Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sheikh Wants Fans Backing

Dubai billionaire Sheikh Mohammed is waiting for the green light from Liverpool fans before trying to buy out US owner Tom Hicks.

As Mirror Sport revealed yesterday, Hicks is considering selling his stake in the club.

And while City sources indicate Hicks has placed a valuation of £1billion on the club, there is interest from Sheikh Mohammed, head of the Dubai International Capital group.

Dic were in £450m takeover talks with Liverpool last year, before pulling out when the board held out for Hicks in a £219m deal.

Now the Sheikh - full name Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum - who is worth £7bn, is interested again and could be welcomed by fans who voiced their support for boss Rafa Benitez and their anger at the owners on websites yesterday.

"Both Yanks can XXXX off if they sack Rafa," said one fan, with another adding: "These cowboys have taken a massive loan to buy the club. Where is the bloody investment?"

And a third suggested: "It would have been better if we'd sold to the Dubai consortium."

Duo Fighting For A Future At Anfield

Rafael Benitez wasn’t the only person fighting for his Liverpool future that emerged from Wednesday’s Champions League victory over Porto with their reputation enhanced.

For differing reasons, both Peter Crouch and Harry Kewell have found themselves mainly with their face pressed up against the window of first-team action at Anfield this season.

It has led to speculation they will soon be plying their trade elsewhere, Crouch long touted to be ushered out of the club in next month’s transfer window while Kewell becomes a free agent in the summer.

But the players were given reason for encouragement by Benitez yesterday that their Anfield careers are not so cut and dried.

Crouch is out of contract in 18 months and Liverpool have yet to make a move to offer the striker a new deal.

That has alerted a clutch of potential suitors, with Manchester City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson linked with a January bid for the England international.

But Benitez has dismissed the notion Crouch is up for sale and has challenged the forward, who scored the final goal in the midweek 4-1 win, to prove he deserves an extended stay at Anfield.

“Peter knows how to win a new contract,” says the manager. “He has to work really hard, play very well and score a lot of goals. So he has a chance to win a new contract because he can do all of this.

For now, though, we have to win a lot of games and then we will talk about his future later on. He does not play every game, but now with two games every week for some while he will get his chances to impress.”

Benitez adds: “I do not think it will be the situation that he will walk away for nothing in 18 months, that will not happen. For now, though, I just want him to score more goals.

“The key is for him to score, play well and be happy. Then we will have the conversation about a contract.

“We do not want to sell Peter, we are really happy with him. Players in top sides know they cannot play in every game, but you can see how important he is for us.

“Against Porto in midweek he and Harry Kewell were key substitutions that helped us win the game. We do not want to see any transfer movement involving him.

“I want to see Peter score a lot more goals for us, he is not for sale. He is a good professional, he is always ready and waiting for his chance.”

Crouch revealed this week that he will “do everything” to stay at Anfield, but Benitez has reiterated the player must bide his time as he jostles with Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Andriy Voronin for a place up front.

“In a top side you need good players, but they cannot play every game, that is impossible,” he says.

“Crouch is a key player for us, we do not want to sell him. But when someone is not playing every game other clubs ask about them. They will be trying to get close to the player. But we do not want to sell him, we want him here to help us win the title.

“Manchester City have done well this season, and they have some money to spend. But they will not have Peter Crouch.”

Crouch is hopeful of a start tomorrow for the visit of Bolton Wanderers, who have lost just one of seven games since Gary Megson replaced the sacked Sammy Lee last month.

The Trotters haven’t won at Anfield in the league since January 1954, but will be buoyed by their 1-0 defeat of champions Manchester United last Saturday.

And Crouch says: “Bolton will come into the game on the back of a great result against Manchester United. Not a lot of teams will beat United and they will be in confident mood.

“It’s always a tough game against Bolton and we know that we will have to be at 100% to get the job done.”

Kewell, meanwhile, is also in contention for a recall to the starting line-up as he continues his quest for fitness.

He played 55 minutes on his first league start in more than 18 months in the 3-0 win at Newcastle United last weekend and made a telling contribution as a substitute in midweek, creating the decisive second goal for Fernando Torres.

