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Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Benitez under gun as Mourinho speculation swirls


LONDON — Sunday sees the most significant day of the season so far. It is a time for football lovers to encourage the wife to go shopping, ensure the fridge has sufficient supplies and then sit back to enjoy a feast on the box.

Christopher Davies

The hors d'oeuvre are Everton vs. Liverpool, the main course is Chelsea vs. Arsenal and for dessert the Spanish el clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Who says you can have too much of a good thing?

The Merseyside derby sees Everton and Liverpool meet for the first time in many years with both sides struggling.

Liverpool, knocked out of the Champions League in midweek, is seventh but Rafa Benitez is "100 percent convinced" the Reds will finish in the top four and qualify for Europe's premier club competition again next season. A growing number of Liverpool fans and particularly outsiders are equally certain they won't.

Everton is 14th, only four points off the relegation zone. A team that has specialized in clean sheets has not registered a shutout in 11 matches, while the 3-2 defeat at Hull on Wednesday, which manager David Moyes called a "shocking" display, meant Everton has one win in 10 games.

Moyes has somehow overcome injuries to a small squad in the past to keep Everton competitive, able to rely on whichever team he sent out to be solid and spirited. But Everton is no longer overachieving and with little money available to him Moyes must hope that Phil Neville, Phil Jagielka, Mikel Arteta and Liam Osman can return sooner rather than later.

The Liverpool power brokers are adamant Benitez's job is safe, but the news that Jose Mourinho could be available if Inter Milan is knocked out of the Champions League will only increase the pressure on the Spaniard. Liverpool fans are, with a few exceptions, still behind Benitez, but never underestimate a derby clash to change local feelings.

Eight months ago, Liverpool scored five goals in two games against Real Madrid, this season it managed two against Debrecen, the doormat team of their Champions League group.

There will be more than three points at stake at Goodison Park as Super Sunday gets off to an intriguing start.

* * * * *

IF CHELSEA beats Arsenal, it will be 11 points clear of the Gunners, who have a match in hand. Mathematically that is not game over but it would effectively leave the Premier League as a two-horse race between Chelsea and Manchester United which was not what most expected last August.

Chelsea is the form team in England, probably in Europe, playing some superb football and able to grind out results when below its best. At its best Arsenal is breathtaking, but unlike Chelsea still has a soft underbelly as was seen in last weekend's 1-0 defeat at Sunderland.

A victory at Stamford Bridge would mean Arsenal is a contender again. Lose, and it will be hard to deny that the title, as it has done for the last five years, will end up at either Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford.

In Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, Chelsea possess arguably the most potent strike duo in Europe, playing in front of a midfield diamond that usually features Michael Essien at its base and Frank Lampard at its head, with Florent Malouda, Joe Cole, Michael Ballack and Saloman Kalou contesting the wide roles. Nicolas Anelka won the Premier League with Arsenal 11 years ago and now aims to make it a double with Chelsea. He said: "Winning it with Chelsea will be even bigger than when I did it with Arsenal.

"When I won it with Arsenal, I did appreciate it at the time. Sometimes you only have one chance in your life. I had this chance before and now I have a second chance to win it again. I have had a lot of time to wait to win it again in England."

* * * * *

CRISTIANO RONALDO plays his first clasico against Barcelona with Real Madrid at Nou Camp with Real desperate for revenge after last May's 6-2 thrashing by its rivals at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

The day after that humiliation Florentino Perez let it be known he was looking to return as Real president. When he did so, unopposed, Perez embarked on his £250 million spending spree which saw Real sign Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema among others.

Galacticos II have not quite hit the high spots yet, with the future of Manuel Pellegrini in question after some disappointing performances.

Gary Lineker, who is still a hero in Catalunya after scoring a hat trick in Barca's 3-2 win over Real in 1987, said: "You can't make a comparison with the Everton-Liverpool derbies or the north London matches I played in for Spurs against Arsenal where you have two teams from the same city and a split crowd. In Spain, you were playing in front of 120,000 people and there were no away fans."

The perfect dessert for a day that is unlikely to disappoint.

* * * * *

OVER THE past two seasons Portsmouth has sold every decent and half-decent player it could.

Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Sulley Muntari, Perdo Mendes, Glen Johnson, Lassana Diarra, Sean Davis, Silvan Distin and Niko Krankjar have all left Fratton Park along with manager Harry Redknappp.

Tony Adams, Redknapp's successor, was replaced by Paul Hart last February and the club's former academy director kept them in the Premier League. The fire sale continued making a profit of £50 million with chairmen and owners coming and going. At one stage the staff was not paid.

A combination of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger (an unlikely management team, admittedly) would have struggled to keep Portsmouth on the foot of the Premier League under the circumstances. Despite the asset, stripping Portsmouth has not played badly, losing by the odd goal on too many occasions, but it has not been disgraced.

Even so Hart was sacked this week and replaced by Avram Grant, who was appointed director of football at the South Coast club in October, but had been waiting for the necessary paperwork to be processed, allowing him to start work.

The switch to manager by the former Chelsea boss surprised few, but it will be interesting to see whether the Israeli is, as Portsmouth said "the man to keep us in the Premier League."

The bad news is that his first game in charge was against Manchester United on Saturday.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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