team and lift the European Cup. Whilst an outstanding sportsman in several different domains as a boy, Grobbelaar was ultimately to sign up for national service in the Rhodesian Army. In the heat of the live action that he was to endure for two years, football was surely the last thing on his mind.

The then second choice keeper for the Vancouver Whitecaps was sent on loan to Crewe Alexandra, where he was to make 24 appearances, during which he was scouted by the Reds, who he would sign for in 1980. He had some huge boots to fill, with the momentous task of replacing Ray Clemence. Bruce not only did that, but went on to become a legend in his own right.

As well as being a tremendous shot-stopper, with an athletic, almost gymnastic ability, Grobbelaar was probably most famous for his outlandish character, with his quirky wit making him a fans favourite. On the field, however, Bruce was often seen berating his defence if he felt they weren’t playing at their best, the kind of passion and determination to succeed that made him loved by the Kop.

Grobbelaar’s most famous footballing moment is obviously the penalty shoot-out in the 1984 European Cup final. Between chewing on the netting, and his comical, wobbly legged routine, his antics were enough to put off the Roma strikers and help the Reds lift their fourth European trophy in just 8 years. This moment perhaps summed up Grobbelaar, with his mental strength and self confidence at it’s highest.

With over 600 matches for the Reds to his name, and a medal cabinet full to bursting point, Grobbelaar is an obvious candidate for the greatest keeper to have played for Liverpool.

Elisha Scott

Elisha Scott

One of our earliest legends and our longest serving player which span over two decades. (21 years and 52 days to be exact) Over that time he played in a remarkable 467 games for the Reds keeping an impressive 137 clean sheets which, currently, is the third most for any Liverpool keeper. His goalkeeping also helped Liverpool to back-to-back titles in 1922 and 1923, though these were the only pieces of silverware Elisha picked up during his time at Liverpool. There may have been more had his career not be disrupted by World War I.

As well as domestic success, he received a few international call ups while at Anfield. He was called up to represent the Republic of Ireland five times and a further twenty-two for his native Northern Ireland.

Elisha Scott – Liverpool’s greatest goalkeeper

Ray Clemence

Ray Clemence

There’s good goalkeepers and there’s great goalkeepers. But there’s very few who come close to Ray Clemence.

At just 18 years of age, Bill Shankly brought Clemence to Liverpool from Scunthorpe Utd in June 1967, but it was to be over a year until Clemence made his Liverpool debut. Having to ply his trade in the reserves, waiting to get in ahead of then, Liverpool’s first choice keeper, Tommy Lawrence, Clemence was given his chance in the League Cup against Swansea, September 1968. But it was soon a time of transformation for the reds and Clemence soon cemented his place as number one goalkeeper for the reds.

The 70’s were to be an important era in Liverpool’s history and it was Clemence who was to form the solid base for Liverpool to dominate at home and in Europe. Making his league debut away to Nottingham Forest in January 1970, it was from here where it all started for Clemence in the Liverpool goal.

Amazingly, Clemence only missed six league matches in the next eleven years. Picking up many league honours along the way and also being the first Liverpool goalkeeper to win the European Cup with the reds, these achievements paid testament to his abilities to keep the door firmly shut in the Liverpool defence. You only have to look at the 1978-79 season where Clemence only conceded just 16 goals.

The stats speak for themselves, but there was no denying Clemence was a huge presence at the back for the reds. Where other goalkeepers at the time would be shy of coming away from their line, Clemence wouldn’t hesitate to come out of his comfort zone and put pressure on the opposing strikers. A trend that is common these days. He was amazingly agile for a big man. He could jump, twist and turn in a flash and still pick the ball out of the air, away from an opposing player’s head, with extreme ease. Even with one hand sometimes. His reactions were instant and his awareness was as sharp as a razor.

There’s no surprise that when Liverpool were a force at home and in Europe in the 70‘s, Ray Clemence was a big part of the team. A true Liverpool great.

Pepe Reina

Pepe Reina

It’s still difficult to believe that Liverpool’s present keeper, and in my view our best ever, only cost us £6M when we purchased him in the summer of 2005.

After starting his youth career at Barcelona he spent time on loan at Villarreal before making the deal permanent after some excellent displays. It was from there that he was brought to Anfield.