Benitez has revealed that any decision over Kewell’s future will not be made until next year at the earliest, a time by which the winger can open talks with clubs from abroad over a transfer.

But the Anfield manager reckons the Australian wants to remain in England and preferably at Liverpool – and will give him every chance to ensure that.

“The key for us is to keep Harry fit,” says Benitez. “If he is fit he is player who can beat players, create chances and score goals. He is important for us. We have nine games in December and we need all of our players.

“I don’t know when we will talk about his future. I’m not thinking about that. It’s important to see him training and ready for every game.

“We will have time and he knows that we will need to talk. But it will not be until after January or February, we will see, we aren’t exactly sure when.

“He’s not yet ready to pay a full game. I would sooner have Harry for 55 minutes at 100% than 90 minutes at 50%. He is training hard and trying to be ready but with our busy schedule he will get more games now.

“He is close to playing 90 minutes now, every week he is physically getting much better.

“I think Harry will be happy to continue here in England and especially at Liverpool.”

Boots Hold Key To Daniel Agger's Recovery

Daniel Agger could make his long-awaited return for Liverpool next week – thanks to a special pair of football boots.

The Denmark international has not played since the goalless draw at Portsmouth on September 15 after breaking a metatarsal in his right foot.

Agger was thought close to a comeback earlier this month only to complain of further discomfort in the same area.

However, the 22-year-old will train next week in a specially-commissioned pair of boots designed to protect the metatarsal.

And if Agger comes through training with no problems, he could be considered for next Saturday’s Premier League visit to Reading.

“I was talking with him this morning,” said Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez yesterday. “He is comfortable training in trainers but has had some problems with his boots. They are producing some news boots for him and I’m sure they will help him.

“It will be impossible for him to be fit for this week, but he may be back for next week if he is comfortable with the new boots.

“We don’t want to put a date on it. We just want to see how he progresses.

“But I don’t think he’ll be out for weeks. He can run and can kick the ball, but with the boots he felt something. He is training and doing more or less everything in terms of physical.”

Mascherano Holds Key To Rafa Benitez's Future

As Liverpool's American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett marvelled at Fernando Torres' goalscoring skills against Porto on Wednesday night, or more likely, pondered why a man costing £26.5 million could only beat the goalkeeper twice, it is unlikely that their eyes ever wandered to the stocky little Argentine furiously chopping the midfield wood, name of Javier Mascherano. To be fair, their £417 million investment in the club does not require them to appreciate the finer points of "soccer" nor to realise, which they apparently failed to do, that the 8-0 win over Besiktas last month represented anything special.

But if someone could have explained to them why Mascherano is as important to Liverpool as Torres and captain Steven Gerrard, even though he does his best work in their shadows, Hicks and Gillett might have a better understanding of the public attack on them by manager Rafa Benitez.

The owners, having allowed Benitez to pick their pockets for the best part of 100 million greenbacks in the summer, may regard him as cheekier than Oliver Twist for coming back for more so soon afterwards. Yet Benitez's call for new signings was really a singular plea for the permanent signature of Mascherano, who has blossomed from West Ham ugly duckling to Liverpool swan.

Benitez has a particular affinity for Mascherano, having spent four hours wooing him in January when he was on the point of signing for Juventus, which is why Rafa has pushed his luck to the point of losing his job. And though he now says he wants to kiss and make up with Hicks and Gillett, he is still a long way from being sure of staying as manager, even though fans from Norway and Ireland joined Scousers in singing his name in midweek.

Supporters regard Benitez as their most popular manager since Bob Paisley, though his outspoken attacks on Hicks, in particular, plus his veiled assaults on chief executive Rick Parry, have more a ring of Bill Shankly, who said: "There's a holy trinity of the players, manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques."

Benitez seems to share that opinion, a dangerous one because football has changed irrevocably since then and the men who pay such fortunes to the piper call the tune and the key in which it is played. Rumours that Hicks is already so disillusioned that he wants out can probably be discounted. "It's been a big misunderstanding blown very much out of proportion," Hicks said yesterday. "George and I are happy to see that it has settled back down.

