Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Benitez has big dilemma

RAFA BENITEZ has some big decisions to make in the next week or so.

Of course, the priority is the make-up of his team for the Champions League final against AC Milan.

But the dilemma for Sunday’s home finale against Charlton is: Does he pick a ‘squad’ team, or does he play some of the stars who will face the Italians, and risk injury?

While the Reds will want to finish third, it’s not the end of the world if they don’t and relegated Charlton will have pride to play for but little else.

In fact, if the truth be known, it’s a fixture Benitez could probably do without, but the manager also has to face the difficult decision of whether he plays skipper Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher for at least part of the game.

Both players missed the defeats at Portsmouth and Fulham. They are absolutely crucial to the outcome of the Athens showdown, so the risks of them playing might outweigh the benefits. But, come May 23, it would mean that the pair had not played a competitive game for three weeks – since the win over Chelsea.

The two recent defeats were disappointing and there is still work to be done to bridge the gap between the Reds and United and Chelsea.

That will be addressed during the summer but, overall, it’s been a more consistent season and Benitez has the complete backing of fans and the owners.

Finalists aim to set records straight

When Liverpool FC and AC Milan meet in the UEFA Champions League final on 23 May, they will have the chance to enter the record books for their respective countries as well as their clubs.

Currently Spain have won Europe's premier competition on eleven occasions, but with England and Italy one victory behind, one of the finalists can ensure that their nation joins Spain as the most successful in the tournament's history. Yet that is just one of the potential landmarks that have been thrown up by this second meeting in three finals of two footballing giants.

Milan's appearance in the final is a record 25th by an Italian team, five more than their nearest rivals Spain. But with only ten wins to date, reaching the showpiece has more often than not led to heartache for the country that holds the FIFA World Cup. The same logic does not, however, apply to the most successful club sides within those nations; Real Madrid CF have triumphed in nine of their 12 finals while Milan have prevailed in six out of ten.

England fall slightly behind their continental peers when it comes to final appearances and victories, though they tend to make bigger waves when they do contest the competition's climax. English teams have participated in 13 finals, eleven less than their Italian counterparts, yet they have the same number of wins. There is no better example of rising to the big occasion than Liverpool, who have lifted the trophy five times in six visits to the final.

Both coaches also know what it takes to prosper in the UEFA Champions League having guided their current sides to the ultimate prize once before. Carlo Ancelotti's men defeated Juventus on penalties in 2003 after a goalless draw, while Rafael Benítez's charges came from three goals down to win on spot-kicks against the Rossoneri two years ago. So with records available to both clubs, countries and managers, history really will be written when Liverpool and Milan renew acquaintances in Athens.

Benítez's men on £100,000 bonus to win European Cup

Liverpool's players stand to receive substantial bonuses amounting to £100,000 per man should they claim the club's sixth European Cup when they play Milan in Athens later this month.

The Merseysiders' new owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, will maintain the policy drawn up by David Moores' previous regime by making around £2.5m available to be split among the playing squad should Liverpool overcome the Rossoneri in Greece and claim their second Champions League in three seasons.

That will equate to around £100,000 a man, with the management staff, and Rafael Benítez in particular, also to benefit from a hefty bonus. Similarly generous financial rewards were offered to the playing squad two years ago when Liverpool overcame the same opposition in Istanbul.

Just as then, the club are simultaneously attempting to agree improved terms to a number of their first-team players - most notably Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher - though the contracts will most likely be finalised only on the team's return from Athens.

Benitez Eyes Gift Of Gaby

REAL ZARAGOZA defender Gaby Milito has pleaded for the chance to join Liverpool after they lined up a £10million player-plus-cash deal involving Mark Gonzalez.

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is hoping to make it third time lucky after two previous bids for Argentine centre-half Milito were rejected.

Milito said: "This is my opportunity to join a big club in Europe. Liverpool have a Spanish coach, which is very important for me."

Reds ace's future at Anfield - Benitez

Rafa Benitez has told Xabi Alonso he still has a future at Liverpool despite being on the bench for the Chelsea Champions League clash.

The 26-year-old's omission from the starting XI for last week's semi-final second leg win at Anfield has seen more rumours surface about his future with the likes of Barcelona having shown an interest in taking the Spanish international back to his homeland this summer.

However, despite Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard securing the central midfield places, Benitez insists Alonso has a huge role to play at the club beyond this season.

Alonso managed to score from the spot in the penalty shoot-out win against Chelsea to help set up a Champions League final clash with AC Milan in Athens on May 23, while Momo Sissoko, who was dropped from the side altogether, has also been assured about his future.