Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rafa Benitez Pins Hopes On Gerrard & Torres

Rafael Benitez prefers to call it "changing" rather than "rotating", but he now accepts that two of his players need to be deployed almost without break if Liverpool are to challenge for the Premier League title. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are simply indispensable.

Torres's glorious solo goal and Gerrard's swashbuckling winner at Derby on Boxing Day encapsulated the strengths and weaknesses of Liverpool's struggle to become English champions for the first time in 18 years. Even Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea must covet the Spanish striker and the Anfield captain, yet few of their colleagues would merit a regular place with the other three members of the Big Four.

Liverpool go to Manchester City today clinging to the coattails of the familiar front-runners and Benitez, though still an advocate of the squad system, acknowledged that Gerrard, 27, and Torres were fundamental to his club's ambitions.

"If Torres is not injured and Gerrard is not injured, you can maybe do a fantastic season," Benitez said. "You need some luck and also to change players at the right moment. The first year I was here Gerrard was injured for three months. The second year he scored 23 goals and we finished with 82 points.

"When you have three or four days between matches and you are a 23-year-old like Torres, it is easy to keep playing. For Gerrard, too."

Benitez was fortunate to inherit Gerrard's phenomenal capabilities, but takes the credit for signing Torres when other leading clubs, notably United, prevaricated. They knew he had good control and pace, but questioned whether he would score enough goals to justify the investment. Fifteen so far this season seems an emphatic response.

Benitez never doubted Torres had the attributes and application to succeed where others, including his countryman, Fernando Morientes, failed. "Maybe Torres has surprised other clubs because they were saying he would be signing for them," Benitez said. "But the first time I talked to him about coming here he was very clear - he wanted to come right away.

"He is a Spanish player who has come to a team with a Spanish manager and some Spanish speaking team-mates. It can be difficult for a manager to explain what he wants, but I tell him in Spanish and can explain things that maybe others couldn't. It is not the same to go through a translator.

"Torres will get better because he wants to improve. His mentality is good. If you tell him he needs to work hard, he works harder. If you need him to stay and practice after training, he stays and practices.

"When we signed Morientes his mentality was really good. I was looking for a player good in the air and a target man. But Morientes couldn't handle it physically. Torres can. He is quick and strong. And he's younger."

Agger Set For Liverpool Recall In Clash With Manchester City

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is set to recall Daniel Agger if Sami Hyypia fails to recover in time to feature at Manchester City on Sunday.

Denmark international Agger, who started the season in central defence alongside Jamie Carragher, has been sidelined since September with a foot problem.

But with veteran Hyypia struggling with an ankle injury sustained in the 2-1 win at Derby on Boxing Day, the 23-year-old could start at Eastlands.

Benitez said: "It will be difficult for Sami. He is working hard with the physios and we are waiting to see whether he will be available. We will have to wait and see.

"If Sami doesn't play then we can think about using Daniel. He is training and is very close now."

Liverpool go into this match 11 points behind leaders Arsenal but with two games in hand.

Although they will have two games in hand over Sir Alex Ferguson's side, Benitez admits his side can afford no slip-ups.

He added: "It will be a really difficult game because they have a fantastic record at home.

"They have a manager with experience and good players who work really hard.

"As always though we have confidence. Our away form has been good this season and we are looking for that to continue on Sunday.

"It's important for us to just keep winning. Other teams around us have been dropping points and if we win matches then at the end of this period we can have a look at the league table and see how things stand.

"Our season has not been bad, but it could be better. We are in a good position. It could be better, but the best of us is still to come."

City boss Sven-Goran Eriksson admits the game will hinge on whether his team can stop Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard.

Eriksson's side dropped Premiership points for the first time at home this season with a 2-2 draw with Blackburn on Thursday night but they could move above the Reds with a victory over Benitez's men.

But Eriksson knows all about the threat of Gerrard after the two of them worked together closely during his spell in charge of England.

The Swede said: "Steven is one of the best players you can find. He has everything.

"He can defend. He can tackle incredibly well. He has vision, he is an extremely good passer. He can shoot, score goals and has the energy to get up and down the pitch.

"It is very difficult to say who is the best player in the country but Steven is certainly one of them - and has been for a long time now.

"As long as I was England manager, he was extremely important to me. He was important to England last year after I left and he will be very important in the future as well.

"Of course it will be difficult, we know that. It can't be easy to beat Liverpool. We will do our best and we will fight. Who knows what will happen after that."

Ujfalusi Rejects Liverpool Offer

Fiorentina defender Tomas Ujfalusi has rejected an offer from Liverpool and could be set for a new deal with the Viola.

Ujfalusi’s agent Pavel Paska is in the process of negotiating an extension to the Czech ace’s current contract which expires at the end of the campaign.

However, the player has been linked with Juventus recently and could join the Bianconeri at the end of the season.

“I have to respect his decisions, but I was really surprised when he said no to the Reds,” noted Paska. “Liverpool rarely offer a player a second chance.”

The Czech international is in his fourth season with the Viola after his £5m move from Hamburg in 2003.

He has made 10 appearances in Serie A this season and has already confirmed he wishes to stay in Italy.