His athleticism, strength and reactions have been there for all to see as Rafa began his revolution of turning the reds flaky defence in to the strongest in the country.

Soon after his arrival – Liverpool’s goalkeeping records started to change hands at rapid rates. By December he had kept 6 consecutive clean sheets in the Premier League – a new Liverpool record – and then went on to extend it to 8 games.

During this time he also broke Liverpool’s all time clean sheet record – going 11 games without beating beaten.

Before his first season was out he reached 50 games. In doing so he set a club record for the fewest goals conceded in the first 50. His meagre 29 beating his closest rival – Ray Clemence’s 32. At the end of his first season he was awarded the coveted Golden Glove award.

In the season finale of the FA Cup Final, Reina went on to save 3 of West Ham’s 4 spot kicks. Helping Liverpool to lift the FA Cup.

The next season he helped the reds to the Champions League final with two impressive performances in both semi-finals against Chelsea. Great saves in the games were only helped when he saved two of Chelsea’s three spot kicks in the second leg penalty shoot-out. At the end of his second season he again won the Golden Glove.

2008 saw a third consecutive golden glove, and he became the fastest Liverpool keeper to keep 50 clean sheets. Doing it in 92 games, three sooner than his closest rival. In 2009 he became the fastest keeper to reach 100 clean sheets – in his 197th game.

There is a lot to like about Pepe Reina. His enthusiasm, drive and desire are all Liverpool mentalities. Off the pitch he is said to be integral in helping new players settle in – and is one of the true characters of the dressing room. He may not yet have the medal haul of some of his predecessors, thanks mainly to the 10 players in front of him, but his raw natural goalkeeping ability helped Liverpool translate from a poor defensive side in to a much stronger unit in the four years he has been at the club.

For me, Reina IS Liverpool’s Greatest ever goalkeeper.


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RAFA BENITEZ today urged Liverpool’s supporters to give Alberto Aquilani time to settle after the Italian made his first appearance in a Red shirt.

Aquilani played the final 15 minutes of the reserves’ 2-0 win over Sunderland at Prenton Park last night and showed some neat touches

Having had to wait since August 7 to see him in action, the sight of Aquilani taking a step closer to full fitness following ankle surgery will have come as a major boost in light of recent results.

But as pleased as Benitez was to see his £20m man up and running after six months on the sidelines – his last appearance for Roma was on March 11 – he was also quick to sound a note of caution.

Though many will hope Aquilani can come in and solve a number of problems, Benitez believes it would be unfair to expect too much too soon from the 25-year-old.

"Always with a new player we talk about the problems they have settling down because the Premier League is very quick and it is more physical," said Benitez.

"So for a new player who has been injured, like Alberto, it will be even more difficult. It is a question of keeping him training and when he is fit, we have to support him.

"We will have to choose the right moments to put him on the pitch. But he is learning all the time and we are looking forward to playing him.

"But our fans are very clever and they know sometimes that a player with quality needs that time to settle down. He will need some time to get used to us, too."

Despite Benitez’s appeal for patience, it is inevitable that fans who are desperate for a lift following a wretched run of results will want to know when they will see Aquilani in the first team.

It would be a major fillip if he was involved in the squad for the clash with Manchester United this Sunday but the Carling Cup tie at Arsenal next Wednesday is a more realistic target for him to dip his toe in the water.

But it could be that Aquilani settles into the groove quicker than many expect, as Benitez says the Italian has been studying all aspects of the English game during his prolonged absence.

"Alberto is intelligent, he likes football and he has been watching our games," said Benitez. "He can see the pace is different here and the physical approach.

"But there is a difference between what you see and how you play but when he gets out and feels the atmosphere here, it will be something special for him.

"When will he play? It depends on how he is physically.

"He has got very good levels of stamina but now he has to improve his sharpness."To get match fitness, he needs to play games and what we have to do is analyse carefully which games is the best and how long he will play for."

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Benitez has board backing

By Chris Burton Last updated: 22nd October 2009

Benitez has board backing

Benitez: Under pressure

Liverpool co-owner George Gillett maintains that Rafa Benitez is the right man to turn fortunes around at Anfield.

The American insists that the Reds' Spanish coach is 'absolutely as good as there is in the business'.

