Monday, May 14, 2007

Benitez Looking For Winning Combinations

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez admits he is fully intent on making the Reds genuine Premiership contenders next term.

Liverpool matched last season's third-place finish with a scrappy 2-2 draw at home to relegated Charlton on Sunday.

And on Tuesday they head to La Manga in southern Spain for a five-day training camp ahead of the May 23 Champions League final with AC Milan in Athens.

But Benitez knows that with the major influx of money from new owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett available this summer Liverpool must make a far better fist of their title challenge next time around.

Liverpool finished 21 points behind champions Manchester United and Benitez know that is not good enough.

"I am happy we finished third - it was the same as last season - but obviously we want to go better than that next season," he said.

"We aim to be contenders and we know we must improve, especially in our away form.

"I feel, though, that it is maybe only one or two games that make the difference. When you play against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal you must beat them."

Liverpool have got a shocking record in league matches against the big four rivals and that has again cost them dearly.

Benitez said: "If we can achieve improved results against the best sides that will make us very much closer to the top of the table.

"That in turn gives you a different approach to games; when you are 12 points behind maybe you think things are not possible.

"I have said all along that we are a better squad but other teams also spend money on new players and we must try also to improve the team. We must be closer and we must be contenders."

LiverpooL 2 - 2 Charlton

Robbie Fowler did not quite get the farewell Anfield game he wanted but relegated Charlton certainly headed into the Championship with some pride.

They led twice at Anfield through Matt Holland and Darren Bent, and only a goal from Xabi Alonso and a late penalty from Harry Kewell denied them an unexpected chance of victory.

For Fowler, taken off two minutes from time to allow him to have a standing ovation, the chance of that penalty - which he would have taken - fell to Kewell a minute later.

But Fowler still got all the praise he deserved after a goal-studded career, but Liverpool clearly had Athens and the Champions League final on their minds.

They got their own standing ovation from their lap of honour, boss Rafael Benitez's name ringing from the Kop.

But it was Fowler's day and he came back out after the parade for a solo ovation.

Fowler was named captain for his last Liverpool appearance at Anfield before his contract runs out in the summer, while on-loan Italian 'keeper Daniele Padelli made his debut, with both Jose Reina and Jerzy Dudek injured.

Kewell was on the bench while Bolo Zenden was given another chance in midfield to make his claim for a place in the Champions League Final on May 23.

Charlton defender Ben Thatcher returned following a ban, but Talal El Karkouri missed the South Londoners' last game before relegation with a foot problem.

Centre-half Madjid Bougherra made his full debut for the Addicks, and with on-loan Scott Carson unable to play against his parent club, Darren Randolph made his debut in goal.

The match was preceded by a noisy protest outside the main stand by Liverpool fans over the club's ticket allocation and distribution system for the European final. And there were banners on the Kop making the same point.

But the chanting to honour Fowler soon took over, only to be silenced when Charlton took a shock lead.

Zheng Zhi got the ball in from the right, and Matt Holland saw a stabbed shot clip Javier Mascherano, with Padelli beaten by the six-yard effort.

Alvaro Arbeloa should have equalised on seven minutes when Bougherra slipped trying to control a Jamie Carragher through ball. The Spanish defender ran on unopposed into the box, but put his shot wide from 12 yards.

Liverpool were dreadful, and Charlton got into a dangerous position again on 15 minutes, Darren Bent setting up Darren Ambrose, but the midfielder sliced wide.

It got worse for Arbeloa when he scooped another chance over the bar after Fowler had dummied a Zenden cross from the left.

Fowler scooped the ball over on the turn after 20 minutes, and Steven Gerrard saw a dipping effort following a Zenden free-kick also just clear the bar.

Liverpool's sloppy defending continued and Bent again got himself in a good position on the right, before squaring the ball across goal and away from the advancing Padelli. But Alex Song managed to send in a weak shot from eight yards that Steve Finnan deflected wide.

Gerrard, at least, was trying to take this game seriously and he ran strongly from half-way before presenting Dirk Kuyt with a chance from 18 yards, Randolph saving to his right.

There were more ovations for departees at the break, Dudek and youth team boss Steve Heighway, while Liverpool's FA Youth Cup winners paraded their trophy.

But it was Charlton a minute after the break who should have scored again, Zheng Zhi clean through but shooting hopelessly wide.

Charlton sent on Bryan Hughes for Ambrose after 51 minutes, and playing with a freedom not seen during their desperate battle for survival.

Six minutes later Kewell got into the fray, a direct replacement for Zenden, the battle between the pair to play in Athens clearly on.

Zheng Zhi then proceeded to miss with a six-yard header from Luke Young's cross. Liverpool then sent on Xabi Alonso for Arbeloa.

And Liverpool's two substitutes were involved in the 62 minute equaliser. Kewell crossed from the left, Kuyt headed down and Alonso lazily drove the ball home from 10 yards.

But Liverpool were soon behind again, this time when Thatcher's effort was half-stopped by Padelli, Bent crashed the ball home.

Randolph saved well from Kewell, Liverpool at last finding some urgency. Mascherano shot just over ahead of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's 81st-minute arrival for Charlton as a substitute for Lloyd Sam.

Fowler, twice, almost scored. Once he was stopped in his tracks by Bougherra when clear, and then he hooked over a Kewell cross.

With two minutes left, Fowler was given the chance to take a standing ovation when he was replaced by Peter Crouch. Anfield rose to their hero, Benitez likewise.

Sixty seconds later Bougherra handled in the box, but with Fowler now departed and losing the chance of a fairy-tale ending to his Anfield career, it fell to Kewell to fire the penalty home off a post.
By: Paul Walker, PA Sport