"Champions League football has not been seen at Ewood Park since the prize-fighting prime of David Batty and Greame Le Saux."
Liverpool will aim to get back into the top four when they visit Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League on Saturday (November 3).
The Reds are unbeaten in the league this term, but sit as low as sixth in the table after 10 outings. A series of drawn games has left Rafa Benitez’s side with ground to make up on the early title pace-setters. Last week’s 1-1 home draw with leaders Arsenal was hardly a disaster in itself, but added to stalemates with Birmingham City, Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur in recent weeks it was not exactly the result that Liverpool were looking for either.
Tellingly for the Merseysiders, Saturday’s opponents Blackburn Rovers find themselves above the Anfield side in the current standings. A run of four straight Premier League wins has catapulted Mark Hughes’s side into the top five. An improving Rovers side are becoming a force, with the only major blot on their copybook for season 2007/08 so far being their surprise and rather early UEFA Cup exit to Greek side Larissa.
Liverpool will be without striker Fernando Torres once more. The Spanish international limped out of the Arsenal clash with damage to an apparently different adductor muscle to the one which had sidelined him before the visit of Arsene Wenger’s side. Joining the former Atletico Madrid star on the sidelines will be Jermaine Pennant, out for two months with a fractured shin, and Xabi Alonso who lasted 68 minutes of his comeback game last weekend before succumbing to his foot injury.
Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa are back to perhaps bolster the defence, an area which has palpably missed the still absent Daniel Agger. Sami Hyypia is expected to continue to deputise for the Dane, while Javier Mascherano has shaken off a back problem in time to be considered for a starting role in central midfield. Momo Sissoko has recovered from illness and also makes the 19-man travelling party, which also includes king of comebacks Harry Kewell.
Rovers are still without midfield nuisance Robbie Savage, aswell as his pesky sidekick Steven Reid. In addition striker Jason Roberts misses out, leaving Hughes likely to partner the hitherto impressive Roque Santa Cruz and Benni McCarthy. David Bentley returns from a shin injury to add a little creativity to the home side, while Aaron Mokoena could come back to strengthen the defensive unit.
While Liverpool need the points for an assault on the top four, the same applies to Rovers. They can leap as high as third should they win and other results go their way. Champions League football has not been seen at Ewood Park since the prize-fighting prime of David Batty and Greame Le Saux during the 1995/96 season, but the class of 2007/08 is building steadily towards that objective. If anyone is to break the cartel that is the top four then why not Blackburn, a side which possesses a good blend of attacking flair, ruthlessness in front of goal and defensive solidity? Hughes won’t be publicly talking up the possibility yet, but may very well see this fixture as one of the acid tests of his side’s credentials.
For Benitez nothing less than win will do, lest his side lose more ground on the Arsenals and Manchester Uniteds of this world. With those two meeting at the Emirates Stadium Liverpool have a golden opportunity to close the gap on one or both. A win would send out a clear message that they have the ability to get the results needed to stay in contention long-term.
History supports their claim, as they have beaten Blackburn on 48 of 118 previous occasions on which the two have met, with Blackburn winning 34 and 36 matches ending level. At Ewood Park the home side hold sway, with 25 wins to Liverpool’s 14 and a further 20 games drawn. Last season McCarthy’s 49th minute goal was enough to give Rovers all three points in their Boxing Day clash, but it was the Reds who finished the season with the higher league position.
Liverpool are a lot tougher to beat away from home these days than they were in the early part of last season, while a Rovers side managed by Hughes will never be a pushover at their home ground. All roads point to a draw, a result which will no doubt suit Rovers far more than Liverpool at this point in the season.
Verdict; Blackburn Rovers 1 Liverpool 1
By Stephen Orford
2 November 2007