grant meets benitez

ESPN Soccernet Preview: Portsmouth v Liverpool

December 18, 2009
By Mark Lomas
(Archive)

• Live on ESPN 2 at 0745 EST

Seventeen wins in all competitions for Liverpool and they are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, with 38 points. That was this time last season but manager Rafael Benitez is facing a somewhat different predicament this campaign. This time around, Liverpool have won 11 in all competitions, are out of both the Champions League and the title race and are positioned in sixth place, ahead of Birmingham City on goal difference only. Benitez is desperate for a reversal in fortunes and will be hoping that Saturday's clash with Portsmouth can give Liverpool a platform to build on their midweek victory over Wigan.

Rafael Benitez, Avram Grant
GettyImages / AlexLiveseyAvram Grant is preparing to lock horns with Rafael Benitez again.

Portsmouth's midweek defeat at league leaders Chelsea was far from emabarrassing and Avram Grant's side were certainly not outclassed by the London club. Pompey could take plenty of positives out of the game and Frederic Piquionne's second goal of the season will have given the misfiring striker a much needed injection of confidence, as the Premier League's bottom club search for a second successive home win of the season.

Liverpool will welcome Fernando Torres back to the starting line-up to spearhead their attack, with the Spanish striker aiming to add to his three goals in two previous appearances against Pompey. Torres netted twice - including the winner - in Liverpool's victory in the corresponding fixture last season, as Benitez's side came from behind to win 3-2. Avram Grant broke Liverpool hearts when he knocked them out of the Champions League as Chelsea manager in 2008 with a 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge, but the last time Pompey beat the Merseysiders was in 2007, when goals from Benjani and Niko Kranjcar sealed all three points for the south coast outfit.

Portsmouth player in focus: Aaron Mokoena. As captain of South Africa, Aaron Mokoena will be proudly leading out the host nation at next year's World Cup finals, though his more pressing concern is helping Pompey stay in the Premier League. Versatile, athletic and possessing an excellent work-rate, Mokoena is tough in the tackle and will never shy away from a challenge. He will need to be on top of his game to protect the back four from the threat of Steven Gerrard emerging from midfield, but he has been one of Pompey's most consistent performers this season, starting 17 of their 19 games, and playing every minute of the first ten matches.

Liverpool player in focus: Yossi Benayoun. If the Israeli midfielder isn't baffled by Rafael Benitez's reluctance to play him on a regular basis, then the wider football world is. Many view the playmaker as Liverpool's key creative outlet but he hasn't enjoyed a regular starting berth under Benitez, though he has found himself more involved this season. He has the ability to pick a pass, run at players and often gets on the scoresheet because of his excellent anticipation when running from deep - he has netted hat-tricks for Liverpool in the FA Cup, Champions League and in the Premier League, against Burnley earlier this season. Benitez has started him in the past three league games so if he does so again expect the Israeli to be a danger man, capable of providing the ammunition for Torres.

Key battle: Tal Ben-Haim versus Fernando Torres. It seems an age ago that Torres started setting the Premier League alight with his goalscoring exploits, but on that warm August day in 2007, when the Spanish striker netted his first Liverpool goal, Ben-Haim was the man at fault. Then playing for Chelsea, the Israeli international centre-back was outpaced and outclassed as Torres ghosted past him to score the first of his 49 Premier League goals for Liverpool. Now on the cusp of reaching his half century, Torres will face Ben-Haim again. The defender brings a physical presence to the Pompey defence and is accomplished in the air but, then again, so is Torres. With speed not one of his greatest assets, Ben-Haim has the unenviable task of marking Torres and will undoubtedly have his hands full with El Nino, returning to Liverpool's starting line up, and searching for his 12th goal of the season.

Tactics: With Fernando Torres returning up front, Benitez will likely revert to the tried and tested tactic of playing Gerrard just off the Spanish striker. Despite scoring midweek, David Ngog will probably have to settle for a place on the bench with Yossi Benayoun starting on the left and Dirk Kuyt on the right. Balls over the top to Torres will probably be the order of the day although it was crosses that cause Pompey the most trouble in this fixture last season.

Portsmouth will be dreading the return of Torres, who seems to have a knack of scoring against them and Grant has some thinking to do, as he has a nearly full-strength squad to choose from. With Younes Kaboul free to return from suspension, Marc Wilson could be the man to make way after his mistake against Chelsea, with Grant opting for Ben-Haim instead. Frederic Piquionne will likely continue up front after scoring against Chelsea, with Aruna Dindane making up a physical frontline that will be expected to compete with Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel.

Fernando Torres
GettyImagesThe return of Fernando Torres is a massive boost for Liverpool.

Quotes: Rafa Benitez on Torres' return to Liverpool's starting line-up: "I told him I wanted to protect him and it would be good for me to play him at the end and he was good too. I think he will be ready for Portsmouth."

Portsmouth striker Frederic Piquionne on improving Pompey's fortunes: "I know the situation is difficult, but if we play like we did at Chelsea I think that we have enough quality to stay up. Hopefully things will be better in the next game now."

In the news: Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks revealed he is planning to sell the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball franchise in a move that could free up funds for the Anfield club. The deal would see the Hicks family retain a small share of the team. No price has been revealed, but it is estimated the Rangers could fetch up to £300 million.

Closer to home, Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez promised that the club will finish in the top four, despite their disappointing start to the season: "I have to have confidence in my team and I am sure we can do it because I know we are better than the team you are seeing on the pitch. I can guarantee we will finish in the top four.'"

Portsmouth team news: Apart from David James, who is still out with a calf injury, Grant has a full-strength squad to pick from, with centre-back Kaboul returning from the suspension he picked up after being sent-off for removing his shirt at Sunderland last weekend.

Liverpool team news: Albert Riera (hamstring), Nabil El Zahar (ankle) and Ryan Babel (ankle) are all still missing, while Glen Johnson, who missed the visit of Wigan on Wednesday, will almost certainly not be fit in time to face his former club.

Probable Portsmouth line-up (4-4-2): Begovic, Finnan, Kaboul Ben-Haim, Hreidarsson, Diop, Mokoena Boateng, O'Hara, Dindane, Piquionne

Probable Liverpool line-up (4-4-2): Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Insua, Kuyt, Mascherano, Lucas, Benayoun, Gerrard, Torres

Soccernet prediction: Portsmouth's mini-revival - a 2-0 win over Burnley and 1-1 draw with Sunderland - was halted by Chelsea on Wednesday and on paper it's difficult to look past a Liverpool win. Despite the Merseysiders' erratic form this season, the return of the Gerrard-Torres partnership should provide Benitez's side with enough quality to win at Fratton Park.