Friday, February 29, 2008

Liverpool’s Kuyt Praises Torres, Eyes Win At Bolton

Dirk Kuyt has hailed team-mate Fernando Torres as the Liverpool striker aims for a victory at Bolton Wanderers on Sunday.

Under Rafa Benitez, the Reds have failed to beat the Trotters at the Reebok Stadium, where they lost 2-0 last season.

Spain striker Torres has been in a remarkable form for most part of the season, after having joined in the summer from Atletico Madrid, and helped the Reds with a hat-trick in league win over Middlesbrough last weekend at Anfield to take his season’s goal tally to 21.

With that win coming after the Champions League last-16 first-leg success over Inter Milan, Benitez’s side are looking to continue their winning run and get themselves back in the top-four in the league table.

“It was very important to get the win against Middlesbrough because we still want to do something in the league and we definitely want to play in the Champions League next season,” Kuyt said in the Liverpool Echo.

“We did our job and got the three points and now we have to get as many points as we can from the league games we have coming up.

“We didn’t make a good start in that game but having beaten Inter Milan a few days before we had the confidence to go and turn it around.

“Fernando got us back into it and from then on we went on to control things, even though we had a bit of a scare late on.

“I was happy with the two wins we had against Inter Milan and Middlesbrough and now we have to look to get another one on Sunday against Bolton.”

The Dutch international hailed the 23-year-old Torres, saying: “He is unbelievable, a really good player.

“I have never seen someone who is that quick with the ball. I don’t think anyone is as quick as Fernando is with the ball at his feet.

“He showed it again against Middlesbrough and if you have a player like that in your team you have to be really happy.”

Torres Calls For Consistency

Fernando Torres believes Liverpool must become more consistent and show more self-belief if they are to challenge for the Premier League title.

The Reds were expected to push the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea this season following the big-money capture of the Spain striker last summer.

However, it has been a familiar story for Liverpool fans with numerous disappointing results despite a promising start to their league campaign.

Torres has proved a fine addition with an impressive 15-goal haul in the Premier League to date, although he believes the team lack the confidence in their own ability to be crowned champions.

The striker's comments come after Steven Gerrard admitted the team's league form simply has not been up to scratch and that even winning the UEFA Champions League would not make up

"We need to be consistent, but we also have to convince ourselves that we can do it," Torres told Sport magazine.

"The only way to get out of a situation like this is to have confidence in yourselves - to talk it over and then maybe string three or four wins together.

"We haven't reached the standards expected of us. We've been inconsistent. When you consider the history of the club and the coach and the squad we have, we really need to improve if we are to fulfil expectations."

Torres has also highlighted the need for stability at Anfield and has praised under-fire manager Rafa Benitez.

"He's one of the most respected coaches in England. Since he came here and won the Champions League in 2005 - especially the way in which he won it," he continued.

"The spirit in the team is good - all we need now is to find some stability and put some better results together."

Reds Rejected Lucas Offers

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has revealed a host of clubs have expressed an interest in midfielder Lucas Leiva.

As revealed by, Serie A side Palermo were one of several sides who made an enquiry for Lucas during the January transfer window.

Liverpool rejected all overtures for the 21-year-old, with Benitez tipping him for a big future at Anfield.

"We have received offers for Lucas," Benitez told the club's official website.

"Maybe 10 clubs in Spain and Italy want to take him.

"That is how good he is. I have faith in Lucas.

"He has a very good mentality and is a player of top quality.

"He will be a top player, that is certain.

"But he already is a top player, he was captain of Brazil Under 21s and has won two caps with the national team."

Liverpool star Carragher Arrested And Cautioned For Common Assault

Liverpool's star defender Jamie Carragher has been arrested and cautioned by police for common assault.

The Anfield player, 30, attended at a Merseyside police station yesterday to be questioned over an incident on a busy road close to the player's home.

Carragher assaulted another man on Liverpool Road, Crosby, at around 9am on Tuesday as he made his way to training at Melwood.

A witness called police to report two men were arguing by the side of the road and named the Bootle-born player, who is also Liverpool's vice-captain, as one of the men.

Later that day, police received a complaint from the second man and Carragher was informed officers wanted to speak to him.

An appointment was made for him to see the police and when he went to a police station yesterday with his solicitor, Carragher was formally interviewed and accepted his caution. Accepting a caution is an admission of guilt in the eyes of the law.

Common assault can include anything from spitting to shoving.

