Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thousands March In Support Of Rafa Benitez

Thousands of Liverpool fans thronged the streets ahead of their team’s impressive Champions League win over FC Porto to voice their support for manager Rafael Benitez.

Amid chants of “Rafa is a Scouser” and “Rafa’s going nowhere”, the short march before kick-off was organised to show solidarity for the popular manager who is currently in dispute with the club’s new owners, leading to speculation he could be forced out.

Professionally-made banners and rudimentary homemade signs illustrated the strong sense of feeling towards the Spaniard.

“Rafa is God’s gift 2 Liverpool”, read one, while another likened a portrait of Benitez to Che Guevara.

The “Rafatollah” – a large framed picture of Benitez which supporters treat with reverence – also appeared.

Organiser John Mackin said: “We did this to display to Rafa, and to anyone else, that getting rid of him would be disastrous.

“The man is held in such high esteem by supporters.

“We were hoping for a couple of thousand people to turn up, obviously if it had been a Saturday afternoon we could have expected much more.”

Benitez has been involved in middle of a public row with LFC’s American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett over the club’s transfer policy.

There have been reports that his days as manager could be numbered.

However, the large crowds on Walton Breck Road outside the Kop stand last night were united in their admiration.

Holding a giant banner declaring “humility makes a great man twice honoured”, Norwegian supporter Howard Andresson said: “We made the banner because Benitez is Mr Humility and we don’t want him to go anywhere, we need him.”

Fan Paul Smart of Fairfield said: “Rafa’s got an unbelievable record and we just want to let the Americans know he can’t be sacked.”

Friend Mike Morris from Woolton added: “Benitez deserves our support for what he’s done.

“For Gillett and Hicks to get involved in Liverpool is great, but I think this should bring them to realise football in Liverpool has a whole different attitude to what they’re used to, and it’s not just about them negotiating with Rafa, but also about negotiating with us.”

Sean Taggart from Omagh said: “He has to stay.”

A banner unfurled inside the stadium at half-time read: “As always, we are focusing on supporting our manager”, a reference to comments recently made by Hicks declaring that Benitez should “quit talking” and focus on coaching the team – which prompted the Span- iard to repeat “as always, I am focused on training and coaching my team” at a recent press conference.

Liverpool’s dreams of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League were back on track last night after a spectacular 4-1 victory over FC Porto.

Benitez had said beforehand that Liverpool “must not lose” the vital group match.

Benitez: I Don't Have Any Personal Problems With Hicks And Gillett

Belated recoveries were not limited to Liverpool's Champions League campaign last night as Rafael Benítez took his first genuine steps towards repairing relations with the club's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

A fractious week inside Anfield ended with Benítez savouring the most emotional night of his Liverpool reign as supporters marched in support of the manager before kick-off and his players produced an ultimately impressive victory over Porto.

From a renewed position of strength it would not have been difficult for the Spaniard to reinforce his opposition to the transfer restrictions which had cast serious doubt on his future at the club. Instead, he made his clearest peace offering to the Americans, reluctantly accepting their revised work structure and insisting their relationship has not been irrevocably destroyed by his previous outbursts.

"I want to make it clear that I don't have any personal problems with the owners," said Benítez. "We were talking about some issues but it was nothing personal. I was not angry with them, just surprised. I was surprised with the situation in the end because I was trying to improve my club.

"OK, now I know I may have to wait but it was a strange situation. I was just trying to do my best for my club but I don't have any personal problems with Tom Hicks or George Gillett."

The Liverpool manager had suggested a thawing in the damaging dispute on the eve of the game but that merely extended to not aggravating his American employers any further.

He had previously infuriated the pair, and courted the sack, with two petulant public displays after their instructions to freeze his January transfer plans - an order that Benítez took as a lack of faith in his ability to bring the Premier League title to Anfield.

But last night he continued: "We need to talk in the future and we will see what happens then about transfers. This has never been about my ego, but it is my responsibility. I need to take care of my team, my squad and my club.

"It would be a lot easier for me to stay and do nothing, just pick up my wages at the end of each month but I want to be involved. We all want what is best for the club and I think the owners understand that."

Benítez's conciliatory tone was in marked contrast to his stinging criticism of the Americans following Liverpool's win at Newcastle last Saturday, and his insistence that he wants to remain involved in transfer policy, a requirement now handed over to the chief executive, Rick Parry, may yet prove a problem when the manager meets his employers on December 16.

Foster Gillett, George's son and appointed representative on the Liverpool board, was at Anfield last night to witness a fervent show of support for Benítez and his report home will certainly ease tensions with the co-chairmen. "This is not about me being in a stronger position at the club," added Benítez. "I think I am in the same position as before and we need to talk about the future and our ideas."

The possibility of qualifying for the knockout phase of the Champions League with victory over Marseille in France on December 11 will aid Benítez's reconciliation process as much as his post-match words. And the Liverpool manager was also keen to show his appreciation for those supporters who marched in his support before kick-off.

Benítez said: "I think this was the most emotional night I have had here because it is important to get through in the Champions League and because of what has happened in the last few days.

"It was not the most difficult time I have ever experienced, but it was strange. I was just trying to do my job properly and, at the end of the game, I enjoyed it a little bit. I want to say thank you to the supporters."

LiverpooL 4 - 1 FC Porto

Fernando Torres' double kept Liverpool's hopes of Champions League progress alive with a hard-fought 4-1 victory over FC Porto at Anfield.

The Spanish hitman struck in the 19th and 78th minutes, while Steven Gerrard netted a third from the penalty spot in the 84th minute and Peter Crouch nodded a 86th-minute fourth to set up a winner-takes-all clash in Marseille in a fortnight's time.

The Reds made a bright start and were unfortunate not to win an early penalty when Yossi Benyaoun tricked his way past two defenders and saw his shot strike the arm of Bruno Alves.

But Porto were soon on the front foot with Ricardo Queresma dragging a shot wide with the Liverpool defence backing off.

However, the Reds took the lead when Gerrard's right-wing corner finds an unmarked Torres and his downward header beats Helton from 10 yards.

But the visitors were level after 33 minutes when Przemyslaw Kazmiercak's cross from left picked out Lisandro Lopez and his header from 10 yards looped over Jose Reina to make it 1-1.

Torres had an immediate chance to make it 2-1 but he delayed too long in front of goal and the chance was gone. And as play switched down the other end, Lucho spurned a golden chance after racing through on goal, with his flicked effort trickling inches wide. There was another scare for Liverpool when Marek Cech's fierce left-footed strike is deflected onto the roof of the goal with Reina beaten.

After a more guarded start to the second period, Liverpool created the first meaningful chance when Torres cut in from the left and paid the ball off to Benayoun, but his first-time effort was sliced harmlessly wide of goal.

Liverpool continued to look lively with Ryan Babel causing problems down the right flank. Gerrard then flashed a shot just over the bar, Crouch saw penalty claims waved away, while Babel saw an effort hacked off the line as the Reds stepped up the pressure.

And their pressure finally told in the 78th minute when Harry Kewell's mazy run picked out Torres, who turned his man and curled a delightful effort into the far corner from just inside the area.

The Reds then wrapped up the win six minutes from time when Gerrard's free-kick into the box was handled by Igor Stepanovs and the Liverpool captain confidentally stroked home the penalty.

Crouch then nodded a fourth from two yards out with three minutes left on the clock to seal another great European night at Anfield.