Benitez has come under pressure of late following a disjointed start to the 2009/10 campaign by his troops.

The club have slipped to four consecutive defeats in all competitions over recent weeks, seriously hindering their domestic and European ambitions.

They have already fallen off the pace in the Premier League title race, while Tuesday's 2-1 defeat to Lyon on home soil has left their UEFA Champions League fate hanging in the balance.

That has led to calls from certain sections of the Liverpool support for Benitez to be relieved of his duties and a new man put in charge of stabilising the ship.

Agreement

Gillett, though, has no plans to take such drastic action, claiming that the current coaching team has the full backing of the club's board.

"We have just entered into a long-term agreement with Rafa," he said, recalling the improved deal Benitez signed in March to keep him on Merseyside until 2014.

"Our family is extraordinarily pleased with him, we believe he is absolutely as good as there is in the business.

"The run of results disappoints everybody. Certainly, it disappoints the fans and it disappoints Rafa.

"I have seen his television interview and I know he is disappointed. We are all disappointed, but we are in this together."

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Rafael Benítez's reign begins to unravel as Ngog is forced to walk alone

Liverpool's acute shortage of firepower is becoming unnerving for a club famed for its predators

Benitez Yossi

The Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez consoles Yossi Benayoun as he is substituted against Lyon. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

By rights a manager should not feel the breath of the mob on his neck five months after his team finished second in the Premier League with 86 points and two defeats but there was a sense at Anfield last night that Rafa Benítez's reign is unravelling – not fast enough for him to go the way of Gérard Houllier yet but with sufficient speed to strain his bond with The Kop and encourage Manchester City, Spurs and Aston Villa that the Big Four are finally cracking up.

A fifth consecutive defeat, against Manchester United here on Sunday, would erase Anfield's Premier League title hopes and move United closer to the day when they surpass the record of 18 league championships they currently share with the red half of Merseyside. Houllier was here to see the French club he once managed stretch Benítez's credibility to its most frayed condition since the great Champions League final comeback of 2005 seemed to mark him out as an inspirational leader who wore some of Bill Shankly's stardust.

The Liverpool script discourages apocalyptic readings of a run of bad results. The club's intimate acquaintance with melodrama suggests United might be impaled at the weekend and Benítez will wear his smuggest mask. But consecutive losses to Fiorentina, Chelsea, Sunderland and now Lyon speak of a deepening vulnerability. There are plenty of bit-part players in this Liverpool squad. If a rump decide that Benítez's power base is dissolving, then the small core of genuine match-winners and diehards will end up isolated. They cannot save Liverpool's campaign without help from the army of also-rans Benítez has imported to play alongside Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who are both struggling to be fit for the United game.

A shortage of firepower was last night's banner message to those in charge. Torres is the exception to You'll Never Walk Alone. The world's best centre-forward is doing pretty much that in a Liverpool squad agonisingly short of elite strikers. In the absence of El Niño against Lyon, goalscoring responsibilities fell chiefly to the 20-year-old David Ngog, who can count his goals for the great Anfield institution on the digits of one hand.

For the home of Ian Rush, Roger Hunt, Kenny Dalglish, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen to be so short of marksmen suggests someone in authority needs to stay behind for extra maths. The blame game between owners and manager always renders it hard for The Kop to identify the culprit but Liverpool are stuck with a manpower shortfall in a part of the team famed for its predators. This imbalance has burdened Torres and Gerrard with the responsibility to net goals at the pace Lennon and McCartney used to churn out songs.

There was no Torres in this Champions League Group E match and soon no Gerrard either as the captain hobbled off after 25 minutes. Ngog, meanwhile, had made only 22 appearances since joining from Paris St Germain in July last year and has looked wispy and fragile in top-flight action. Nor is his control immediately redolent of the top French finishing schools. At this point in his development he is too easy to dispossess to be a credible deputy to Torres. His night ended ignominiously with a hamstring pull.

The forward shortage is explained by the club's failure to replace Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane, the two big sales in that department post-Owen and Fowler. Behind Torres, who has scored eight times this season but is hindered by abdominal trouble, a merry cast of hopefuls have laboured to fill the menace-void. Those four consecutive defeats have cast an unforgiving light on the sharp end of Benítez's squad.

