Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Welcome Break for Rafa's Men

By Gareth Freeman

Getting beat by Everton in the FA Cup could even be seen as a blessing in disguise come May. I know what you’re thinking, losing to the blue half of Merseyside is never a good thing but with the mid-week international fixtures and then the FA Cup at the weekend Rafa’s side don’t play again until February 22 when they face Man City.

With a relatively small squad and a shortage of strikers this break could be a vital boost for Benitez’s tiring side. The win at Portsmouth came at just the right time and kept the pressure on Manchester United, who didn’t look that convincing in their narrow 1-0 victory over West Ham.

Surprisingly there are no Liverpool players in the England squad that take on Spain on February 11, there are however, five Reds in the Spanish squad. Reina, Arbeloa, Alonso, Riera and of course Fernando Torres are all included in the line-up but as it is a friendly I don’t expect them all to play a full 90 minutes. Torres in particular has been struggling with fatigue and I expect him to play a part for Spain but I doubt whether Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque will risk injuring his star-striker.

Added to that the Spanish coach has chosen an in-form team rather than stuck with familiar names and he may wish to use Daniel Guiza and Fernando Llorente in attack at some point. Guiza plays for Fenerbache in Turkey so I imagine del Bosque will want to see how he links up with a squad who are in the vast majority based in Spain (or all play together at Liverpool). Llorente is a target man kind of striker and has only been capped once by Spain, the Athletic Bilbao forward has been in fine form this season and I expect del Bosque to utilize him at some point, which should allow Torres a rest.

The fact that Liverpool will enjoy the weekend off after the international fixtures should help Rafa rest his tired squad. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa will all have players involved in internationals and then face tricky FA Cup ties. Chelsea travel to Watford, Manchester United face Derby at Pride Park, Arsenal take on Cardiff at home and Aston Villa take on Everton. None of these ties will be easy and with the size of Liverpool’s squad a break from a hectic fixture list could not have come at a better time.

I’m going to end with a few football betting picks. I tend to avoid friendly matches when betting as, in my opinion, it becomes very hard to predict and you never know what side the managers will put out. There are a few World Cup Qualifiers though and I expect the Republic of Ireland - who have still not lost under Giovanni Trapattoni - to beat Georgia, while Northern Ireland should easily see of San Marino away. My final football betting tip for you would be to back the draw in the Arsenal Vs Cardiff FA Cup tie on Monday 16 February. Arsene Wenger’s side have faltered lately and I expect him to field a fairly weakened team in light of the fact they have fallen quite a way off the Champions League places in the Premier League and Wenger knows how important qualification to the prestigious tournament is.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Torres To The Rescue... Again

Portsmouth 2 (Nugent 61, Hreidarsson 77)
Liverpool 3 (Aurelio 69, Kuyt 84, Torres 90+2)

For the second time in two weeks, Spanish hotshot, Fernando Torres managed to bail Liverpool out and most importantly, mitigated the critics that were heading Rafael Benitez’s way.

After a tormenting midweek game at Goodison Park, the Liverpool manager made 6 changes to the line up, with 6 of his 11 players being defenders. The changes meant that a tweak in the formation was needed.

With the untimely injury of Steven Gerrard coinciding with the departure of Robbie Keane, Benitez was left with little options up front. Torres was deemed as fatigued along with Dirk Kuyt. So David N’Gog made his full debut in their places along with Ryan Babel.

On the hindsight, the two strikers didn’t inspire much confidence and were poor. It proved a point that it’s not really a good time to let go of Keane’s service. N’Gog had a hard time up against the colossus, Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin.

Ryan Babel, meanwhile, managed to miss an open goal in the second half. The Dutch striker have disappointed many this term, with little to deliver and frustrating to watch, constantly running into cul-de-sacs

Mere minutes later, Portsmouth took the lead through David Nugent, who’s a self-proclaimed Evertonian. He gave Martin Skrtel a real hard time the entire evening and managed to squeeze a shot past Pepe Reina.

Liverpool, always with the fighting spirit, got back on level terms through a bizarre chain of events. Eventually, Fabio Aurelio, who was deployed as a central midfielder, smashed home a free kick inside Portsmouth’s penalty box.

The Brazilian, whose natural position being a left-wing back, was seen playing in the Xabi Alonso position. And he never really look out of place throughout with several fine passes.

But he was helpless to see Portsmouth taking the lead again after Hermann Hreidersson headed home from a freekick.

With so much at stake, you just knew that Liverpool wouldn’t go down that easily. With only one loss in the league this season and several key comebacks, it seemed to be turning into a pattern.

The substitution of Dirk Kuyt sparked off a revival. He first created the chance for Babel to score from 4 yards out with an open net but his fellow Dutch totally took his eye off the ball.

Then he had the ball in David James’ net but was erroneously ruled offside.

But like a man for such occasion, it is of no doubt that somehow he’ll find the back of the net and he did when he pounced on a terrible mistake by Distin to smash the ball past James at his near post.

With 15 minutes remaining, Rafa Benitez decided that it is time and with desperate calls from the traveling Liverpool fans getting more audible, Torres was brought on to replace Babel.

With the crowd blaring out the catchy ‘Fernando Torres, Liverpool Number 9’ chant, the Spanish had little time to turn water into wine.

But being one of the most feared and clinical striker in Europe, he never disappoints and after finding his feet last week with two morale-boosting goals against Chelsea, he was hell-bent on rescuing Liverpool from yet another draw.

The brilliant Yossi Benayoun wriggled his way to the left flank before delivering a peach of a cross into the box. And make no guesses; Torres was on the end of it. Sent in at a perfect height, all he did was stood still and directed the ball past the despairing dive of David James.

He made it look really simple.

With Gerrard out for 3 weeks, most of Liverpool’s goals are surely going to come from Torres. It’s a little more comforting to know that at least he is now back on track, scoring goals and putting up decent performances.

Performance wise, again, not the best from the Reds. Although constantly in control, Liverpool looked toothless until the introduction of Kuyt and Torres. The change in formation also probably unsettled some players at first.

But it is encouraging to see Aurelio and Benayoun in such fine form. The duo stood out from the rest and deserves a consistent run of games.

Benitez and many Liverpool supporters, such as I, surely heaped a huge sigh of relief from this game. With Man Utd seemingly on a roll recently, any slip-ups now will surely deal a huge blow to the title bid.

With Chelsea fumbling and Arsenal out of contention, it seemed like Liverpool are the only team that have a minor chance of upsetting the bookies and critics. But Benitez will surely have to deal with the imbalance strike force.

And most importantly, a comeback is needed.