Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rafa Benitez: I Had To Protect Players For Tuesday

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez was in little doubt the penalty from which Reading scored their first goal should not have been awarded, because the foul was outside the area.

He was equally convinced his team should have been given a chance to score from the spot too.

“I think it was outside,” he said of the first turning point.

“Then it should have been a penalty for us.”

Liverpool, who have a very important week in prospect in the Champions League and Premier League, finished the game with Steven Gerrard on the substitutes’ bench - after Benitez decided it was time the captain had a rest.

“We knew it was tough, because some of our players were playing a lot of games in a row,” he explained.

“At 3-1 (down), you have to protect your good players.”

The Reds had several opportunities to get back in the match, and Benitez added: “It was a strange game. We had a few chances but did not take them.

“After some decisions which we didn’t get, we couldn’t change the result.

“The ’positives’ are no injuries and no yellow cards.”

Gillett Set For Marseille Showdown

George Gillett is expected to fly in to witness Liverpool's night of European destiny in Marseille.

The Anfield club's co-owner has made a surprise decision to be at the Stade Velodrome to see for himself whether Liverpool can pull off the great escape and force their way into the last 16.

Gillett and Tom Hicks were not expected on this side of the Atlantic until later in the week for their much-heralded meeting with boss Rafael Benitez, following the fall-out over the new American owners' transfer policy.

The pair were due to be on Merseyside at the weekend for the Barclays Premier League clash with Manchester United, but Gillett will now have the chance for a low-key chat with Benitez in the south of France first.

Gillett will hope to witness Liverpool's third successive group victory, this time against the French side, which will ensure a remarkable qualification for the knock-out stages few expected after the Reds' dreadful start to the campaign.

That included a 1-0 defeat by Marseille at Anfield in October, a result that eventually plunged Benitez and the club into a crisis few could have predicted, with the manager's own position under threat.

There has been a considerable thaw in the relationship between owners and manager of late, brokered by chief executive Rick Parry and Gillett's son Foster, who has been installed to work alongside Parry at the club.

Victory in Marseille would make serious talks later in the week far more convivial.

And Benitez is fully aware of the task against the French. Impressive home wins over Besiktas and Porto were largely expected, but a victory in Marseille in a winner-takes-all clash is a totally different matter.

The game has been reduced to a straight knock-out cup tie with the winners sure of progression to the last 16.

Marseille's boss Eric Gerets has spelt out how his own side will approach the dramatic tie.

He said: "We will fight to the death to get into the next round.

"We know Liverpool must win too, but our victory at Anfield was a big blow for them and it also shows that we can beat them.

"We really have not played any bad matches in the competition, any we have lost have been because of positional or individual mistakes by young players. Generally we have done well in this group."

The group is finely balanced with all four clubs having a chance of qualifying.

Porto and Besiktas clash in the Dragao Stadium at the same time on what will be a nail-biting night.

The odds favour the French club reaching the next stage because a draw, coupled with a Porto win, would send Marseille through due to their victory at Anfield on October 3.

If Besiktas triumph in Portugal then a draw would be enough for Liverpool. Then the Turkish side would finish as winners of the group while Porto, Liverpool and Marseille would all have eight points with the English side progressing by virtue of their superior record against the other two teams.

That would be a heavy blow to the French who must have thought they had the edge over the Merseysiders after that win at Anfield in Gerets' first game in charge, thanks to a Mathieu Valbuena strike 13 minutes from time.

It was their second successive victory and gave them top spot in the section.

However, since then Marseille have gained only one point - at home to Porto - and have lost their last two games at Porto and Besiktas by the same 2-1 score.

Benitez will attempt to send out a calm, controlled Liverpool for the vital tie.

He has a showdown with Manchester United in the league five days later, and a Carling Cup tie at Chelsea the following week.

Clearly a make-or-break spell for manager and club, but Benitez believes his players can handle the situation.

He said: "The players have experience of playing several important competitions at the same time so they will know how to handle this, they can do it.

"What is important is that we approach every game knowing we are playing well, we have confidence and then you only think about the next game when you have won the first one."

Benitez is hoping that Danish defender Daniel Agger will be back from a metatarsal injury to contest a centre-back role with Sami Hyypia, while Fabio Aurelio and Xabi Alonso are also in contention.

Champions League Exit Could Spark Fresh DIC Bid For Liverpool

Despite the tough talk coming out of Texas, Liverpool's long-term ownership remains in doubt and much could still rest on Tuesday's Champions League showdown in Marseille.

Tom Hicks, friend of George Bush and a man you just know Bill Shankly would have loved to work for, has rubbished suggestions that a breakdown in his relationships with co-owner George Gillett and manager Rafa Benitez led him to make it known in the City he would consider selling up.

Dubai International Capital, the state-sponsored investment company dramatically beaten to the Liverpool deal by Hicks and Gillett in February, would like the opportunity to show that they would have been the better choice all along.

For now, DIC are likely to maintain a dignified silence, but having conducted an investigation into who leaked sensitive documents which derailed their initial bid, they have watched events at Anfield with mixed feelings of frustration and vindication.

The £1 billion valuation Hicks has placed on a club he and Gillett bought for under £220 million is ridiculous, but if a more sensible price were set, a renewed DIC bid, led by Liverpool fan Sameer al-Ansari, would be a distinct possibility.

Reading 3 - 1 LiverpooL

Liverpool began their most important week of the season with a defeat at Reading which suggests the Barclays Premier League title will once again be heading away from Anfield this season.

