Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reina Insists Anfield Players Must Keep Heat Off Benitez

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina has called on his team-mates to help relieve the boardroom tension that currently exists at the club by continuing their superb recent form on the pitch.

The much-publicised spat between manager Rafael Benitez and co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which centres around the release of funds for the January transfer window, will come to a head this weekend when the parties meet.

Benitez can go into the talks armed with an amazing recent run of results - Saturday's defeat to Reading aside - that culminated in Tuesday night's stunning 4-0 win at Marseille which secured the Reds a place in the Champions League knockout stages.

That made it 25 goals in the last seven games for the Merseysiders, who are also well placed in the Barclays Premier League heading into Sunday's crucial clash with rivals Manchester United at Anfield.

Despite coming under fire for appearing to throw in the towel in the defeat at Reading by substituting the team's star trio, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher, while their was still time to mount a fightback, Benitez's position is surely not under threat after the other results of the past month.

And compatriot Reina has hailed his team-mates' ability to shut out the off-field issues and concentrate on what is happening on it.

"We have to respect the opinions of the manager and the owners," said the Spain goalkeeper. "But all we can do is go out there to play and win. We are trying to play as well as we can on the pitch, and not worry about anything else. There are always things happening. But two weeks ago, we said to ourselves we must focus on our play and do our best on the pitch. That's what we are doing."

The club's players and supporters have rallied around Benitez in his time of need and arguably made his position even stronger, despite his public slanging match with the Reds' American owners.

Reina has ultimate faith in his compatriot, adding: "The manager has a cold mind - he knows what to do at any moment. We have showed everyone that people must trust us in what we are trying to do, and in these difficult situations.

"We have a great team. Now we have to compete at this high level in the Premier League now and play another 'final' against Manchester United."

The thrashing of Marseille will go down as another epic European night for the Anfield club. Before Tuesday night, every English team who had come to the Stade Velodrome for a European fixture had gone home defeated - including Liverpool following a UEFA Cup fourth-round clash in 2004.

But the class of 2007 made a mockery of that record, dominating from start to finish in a Champions League masterclass.

Goals by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in the opening 11 minutes calmed any early nerves, and they made the most of some embarrassing Marseille defending to add further efforts through Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel in the second half.

Benitez's side had picked up just one point from their opening three games, but three straight wins, during which the team scored 16 goals and conceded just one, rounded off an ultimately successful Group A campaign.

"The pressure is always there because we are Liverpool and, with that, you must win every game," added Reina.

"We are favourites in every competition we play in and that brings its own pressure. It was a must-win game, but we knew it was in our own hands. Because of the situation we were in, it was one of our best games in terms of completeness.

"We played well going forward and were compact in defence. In the end, it was an easy game for us and we just have to keep this momentum going."

Liverpool finished second in their group and will now face an Italian or Spanish team in the last 16.

Reina, however, insists his side do not fear anyone in Europe, saying: "We know we will play a Spanish or an Italian team and it will be difficult. Playing the second game away will also be hard.

"But it is always a difficult competition and only the best can play in it.

"We trust ourselves - we have reached the final in two recent seasons, so we have to be one of the favourites."

He added: "We have beaten Barca, Juventus, Chelsea (in recent seasons). These have been difficult games and we therefore have confidence in ourselves."

Benitez lavished praise on his players for the manner in which they handled the pressure of knowing they needed a result in Marseille.

"They players have showed character in important games before and they have showed it again," he said. "When we lost against Besiktas and played badly against Marseille, I said we still had confidence.

"The team was still playing well in the league and scoring goals. That gave us more confidence. People are talking about how good the side is compared to last year, but we showed here that we can do different things.

"The performance was really good. We played compact as a unit, played well in attack, had our chances and did not concede."

The Anfield manager also claimed the impending meeting with the club owners has not entered his thoughts.

"I was not thinking about the meeting," he continued. "I must simply try to do my job. You could see the players, supporters, everyone was together. Everyone wants to win and we should talk about that, not the meeting.

"I am always confident - you can see that the players and supporters are happy, and this is good for the future of the club. I am not thinking about my situation every day, I am just thinking about my team and how they can improve."

Meanwhile, the Marseille coach, Eric Gerets, whose side failed to progress as a result of the defeat, admitted his out-of-sorts players were unable to cope with Liverpool's quality on the counter-attack.

"Every time Liverpool went forward, they looked dangerous," he said.

"I am really disappointed with what happened. We missed the game totally.

"I will wait to analyse the game, but it is fair to say it is the first time I have noticed that the players did not give 100 per cent."

Reds Duo Losing Fitness Battles

Liverpool duo Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso appear unlikely to make a return in time for Sunday's big encounter with Manchester United.

Liverpool pair Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso look set to miss Sunday's big game with Manchester United as they recover from foot injuries.

Though both are back in training, doubts over their fitness have resurfaced after Rafael Benítez failed to name either in the squad to face Marseille in midweek.

Lacking match fitness, it seems unlikely to coach will risk them in Sunday's big game.

Benítez found out the hard way that bringing back key players prematurely can do more harm than good - Alonso was put back in Liverpool's starting XI for last month's game at home to Arsenal, but like fellow returnee Fernando Torres he was forced to hobble off part-way through.

Alonso's creative output will be missed, but Benítez looks set to persist with Mascherano and Gerrard in central midfield following Tuesday's convincing showing.

Agger, meanwhile, has not appeared in a Liverpool shirt since the early part of this season, but given Sami Hyypia's recent string of impressive showings he might not be too sorely missed.

Torres Admits Second Not Best

Fernando Torres admits it would have been better for Liverpool to have won their UEFA Champions League group.

The former Atletico Madrid star scored a sensational goal as he helped Liverpool defeat Marseille 4-0 and book their place in the last 16.

Liverpool, though, could only finish second in Group A which means they will now face one of the teams who won their section and Torres says that is not ideal.

"It can be a Spanish or Italian team. All the teams are strong and to finish second is not the best," he told EFE.

"But it is all the same really, as we know that the level will be very high.

"Sevilla in the Champions League have been strong and Madrid and Barcelona are teams that aspire to win the whole competition.

Torres was pleased with his strike at the Stade Velodrome.

"I am very happy with my goal," he added.

"I think things are going very well for me and this goal has helped the team qualify and now we are in the next round.

"The game started at a very quick pace. It was not what we expected in the first ten minutes. The key to winning was to be able to play calmly and that is what happened.

"With Stevie's and my goal after only 11 minutes they knew it was very difficult to come back."