Beyond Ngog the options are Andriy Voronin (six goals in 35 appearances and a loanee to Hertha Berlin last season), Nabil El Zhar (one in 25), who is really an impact winger, Kuyt and Ryan Babel, who can play through the centre but is lost in the tundra of Benítez's displeasure. Frost forms on those Benítez considers to be inconsistent or unreliable.

For Liverpool to go into combat in 2009-2010 with only one top-grade centre-forward points to a bad tangle of politics, judgment and arithmetic. At least the £20m midfielder Alberto Aquilani is close to fitness and Javier Mascherano cannot be subdued forever. For The Kop, though, this was not meant to be another year of hole-plugging and Scouse defiance. It was supposed to be the campaign when a 20-year wait came to an end.

From last season's strong core Xabi Alonso has left, part of Mascherano is elsewhere and Torres and Gerrard are beset by injury. Anfield's best European roar was only briefly heard last night. Though Benítez is still popular, a faith-deficit has crept back in. The Kop know the value of finishers, of goal-getters. They ask where all the red ones went.


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Rafa on Lyon defeat

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez says he is very disappointed that his side couldn’t hold onto their 1-0 lead against Lyon on Tuesday night, ending in a crushing 2-1 defeat.

It was the Reds’ fourth consecutive defeat and the pressure mounts on Liverpool who next face Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday.

After the game, Benitez told press, “It was a difficult game for us, but we were winning 1-0 and had two or three chances that could have changed everything.

“We are really disappointed because it was a difficult game that we could have won.

“But we have done it before and now we have to do the same. We have to be ready for the next game and try to win, and afterwards the same with the other two games in the group.

“We have done it before and we have to have confidence we can do it again.”


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Rafa's midfielder patience due for reward

Alberto Aquilani is being considered for a reserves run out against Sunderland tomorrow but won't be ready to face Man Utd on Sunday.

Rafael Benitez's big £20million summer signing is in line to see some action at Prenton Park after coming through training this week without any problems. The Anfield boss has waited patiently for the Italian international to battle back from a summer knee operation and is on the brink of getting the 25-year-old into the first-team equation. "We knew that Aquilani could be out for a month," said Benitez. "But after seeing the scans we realised it would be more. But we were signing the player for five years, not just for five games." Aquilani is, however, not being considered for a first-team debut against Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.

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Why Liverpool FC should not let Sunderland's beachball goal lie

By Dan Kay on Oct 18, 09 08:57 PM in Journalists

REINAbeachball466x282.jpg

Let's get one thing straight for a kick-off.

Liverpool's performance yesterday at Sunderland was by far the worst of the season and surely one of the most insipid in Rafa Benitez's entire reign.

A two or three goal victory would not have flattered Steve Bruce's energetic side and serious questions must be asked (again) about the depth of the squad and particularly the decision to change the formation of the side when there had been no time to work on it in training because of the international break.

The old axiom about fate kicking you when you're down was illustrated in the moment just four minutes into the game when Darren Bent's shot was deflected past Pepe Reina, as the world and his wife now knows, by an LFC-branded beach ball which had emerged from the away end behind that goal shortly before kick off.

It is often said that the opening goal in a match, particularly one so early, can be critical, changing the entire complexion and atmosphere of an encounter and Sunderland swarmed all over Liverpool after their lucky break.

Liverpool still had eighty five minutes to salvage something from the match but weren't able to - and never really looked likely to.

The home side, and Bent in particular (I wonder how many Reds who sniffed dismissively when he was linked with an Anfield move are now drawing wistful comparisons between him and Liverpool's back-up striking up options), created a host of other opportunities to put the black and gold-clad visitors out of their misery and seal an impressive home victory to add to their point at Old Trafford two weeks previously.

But they didn't take any of them, meaning that freakish moment, which should haunt the clown who brought the ball into the stadium (did you think you were going to get on the pitch at half time for a kickabout?), decided the contest.

And while, as stated above, Liverpool's performance on the day got exactly what it deserved, the rules of the game state unequivocally that the goal should not have stood.

Sunderland boss Steve Bruce stated afterwards, "If anyone actually knew that rule then they are a saddo".

And he's right. Even a self-confessed football tragic like myself wouldn't have known that one before it emerged in the aftermath of yesterday's game.