"I am not selling any of my shares to anybody," Hicks added, emphatically denying a British media report on Friday that suggested he was planning to offload his stake.

Both he and Gillett, though, are entitled to ask why there is such a rush to sign Mascherano, who is under contract until May when Liverpool have first option to buy him for £17 million.

Mascherano himself says: "It's not my problem and it's not causing me a problem. But I think they [Benitez and the owners] have to be there trying to solve their differences because it's more important than my situation. I hope I will stay here but it's very important Rafa stays as the manager. I think he will stay. I don't think he and the owners have too big a problem."

In his apparently new conciliatory mode, Benitez wants talks with Gillett and Hicks before the scheduled meeting on Dec 16 after Liverpool's Premier League game against Manchester United at Anfield. One can understand his reasoning, not wanting the owners to make a decision on his future after what promises to be a critical six days of the club's season. Before the United game, Liverpool play their final Champions League group fixture in Marseille, where only victory will guarantee their place in the knockout stages and where defeat could see them miss out even on the UEFA Cup.

That would not encourage any loosening of the purse strings by owners who talk a good game about being in it for the glory and understanding the Liverpool tradition yet are not so old-fashioned that they do not want a return on their investment. Such is the pressure on Liverpool managers to succeed that Paisley, the most successful in their history, once said: "I was there during the bad times, too. We finished second one season." He actually finished second twice, something Liverpool have managed on only two occasions in the 17 seasons since they last won the title. Although second place now brings with it automatic entry into the Champions League, it has never been viewed at Liverpool as anything but something nasty you occasionally step into.

Benitez has funds of goodwill with the fans because of the 2005 Champions League win and last season's place in the final. He will ultimately be judged, however, on whether he can construct a side to win the Premier League.

Striker Peter Crouch, restricted to cameo appearances this season, can certainly not be described as the manager's pet but says: "It's starting to come good now. We are confident at the moment, so I am sure we will have a strong second half to the season." That is assuming he is still at the club for the second half.

As for Mascherano, he says: "I'm very close to signing for Liverpool and I want to play for them. It's possible in the next month there will be a meeting and everything will be resolved." If he were playing in the States, where players have so many consonant-riddled names that clubs spell them phonetically in their programmes, he would appear as MAS-KER-R-NO. But his hopes of remaining a Liverpool player will depend on whether Hicks and Gillett believe Benitez has spelt out his own message too forcefully for their liking.

Outlook Is Brighter For Benitez As Hicks Speaks Up To Heal The Rift

Liverpoool owner Tom Hicks last night broke his silence on the civil war at Anfield to give under-pressure manager Rafa Benitez a vital peace offering.

Hicks insisted he 'got along just fine' with Benitez and described speculation that the Liverpool manager might be sacked as 'unfair'.

The Texan's comments will be a huge relief to Benitez, who has cut an isolated figure in the last couple of weeks despite Liverpool going into today's match against Bolton unbeaten in the Premier League.

It will also delight thousands of fans who demonstrated their support for Benitez during the midweek Champions League win against Porto.

Hicks confirmed that he and fellow owner George Gillett will fly to England in 11 days — 48 hours after Liverpool's decisive European qualifier against Marseille — to discuss plans with Benitez.

On the agenda will be the fate of Javier Mascherano and Peter Crouch. Benitez wants to tie up a £17million deal for Mascherano as soon as possible while the owners would prefer to wait until the summer when the Argentinian's loan deal ends.

Benitez is also keen to resist a £12m bid from Manchester City for Crouch but may have to convince the money men, who are aware that the England striker has only 18 months left on his contract and his value will fall if he is not sold in January. Hicks was incensed by Benitez's petulant behaviour at a press conference 10 days ago when the Liverpool manager sulkily repeated he would be 'focusing on coaching and training'.

Benitez has since tried to mend the situation and last night it appeared his tactic had worked, with the straight-talking Hicks suggesting they could continue to work together.

'We get along just fine with Rafa,' said Hicks. 'A small difference escalated into a huge issue, which was unfair to Rafa.

'He has the team playing very well now. It has been a big misunderstanding blown out of proportion. I'm glad things have settled down.'