Friday, September 07, 2007

Gerrard Declares Himself Fit For England

Steven Gerrard is winning his battle to be fit for Saturday’s crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel and has told Steve McClaren to count him in when he announces his team to the players today. The Liverpool captain is also more confident he will be able to figure against Russia on Wednesday as well.

The question of whether Gerrard will need a painkilling injection to play against Israel remains open, although it is more likely that he will need something to get him through the game. Nevertheless, he is still hopeful that the hairline fracture to a toe on his right foot will not prevent him playing in the second vital game against Guus Hiddink's Russia on Wednesday. It had been previously thought that playing him tomorrow would preclude him from the second game.

The news about Gerrard is a significant boost for McClaren who has already lost Frank Lampard for the Israel game and moved yesterday to allay the doubts over Owen Hargreaves' fitness. The Manchester United midfielder missed training on Tuesday and was, like the rest of the squad, given Thursday off. The Football Association said that it was common practice for the squad to have one day of rest in the build-up to an international double-header.

Gerrard's inclusion will not please Rafael Benitez, but McClaren has said right from the start of the week that it is a decision that will ultimately rest with the player himself. The 27-year-old has always been philosophical about the decision himself and would never play if he thought he was putting himself in danger of serious long-term damage. Having done some light training on Wednesday he now believes he is in a position to play his first match since Liverpool faced Chelsea on 19 August.

While the players took the day off yesterday, McClaren convened a meeting of his coaches to discuss the team that will play tomorrow. As has been his practice as England manager, he will leave it until today to make the final decision – the most crucial of which being his choice of goalkeeper. McClaren sees it as a straight choice between Paul Robinson and David James despite Scott Carson's recent impressive form for Aston Villa.

On the right side of midfield Shaun Wright-Phillips is expected to be selected ahead of David Bentley. The Chelsea man's recent form would give him the edge over Bentley who, while impressing in training, has not played for the senior England team and, as such, is viewed as something of a risk in such an important match.

McClaren played down the significance of Hargreaves missing training on Wednesday and said that a scan had revealed only a "small problem" with his thigh that he was hopeful would clear. "The thigh problem is not related to the tendonitis Owen has been suffering with in his knee," he said. "We're still hoping he will be available for Saturday, and he is definitely not ruled out.

"We'll give Owen as much time as we can before making a decision. He's a determined character and we know that he really wants to play. Naturally, we won't take any unnecessary risks with him though."

As for his strikers, McClaren is leaning towards the inclusion of Andy Johnson – who has figured more prominently alongside Michael Owen in recent training sessions – than Emile Heskey. Once again that is a decision that McClaren will finalise this morning although he has not ruled out a late change to a different system. Heskey said yesterday that he had enjoyed his return to the England squad. "It's good, I'm enjoying every minute of it," he said. "The lads have taken me in well again, so I'm enjoying it. I wasn't expecting it to be honest. I was on my way home from the [Newcastle v Wigan] game and I got the call. I was a bit surprised, but delighted as well.

"We've got a new manager, he was No 2 at the time, and we've got a lot of younger players. I'd never given up hope, but you know the situation with the national team, we've got so many good players coming through at the minute so he's got to pick from a lot.

"I'm that sort of player, unselfish who'll try my hardest and I think a lot of people see that in me. It's always been a joy playing alongside Michael. I've played with Michael since England under-18s so we kind of gelled then and it's taken itself through most of my career. It's been a joy to play with him, he's a brilliant player."

In contrast to England's long injury list, Israel have only one seriously doubt, although he is a significant one. Argentinian-born striker Roberto Colautti, Israel's top scorer with six goals in the campaign, looks like being replaced by Yaniv Katan. With an experienced back line, Israel will rely mainly on a solid defensive performance with Dudu Aouate of Deportivo Coruna in goal behind Tal Ben Haim of Chelsea and Beitar Jerusalem's Shimon Gershon in central defence. Arik Benado, who normally plays in central defence, will move up to a defensive midfield position, a role he played against England in March.

Rafa Has Made Me Stronger - Babel

Liverpool forward Ryan Babel has revealed how Rafa Benitez has worked with him to solve problems on and off the pitch.

New Liverpool signing Ryan Babel admitted that he has always been susceptible to pressure from the crowd, and struggled to handle fans turning against him.

That seems to be a thing of the past, though, thanks to Rafa Benitez.

"Rafa knows everything about me, down to the fine details," the Dutchman said. "Not just about my style of play, but my character too.

"He told me he had watched me play in an away game for Ajax, and it had struck him how easily I was influenced by the crowd.

"He saw how I was struggling when the fans turned against me.

"He could tell from my body language - I had unknowingly let my shoulders drop.

"But he told me that the abuse ought to make me stronger, saying the more the opposing fans swore at me, the more afraid of me they were."

Mascherano Hails 'Saviour' Rafa

Liverpool ace Javier Mascherano has thanked Rafa Benitez for 'saving his career' after the Reds boss rescued him from his West Ham nightmare.

The Argentina midfielder endured a miserable spell with the Hammers during the first half of last season, before Benitez swooped to bring him to Anfield in the January transfer window.

Mascherano has been a revelation since his arrival on Merseyside and he has put his success down to Benitez's influence.

"Rafa saved my career when came for me at West Ham where I was not playing," said Mascherano.

"He came to see me in London and told me that he needed me.

"In that moment Benitez said to me that I could play in a good team like Liverpool. I really couldn't believe it as I wasn't playing at West Ham and he came to offer to me to play at Liverpool.

"In the beginning I had some problems for getting adapted to English football.

"I had arrived at West Ham, another country and even without knowing the language, a different culture, everything was very difficult. I even knew that I was not going to play each time I went to a training session.

"Now I am in one of the most important teams of the world and I really feel good.

"I speak with Benitez and everything is much more easier. Rafa saved my career."