But surely, as many of the refereeing fraternity have stated, one of the FOUR match officials on duty at the Stadium of Light should have known what to do.

Ten years ago during an FA Cup tie at Highbury between Arsenal and Sheffield United, the Gunners scored a goal after the visitors had kicked the ball out of play to get treatment for one of their own players who was injured.

Nwankwo Kanu, new to English football and unaware of the convention that the ball be returned from the resulting throw-in to the opponents, played on and centred for Marc Overmars to score.

Sheffield United understandably were outraged and after the game Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger graciously offered to replay the fixture which the the visiting manager that day was only too happy to take him up on (they ended up losing by the same score as the first game).

That visiting manager's name? Steve Bruce.

Rafa Benitez did well to keep his counsel after the game yesterday and not try and make excuses for his team's poor performance on the day.

But in the cold light of day, the fact remains that if the match officials had applied the rules of the game correctly, Sunderland's profligacy in front of goal would have earned Liverpool an undeserved but useful point.

If Liverpool miss out on the title (or, perhaps more realistically bearing in mind current form, Champions League qualification), how important might that point be?

One can only speculate how this scenario would play out if Manchester United were the team affected.

What I am fairly certain of is that they would fight their corner to try and ensure at least a fair hearing - and Liverpool must do the same.


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Rafael Benitez - Alan Hansen: Liverpool cannot afford to lose this week
Mind the gap: Rafael Benítez will be mindful of the points difference between his Liverpool side and the Premier League champions when they visit Anfield Photo: GETTY IMAGES

By next Sunday evening, they could be 10 points behind United and struggling to survive in the Champions League, but the real issue for Liverpool and Benítez is qualification for next season's Champions League.

As a manager of one of the 'big four' clubs, it goes with the territory that your job will be on the line if you fail to qualify for Europe's top competition and all the revenue that brings. And Liverpool are by no means a shoe-in to finish in the Premier League top four this season.

Manchester City and Tottenham arguably have stronger squads and you also have Aston Villa, who underlined their qualities by beating Chelsea on Saturday.

That is why this week is so important. Two defeats would be catastrophic because Liverpool's title hopes would be over and they would face a real battle to progress beyond the group stages of the Champions League.

If you have two games that define your season in April, then that's great. Two defining games in January wouldn't be so good, but to have those games in the middle of October suggests something is fundamentally wrong somewhere.

People keep pointing to the sale of Xabi Alonso, but I'd suggest that the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez at United were bigger losses, yet United are sitting at the top of the table.

Liverpool need a new ground and you can argue that there has been a lack of investment, but to be fair to the owners, Benítez has bought a lot of players.

Benítez has struggled in the £3-10m region, though, and players signed for those fees are an important factor. United signed Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra within that bracket and they have developed into two of the most important players in the league. Similarly, Arsenal appear to have done well with Thomas Vermaelen.

But Benítez hasn't done well with anybody in that price region. Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Glen Johnson have been good signings, but they all cost big money.

Over a length of time, you need four or five players in the £3-10m bracket to become great buys, but I don't see any at Liverpool.

We all know that they rely heavily on their two out-and-out superstars – Torres and Steven Gerrard – but whenever they are out, other players must step up and deliver and it isn't happening.

But the big problem on the pitch is that, six months ago, Liverpool looked rock-solid in defence, yet they now look so vulnerable. Benítez might disagree, but whenever a team changes its formation to accommodate three centre-backs, as Liverpool did at Sunderland, it's an admission that you are struggling.

The results will tell you that Liverpool have been leaking goals - 10 from set-pieces - and, with the way things are going, you simply cannot see them going unbeaten for 10 or 20 games. Unless they do that, they are not going to get back in the title race.

You can be sure the rest of the Premier League will not show any sympathy for Liverpool. The history and tradition of the 70s and 80s means nothing in 2009.

The mood around Liverpool at the moment is one of total and utter doom and gloom, but they cannot feel sorry for themselves even with the intervention of that beach ball!

While the picture will be bleak if they lose to Lyon and United, a win against the champions will close the gap on Sir Alex Ferguson's team to four points.

If that happens, Liverpool will be back in business, but they certainly cannot afford to lose this week.

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