A Merseyside Police spokesman said: "We can confirm that a 30-year-old man from the Blundellsands area received a police caution for common assault in relation to an incident on Liverpool Road, Crosby, on Tuesday February 26."

Desperate Kewell Goes The Extra Mile

Harry Kewell is doing extra training with Liverpool reserves in a last, desperate bid to earn another contract at Anfield.

The injury-plagued Australia winger is out of contract at the end of the season and has little chance of another deal at his current £70,000 a week after making only nine starts and failing to last 90 minutes in any of them this season.

He is hoping to negotiate a pay-as-you-play extension and has spoken to manager Rafa Benitez in an effort to win over the Liverpool boss.

Benitez confirmed: "It is true that Harry came to see me and that it was his idea to do extra training with the reserves to build up his fitness. He has a professional mentality and his approach is very positive. He must carry on working hard and making sure he is ready for any opportunity, but I have no problem with him at all."

Kewell, signed from Leeds for £5million by former Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier, faces an uphill task to stay at Anfield beyond this season after making only one appearance as substitute in the past month.

But he pushed his claims for a recall by scoring the second goal in Liverpool reserves' 2-0 win over Manchester United.

"He is a typical Aussie who doesn't know the meaning of giving up," said a close friend.

"There have been approaches from other clubs, but his only interest is winning over Benitez and staying at Anfield."

Hicks Moves For Complete Control Of Liverpool

Tom Hicks served notice of his intention to retain control at Liverpool last night when he warned he may block George Gillett's attempts to sell to Dubai International Capital. As a game of brinkmanship develops over the future of Liverpool, Hicks also indicated he could gain total control with a buyout of his co-chairman.

Liverpool's co-owners have both held negotiations about a possible takeover with the investment arm of the Dubai government in recent months. However, under the terms of their joint takeover last February, Hicks and Gillett have first refusal on each other's 50% stake and must give their consent to any sale by the partner.

Although Gillett has been receptive to DIC and the prospect of a quick profit on his troubled 12-month investment, Hicks remains a major obstacle to the Dubai group's ambitions of a complete takeover. The Texan has told DIC he would grant it permission to purchase Gillett's holding on the condition he remained in control of the management structure. He is also keen to retain the lead role in the development of a new stadium on Stanley Park.

DIC has rejected Hicks' conditions and is reluctant to replicate the 50-50 venture that has proved so problematic for Liverpool. It will invest only on the understanding that Hicks is willing to allow it to become the dominant party and is prepared to walk away if the current impasse continues. In response to this stand-off Hicks gave the first public indication of the breakdown in his relationship with Gillett last night when he reaffirmed his determination not to relinquish power at Anfield.

"Not only am I not going to sell, my partner cannot sell without my approval," Hicks said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram yesterday. "So I kind of have the ability to determine the outcome of what is going to happen and I am right in the middle of that."

Alarmingly for Liverpool supporters opposed to the Americans' regime, Hicks suggested one way of resolving the problems with Gillett would be to purchase his stake and become the outright owner. "For a lot of reasons I can't discuss I haven't been able to fix it yet. But I am preparing to be in a position to fix it," he added.

It is debatable, however, whether Hicks could afford to buy out his co-chairman given the impact of the credit crunch on his Hicks Holdings company and the current financial problems with his US sports franchises, the Texas Rangers baseball team and the NHL's Dallas Stars.

There were further off-pitch distractions for Liverpool yesterday when it was revealed that their vice-captain, Jamie Carragher, had been arrested and cautioned by police for common assault.

The former England international, 30, was formally interviewed at a Merseyside police station and accepted the caution - an admission of guilt in the eyes of the law - following an altercation near his home in Blundellsands on Tuesday morning. Carragher had been driving to training at Liverpool's Melwood complex when he became embroiled in a row with a man with whom it is believed he has endured a long-running dispute.

A witness called police to report two men arguing by the roadside and named the Liverpool defender as one of those involved. Later that day the apparent victim also filed a complaint against Carragher, who was given an appointment to be interviewed by officers and accepted the caution for common assault, the lowest form of assault, in the company of his solicitor.

A spokesperson for Merseyside Police said: "We can confirm that a 30-year-old man from the Blundellsands area received a police caution for common assault in relation to an incident on Liverpool Road, Crosby, on Tuesday, February 26." The club declined to comment.

Confirmation of Carragher's arrest came as Rafael Benítez was compelled to stress that Steven Gerrard is not alone in harbouring deep frustrations at this season's domestic under-achievement.

