Friday, December 07, 2007

Rafael Benitez Wants His Players Fighting Fit For Marseilles

In dressing-rooms at football clubs up and down the country, the hottest topic of the moment is Ricky Hatton’s WBC welterweight title contest against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the early hours of Sunday, but woe betide any Liverpool player who intends to stay up until 4am to watch the action live on Sky Box Office.

With a critical Champions League encounter away to Marseilles on Tuesday evening, Rafael Benítez, the manager, has told his players that they cannot risk disrupting their sleep patterns by watching the Hatton bout. This may sound like a typical instance of megalomania from a manager who upset his players at Valencia by banning paella, ice cream and olives from the canteen at the training ground, but Benítez feels it is necessary. After their 5.15pm kick-off for the Barclays Premier League match away to Reading on Saturday, they will fly back to Mer-seyside and have a meal together before being sent home under strict instruction to get a good night’s sleep.

“We try to control these things,” BenÍtez said yesterday. “After the game the players will have dinner and we take care of these things. Some players need more time than others, but it’s really important to rest, especially in this situation, where we are playing late away and then away again soon after. I don’t think the players will be staying up to watch the fight. Anyway, they have DVDs.”

With a light training session planned at Melwood on Sunday before a 10am flight out of John Lennon International Airport on Monday, BenÍtez is determined that his team will be in peak condition for the challenges that lie ahead next week. With that in mind, he was delighted to report yesterday that Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso could be in the squad that travels to France after being given the all-clear to step up their training after being sidelined by metatarsal fractures, and that Jamie Carragher is fit to play at Reading, having recovered from a rib injury.

As well as the match in Marseilles, which they must win in order to guarantee their progress to the Champions League knockout stage, Liverpool have a crucial league match at home to Manchester United on December 16. Somewhere in the midst of this BenÍtez must also find time to sit down with Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., the club’s owners, in the hope of resolving the disagreements that have cast serious doubts about his long-term future at Anfield.

BenÍtez, fully aware how his position has been compromised by his recent fall-outs with the board, has been far more contrite over the past ten days as he has sought to repair his relationship with Hicks and Gillett, but he is eager to press his case with regard to strengthening the squad during the January transfer window. A new central defender to cover for Carragher, Agger and Sami Hyypia remains a priority, as does securing a permanent deal to sign Javier Mascherano, whose contract at Anfield expires on June 30.

BenÍtez antagonised Liverpool’s owners last month by negotiating a £17 million deal directly with Kia Joorabchian, the head of the companies that own Mascherano’s economic rights. Hicks and Gillett effectively vetoed that deal, feeling that BenÍtez was wrong to commit to such a sum, but the Spaniard is eager to impress on them the importance of securing a long-term deal for the Argentina midfield player, who, concerned by the lack of reassurances from the board about BenÍtez’s long-term future, is attracting rival interest from Barcelona and Manchester City.

“Clearly, I hope Mascherano stays here,” BenÍtez said yesterday. “We are talking now about this but I have confidence because he tells me he wants to stay. I am confident he can be persuaded to stay here. He is playing well and everyone knows he is a good player and there are not too many world-class holding midfielders around. He wants to stay, our supporters like him and we will try to keep him.”

Mascherano The Priority As Benitez Ends Rift At Liverpool

Rafael Benitez insists he will sign Javier Mascherano permanently despite growing speculation linking the on-loan midfielder with a move away from Liverpool.

The Anfield manager is upbeat about the prospects of completing a £17million deal for the midfielder but is fully aware he has no control over a third-party's ownership of the Argentine and any desire they might have to tout the player around Europe's richest clubs.

Mascherano, who caused West Ham so much trouble with his contract there, has a similar loan deal at Liverpool, the key difference being that the Anfield club's agreement is within the regulations the London club breached last term.

But that means Mascherano is now being linked with Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City, while Benitez's own attempts to buy the player were blocked by Liverpool's American owners in their well-publicised recent fall-out.

However, Benitez remains confident the 23-year-old will eventually sign a permanent deal at Anfield. He said: "Clearly, I hope Mascherano stays here. We are talking now about this but I have confidence because he tells me he wants to stay.

"I am confident he can be persuaded to stay here. When I spoke to Javier, he told me he wants that, so I have confidence that we will sign him.

"He is playing well and everyone knows he is a good player and there are not too many world-class holding midfielders around. He wants to stay, our supporters like him and we will try to keep him."

Benitez's renewed confidence could have sprung from what is a clear thawing of his relationship with Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The fact the Spaniard watched his reserves win over Everton earlier in the week, with Gillett's son Foster by his side, underlines that normal service has resumed.

Foster was installed at Anfield to work alongside chief executive Rick Parry, and it would be inconceivable now to suggest discussions about January transfer targets are not ongoing.

Mascherano, rested for last weekend's 4-0 win over Bolton, is now set to play a key part in a critical week that will define Liverpool's season. After Saturday's Barclays Premier League trip to Reading, Liverpool face a make-or-break Champions League tie in Marseille on Tuesday, where only a win will keep them in the competition.

The following Sunday, Manchester United visit Anfield, while a trip to Chelsea in the Carling Cup quarter-finals comes three days later.

Benitez will be boosted by the likely return from injury of four key stars for some or all of those four vital games. Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Xabi Alonso and Fabio Aurelio are all back in training and are likely to be involved at some stage soon.

Triple Injury Boost For Benitez

Rafael Benitez has been handed a triple injury boost with the news that Xabi Alonso, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio could be back for what promises to be one of the biggest weeks in the club's season so far.

The Reds boss revealed the trio are close to a return and added the club's medical staff will be assessing their fitness at Melwood on a daily basis. Jamie Carragher has also recovered from his bruised ribs and is line to play at Reading on Saturday.

"Alonso trained today and is very close to a return. Agger is closer as well and Fabio could be back," commented Benitez.

"Carra is okay and he can play at the weekend."

Despite crunch matches coming up against Marseille and Manchester United, Benitez is adamant his players will be fully focused on keeping up the pressure at the top of the table when they visit Reading this weekend.

Having scored 21 goals in their last five matches Liverpool are in a rich vein of form, and the boss admits he would be more than happy with a repeat of the scoreline that saw Fernando Torres fire a hat-trick in the Carling Cup tie back in September.

"I always think of one game at a time and the players know how important this match at Reading is," added the Reds boss.

"We need to be focused in every game and we want to keep the pressure up on the other teams.

"We have experience against Reading. I remember when we won 4-2 at Reading in the Carling Cup this season and people said it was an easy game. It wasn't. I remember watching the video of the game after the game and they gave us some problems, and it won't be easy. It will be a tough game against a side with a very good team spirit."