Monday, May 21, 2007

Benitez Outlines His Priorities - Defence

When Carlo Ancelotti potrayed Liverpool FC as "a Mediterranean type of team", the response among some English headline writers was to assume the AC Milan coach was condemning his UEFA Champions League final opponents. However, in claiming Liverpool lacked "the DNA of the English", Ancelotti was not making mischief but merely offering his evaluation of the Anfield team's qualities. "Very organised and with an extraordinary capacity for concentration," he said.

Certainly, the accompanying implication that Manchester United FC were more technically gifted was never going to go down well on Merseyside but not even Liverpool supporters would disagree with where the capabilities of their side lie. A poll for the club's player of the year on the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo newspapers' website features a goalkeeper (Pepe Reina), three defenders (Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan and Daniel Agger) and a midfielder (Xabi Alonso) in the top five.

Reina was the evident hero of the Reds' penalty shoot-out victory over Chelsea FC in the semi-finals yet as the fans' vote underlines, the whole back line has been essential to Liverpool's progress. None more so than Carragher, the homegrown bulwark – and a player whose DNA could not be more English. His inspirational efforts against FC Barcelona in the first knockout round, leading the battle as Liverpool held on to their first-leg advantage, led Steven Gerrard to declare he "wouldn't swap him for anyone".

Full-back pair of Finnan and John Arne Riise, like Carragher, survivors of the 2005 final triumph against Milan as well as Daniel Agger, are just as constant. The 22-year-old Agger has had a remarkable debut season at Anfield, bringing greater mobility to the rearguard after stepping into the shoes of Sami Hyypia. The Dane's technical ability and composure allow him to get into forward positions and he struck the early goal at Anfield that erased Chelsea's advantage in the semi-final.

If you discard the 3-2 defeat Liverpool experienced at Galatasaray SK with Group C already won, they have kept seven clean sheets and conceded just five goals in their other eleven UEFA Champions League games, a rate of one every 204 minutes. This is how Benitez likes it - his Valencia CF team achieved nine shutouts in 13 matches on the way to the UEFA Cup in 2004 – and it helps explain Ancelotti's comparison with Manchester United, who shipped 13 in 12 outings. There is a confidence in the Liverpool camp that Milan will find it much tougher to break through their defence this time and certainly the way Benitez lines up his side with a holding midfielder in Athens – most likely Javier Mascherano – will bring the supplementary security against Kaka and company that they lacked in the first half in Istanbul, prior to Dietmar Hamann's half-time introduction.

The main question for Liverpool appears to be whether they can contain Kaka. That can only be answered on the field in Athens but at least the experience gained in 2005 should thwart a repeat of the flood of goals of two years ago. "This time nothing can take us by surprise," said Carragher. "Obviously we'd prefer to get our noses in front this time. We definitely don't want to make things as difficult for ourselves." Benitez would like it that way too. Asked by a journalist how he would respond if Liverpool conceded an early goal as in Istanbul, the Spaniard replied with a smile: "I would prefer another experience." Ancelotti, for one, would not be surprised if he got his wish.

LiverpooL Duo To Sign Long-Term Deals

Liverpool will not announce new deals for England stars Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher until after their Champions League final clash with AC Milan in Athens on Wednesday night.

Reds skipper Gerrard and Carragher are believed to be poised to sign new long-year deals with the club.

But Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry told PA Sport on Monday morning: 'Nothing will happen until after the final.'

Both players have spoken about wanting to end their playing days at Anfield, despite being able to buy out their contracts under new rules introduced by FIFA.

And Carragher said: 'I never want to leave Liverpool and I hope I can get my contract sorted out as quickly as possible.

'I'm not interested in this new FIFA rule where players can buy themselves out of their contract.

'I know it's there, but I don't know anything about it as it is something I wouldn't do.

'My ambition is to wear the red shirt for as long as I can and I'd be absolutely gutted if I ever had to leave.'

Last week Gerrard was just as unequivocal on his future, saying: 'I'm coming up to 27 years old now and hopefully I can sign a long-term deal that will see me having the best days of my career at Liverpool.

'Obviously it is all about whether you are good enough to be in the starting XI, but that is what I intend to happen now for the best years of my career.

'It is all now up to Rick Parry and the American people (new owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks), and manager Rafa (Benitez), when it actually happens.

'Talks are progressing well, and I am ready to sign a new contract any time. It is just around the corner.'