"Everyone at Liverpool shares Steven's sentiments, there is no question about that," the Liverpool manager said. "We wanted to be further up the table and the fact that we are not is a disappointment to everyone."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rafa Hints At Less Rotation

Recent comments made by Rafael Benitez suggest that he is considering giving his much maligned rotation policy a rest.

Uncharacteristically, the Liverpool boss made only one change to the side for Saturday's 3-2 victory over Middlesbrough from the one that beat Inter, and he hinted that this would be a sign of things to come.

"I think so. It will depend on the players in the end, but we can keep some players playing more games now," said Benitez, speaking shortly after Everton's 2-0 victory away to Manchester City seriously upped the pressure on his side in the race for the final Champions League place,

"Everton have a lot of confidence right now and it was a good win for them (on Monday), but it's a long race," the Spaniard added.

"Portsmouth, Villa, Everton, City and us will all be there. I'm not sure if it will go to the final game but I think a lot will depend on these three games we have in a row."

Benitez Won't Rush Hyypia Decision

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will decide on the future of defender Sami Hyypia later in the season.

The 34 year-old has been outstanding in the continued absence of Danish centre-back Daniel Agger through injury, and intimated that he would like a new contract when his current deal runs out in the summer.

Benitez had planned to use Hyypia as cover for Agger and Jamie Carragher this term but has been forced to use the Finland international 33 times as Liverpool's defensive strength has been stretched.

Agger made his comeback from a five-month absence with metatarsal injury in the reserves against Manchester United's second string last night and is almost ready for a return to first-team action.

Hyypia, linked with both Fulham and Newcastle in recent months, expressed a desire to stay at the club and complete 10 years at Anfield in 2009.

Benitez, who has also bought Slovakian 23-year-old Martin Skrtel for £6.5million from Zenit St Petersburg, insists Hyypia "has nothing to prove" - and a decision on his long-term future will be delayed until near the end of the season.

The Spaniard said: "I was talking with him, but he knows we have to wait a little bit.

"I am really pleased with him. The question now is to see how he progresses, but he knows my thoughts.

"He doesn't have to prove anything. We know him, and he knows why we have to analyse the situation. "Every year he has been a key player for us. He's a centre-back with experience who's good in the air and who can play the ball.

"He is playing more games than we maybe expected this season - but every game his performance is good."

Hyypia has spent almost a decade at Anfield after being signed from Willem II by Gerard Houllier in May 1999, and is regarded by Liverpool fans as one of the club's greatest servants.

Hyypia added: "My priority would be to stay at Liverpool, but it's not only up to me. I haven't got any offers yet from here or any other clubs, so I am just trying to focus on the matches.

"I am enjoying playing, and I have played more games than maybe I thought I would this season because of all the injuries. The only thing I can do is try to play well. It would be very nice to get to 10 years at the club, but I am just concentrating on playing well.

"Whether I stay wouldn't depend on how many games I play. I am not like that. I'm not interested in somebody promising me something.

"If we have four centre-backs then everyone fights for their place, and performances should determine who plays. If I keep playing well then it will be difficult for the manager to change things."

Lucas: I'm Learning From Gerrard And Xavi

Liverpool's Lucas Leiva has won over manager Rafael Benitez in recent weeks, having displaced fan favourite Xabi Alonso from the starting line-up...The midfielder has revealed he is learning a lot from the man's place he has taken, as well as his captain.

Speaking to the club's official website, Lucas explained what motivates him to perform.

"Whenever I play, in each game, I know I have to play well in order to stay in the team. Gerrard, Xabi and Mascherano are very good players," he said.

"I am learning a lot from them because they have played a lot of time in Europe, especially Gerrard and Xabi. They have won the European Cup.

"I am still young but I know I have potential to fight for a place in the team. Liverpool brought me here and Liverpool have confidence in me. I respect all the players but I need to fight for my position.

"Rafa always asks for a little bit more. He always says, 'you can improve' or 'you can play better'. And it's true. But he has confidence in me."

The 21-year-old also revealed how has been settling in in his new surroundings, insisting it is not as different as many may think. He has also extended thanks to countryman and team-mate Fabio Aurelio for helping him settle into the country and learn the language.

"My life is the Brazil life: very relaxed," declared the former Gremio starlet. "I like to stay home, not go out. The weather in the winter is more or less the same, though the nights are longer here. But I like Liverpool and all the people try to help me.

"Fabio [Aurelio] has been the most important player for me because he speaks the language, but everyone helps a lot.

