Saturday, March 13, 2010
Soccernet Preview: Liverpool v Portsmouth
• Live on ESPN UK on Monday, 2000 GMT.
Neither Liverpool nor Portsmouth can have expected the season to turn out quite so poorly.
Liverpool had been tipped to challenge for the title again after running Manchester United close last season while Portsmouth, although widely expected to struggle financially and battle against relegation, would have at least hoped to avoid the threat of a winding-up order.
Liverpool's problems pale in comparison, but failure to reach the Champions League could have devastating consequences for forthcoming years and the 2-0 defeat at Fratton Park earlier this season typifies the scale of the on-field problems.
After a miserable defeat to Wigan last Monday, Rafael Benitez told the press he wanted his players to stop blaming each other and to start taking responsibility on the field. There is an apparent malaise surrounding the squad that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later if Liverpool are to avert the potential "meltdown" forecasted by ex-Reds boss Graeme Souness.
Portsmouth continue to battle but, after Tuesday's 2-0 defeat at home to Birmingham and the nine-point deduction set to come as a result of administration, they are preparing for life outside the Premier League.
Liverpool player in focus: Fernando Torres. With his extensive injury problems this season, the Fernando Torres of recent weeks has looked like an imposter at times, but his quality is indisputable. He remains the team's most likely goal-scorer and, against Portsmouth, he will hope to restore some confidence around Anfield.
Portsmouth player in focus: Jamie O'Hara. The on-loan Tottenham man is a hard-working midfielder who has shown real determination during his time at Fratton Park and he has enough ability to provide regular danger both from open play and set-pieces.
Key battle: Dirk Kuyt v Nadir Belhadj. Kuyt is a hard worker on the right of the Liverpool attack and will be looking to shackle this pacy wing back to stifle any Portsmouth counters. If Belhadj is able to make regular forays forward, he could leave space at the back for Kuyt to exploit.
Tactics: Liverpool have often struggled for creativity this season but, with Steven Gerrard, Maxi Rodriguez and Yossi Benayoun all in contention to start behind Fernando Torres, it is likely that Rafael Benitez will keep his faith in the 4-2-3-1. Alberto Aquilani could partner Javier Mascherano in the defensive central pairing, which may help to spark more attacking moves. Portsmouth adopted an attacking approach in the 2-1 defeat against Birmingham with Danny Webber, Aruna Dindane and Frederic Piquionne all starting and Nwankwo Kanu coming on for Michael Brown in the second half. After a poor performance, it is likely there will be changes, but Avram Grant knows Portsmouth need wins rather than draws and may well use similarly attack-minded players in hope of another upset.
Quotes: Rafael Benitez on the 1-0 defeat at Wigan: "You have to be disappointed and I was really furious the other day. It's difficult to remember when I felt in such a way. This team has been doing well for a while but a situation like the other day is difficult to take."
Avram Grant admits the looming nine-point reduction is hindering the relegation fight: "I think when they are coming on to the pitch they want to win but, when you're always hearing about the nine points and this situation, we cannot do anything. We can still avoid relegation, but we need to know for sure what can happen. We cannot read every day that we are nine points down. Of course it affects the players."
In the news: At Portsmouth, the financial problems continue to generate headlines, with 85 staff redundancies during the week including executive director Mark Jacob. HMRC's challenge over the club's administration, though, was dropped.
Liverpool team news: Daniel Agger should recover from his knee injury while Fabio Aurelio could be an outside bet after his thigh problem, but Martin Skrtel is some way from a return.
Portsmouth team news: Kevin-Prince Boateng still faces several weeks out, but Aaron Mokoena, Anthony Vanden Borre and Tommy Smith are set to return for selection.
Probable Liverpool team (4-2-3-1): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Mascherano, Aquilani, Kuyt, Gerrard, Maxi, Torres.
Probable Portsmouth team (4-4-2): James, Finnan, Ben-Haim, Hreidarsson , Belhadj, Brown, O'Hara, Mokeona, Utaka, Piquionne, Dindane.
Soccernet prediction: Liverpool have consistently failed to impress this season even when results have picked up but, against the league's bottom side, they really cannot afford anything less than three points at Anfield. Home win.