Rafael Benitez's side must now fight for their Champions League lives in Marseille on Tuesday night before having their domestic credentials put under intense scrutiny again by Manchester United at the weekend.

Reading recorded their first victory against one of the so-called 'big four' thanks to a Stephen Hunt penalty and second-half strikes from Kevin Doyle and James Harper.

All Liverpool had to take away from Berkshire was Steven Gerrard's equaliser but referee Andre Marriner also had a big part to play in the proceedings.

The official - who had sent off Chelsea's Michael Essien at Derby in his previous top-flight game - appeared to have called the Reading penalty incorrectly and also failed to spot two occasions when Liverpool should have been awarded spot-kicks.

Liverpool should have been ahead in the seventh minute and it was a surprise when Fernando Torres, who had hit a hat-trick on this ground in a Carling Cup tie in September, could not accept a simple chance.

John Arne Riise's long-throw eluded Ibrahima Sonko as he jumped with Peter Crouch and the Spaniard was left with the simple task of slotting past goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann. Instead he allowed the American to parry.

Reading seized on the let-off and produced their finest 20 minutes of the season so far, attacking their opponents with the verve that had served them so well in the previous two campaigns but had been replaced by self-doubt during this one.

Their goal needed a large slice of fortune, however, as referee Marriner, having consulted a flag-waving linesman, called Jamie Carragher's felling of Brynjar Gunnarsson wrongly as the pair thundered to the brink of the Liverpool box.

There was no question that the Icelander had been impeded but replays suggested contact had been made just outside the box and Carragher howled his displeasure.

Hunt despatched the penalty with panache, however, and Reading continued to attack, with a Bobby Convey drive beating Jose Reina and only just clearing his crossbar.

Reading's previous frailties were not long in reappearing and Gerrard took full advantage to put his side on level terms in the 28th minute.

Torres eluded Sonko to take down a long ball and quickly set up his skipper with a sideways pass. Gerrard had little difficulty shrugging off Hunt's challenge to reach the box and slot past the exposed Hahnemann.

That deflated Reading but fortune favoured them again when Liverpool were denied a much stronger penalty shout than the one previously given to the hosts.

Ivar Ingimarsson's header straight to Gerrard not only surrendered possession cheaply but also allowed Torres to move swiftly into space and when Sonko stuck out a boot in the box he tumbled. But play was allowed to continue.

Andriy Voronin fired in a couple of snapshots from the right of the box as Liverpool ended the half in the ascendancy, but when Momo Sissoko went down in the box under yet another strong Sonko challenge, again no penalty was awarded.

Reading began the second period on the back foot and there was a let-off when Torres sent a diving header across goal after Nicky Shorey's error had allowed Crouch to fire in a cross from the right.

The home defence then made a hash of their offside trap before yet another penalty decision went their way.

Torres's trailing leg was clearly caught by Sonko and this time the Spaniard also appeared to have been hurt. Again television replays confirmed contact had been made.

If the home fans sensed it was to be their night, Doyle gave them concrete proof on the hour by sending a glancing header past Reina to put Reading back in front.

Gerrard had been booked for felling Hunt on the run and when Shorey swung in the free-kick the Republic of Ireland striker lost his marker to produce a slight but perfectly-aimed deflection.

Doyle then fired just over but again Reading were in luck when Gerrard saw a drive smack off the bar seconds before Harper made it 3-1 at the other end.

Convey's pass enabled the hyperactive midfielder to scamper clear of the defence and any fears the home support had that he would be unable to finish were wiped away by a cool side-step to get past Reina and a shot into the empty net.

Harry Kewell, who had come on for Torres, fired a good chance across goal and just wide at the other end.

It just was not Liverpool's day - as Crouch proved again in stoppage time with a drive that beat Hahnemann but rebounded back to the goalkeeper off a post.

Marseille Swayed Rafa'sTthoughts

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez admitted his mind was already on Marseille after his side slipped to a 3-1 defeat at Reading.

The Spaniard took off skipper Steven Gerrard and star striker Fernando Torres to make sure they were not ruled out of Tuesday night's must-win Champions League game in France.

Torres was hurt during the match but Benitez claimed he expected the former Atletico Madrid man to be available for a game that will go a long way towards shaping Liverpool's season.

Benitez said: "We were losing 3-1 and we knew it was really difficult so I was trying to protect the key players for the next game.

"We tried to change it with different players with pace and fresh legs. The Champions League is important. Marseille is the target now.

"Torres had a kick on his ankle so was at risk. He will be okay."

Benitez was convinced referee Andre Marriner had blundered when he had to make penalty decisions at either end of the pitch - awarding Reading one that appeared to be outside the box and denying his side two stronger shouts.

He said: "I am not happy with the decisions but we didn't take our chances and that was maybe the key. We should have had two penalties."

Reading manager Steve Coppell was determined to enjoy his side's first success against one of the so-called 'big four' clubs.

And he insisted his players deserved plaudits for their contributions rather than everyone focusing on Liverpool's shortcomings.

He said: "Wins now, because we are not having as many as last year, they are treasured. Any team in the bottom half of the table would say that. We fully intend to enjoy it tonight.

"For our penalty I would say it was more of a penalty than not. It's not fair to say we won a game but it was on a dodgy penalty - they played a crap team because they were looking for Tuesday's game and, PS: Reading played as well."

But Coppell, a boyhood Liverpool fan, made it clear he sympathised with Benitez.

He said: "In terms of priorities of the games this week I would say we were third (Liverpool play Manchester United next weekend).

"I don't want to put words into Rafa's mouth but Marseille has got to be the number-one priority."