"If I had a problem I would have called Fabio, but now I speak English quite well and can try to sort things myself.

Mascherano Nears Permanent Switch

Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano has revealed he is close to finally making his move to Liverpool a permament one.

The Reds have been locked in talks with the former West Ham player for the last few months as they look to secure his future.

Mascherano is currently on loan at Anfield until the end of the season after joining the Reds in the 2007 January transfer window.

The Argentina international has been a revelation at Anfield since his arrival after an ill-fated spell with the Hammers.

Mascherano is hopeful he will put pen-to-paper on a contract in the next few days to end speculation over his future.

"We are really close," Mascherano told the club's official website. "Maybe this week or next week we will be able to say everything's finished. We can't say it just yet but hopefully in a few days everything will be okay.

"There are no problems with the fee or with the contract, it's just getting the papers finished.

"I have always said I want to stay here and so it hasn't been a difficult time for me. I have wanted it to be finished because I have my family behind me and I want to know what my future is going to be. I am calm and relaxed because I know that everything is almost over.

"I am very happy that in the next week I will be able to say I have signed for Liverpool. It will be the best moment of my career to be able to say I will be playing my football with Liverpool."

Mascherano also outlined the importance of the club finishing fourth and qualifying for next season's UEFA Champions League.

The Reds currently sit in fifth spot three points behind local rivals Everton in the battle to finish fourth and Mascherano insists they must keep up their pursuit of finishing fourth by beating Bolton this weekend.

"We have to finish in the top four because we want to be playing in the Champions League next season," added Mascherano.

"We have to win the games we have coming up before we go to Milan and so it's not difficult to stay focused at all.

"We had a good win against Middlesbrough on Saturday and now we have to go and try to win at Bolton. We beat them easily at Anfield earlier in the season but we know it's going to be harder this weekend because they're a difficult side to play on their own pitch."

Gerrard: No Prizes For Fourth

Steven Gerrard says this season is a failure for Liverpool - fans wouldn't have wanted second place in the league, never mind fourth.

Steven Gerrard has admitted his frustration with Liverpool's season.

The Reds may be in the Champions League still, but another season of hype and failure in the Premier League has really got the Anfield skipper down.

"You don’t get any prizes for finishing in second place - never mind fourth - in football," Gerrard said. "I don’t think the fans would accept it as an accomplishment and, for me, it’s not nearly good enough.

In the position we find ourselves in, fourth is the least that is acceptable between now and May - but we have bigger ambitions than that.

"I still believe we have the squad to be a hell of a lot more competitive than we are right now," he continued. "I’m a Liverpool fan and I believe the league is the most important trophy going.

"I’m pretty gutted every time I look at the table and see the gap between us and the top three. We believed we had the players to challenge for the title. We wanted that trophy more than any other one available to us. We’ve simply got to improve.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Daniel Agger Returns To Bolster Liverpool’s Defence

Daniel Agger is ready to bolster Liverpool’s defence after ending more than five months of injury torment with a run-out for the reserves.

The Denmark international, whose season has been ruined by a metatarsal injury, played 45 minutes for the second string in their 2-0 win against Manchester United at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium last night.

It was the 23-year-old’s first competitive action of any sort since the goalless draw at Portsmouth on September 15.

Under the watchful gaze of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, Agger – wearing a pair of specially-modified boots – came through unscathed and could now be in the frame for Sunday’s visit to Bolton Wanderers.

Agger was replaced at half-time by fellow centre-back Martin Skrtel, who was stepping his own recovery after suffering a calf problem in training a fortnight ago.

Harry Kewell and Xabi Alonso were also given 90 minutes against United, for whom a surprisingly portly Gary Neville returned from a lengthy injury absence with a 60-minute appearance.

In front of 10,546 fans, Alonso scored the opening goal from the spot in the 12th minute after Krisztian Nemeth was fouled by Gerard Pique.

Richard Eckersley was dismissed late on for United before Kewell sealed the 2-0 win with a breakaway goal in the final minute.

Meanwhile, Sami Hyypia is hopeful of earning a new contract to take him to 10 years at Anfield.

A number of clubs, including Fulham and Newcastle United, are thought to be monitoring Hyypia’s situation with his current contract due to expire in the summer.

But the 34-year-old admits clinching a new contract at Liverpool is his priority.

“My priority would be to stay at Liverpool, but it’s not only up to me,” said Hyypia.

“I haven’t got any offers yet from here or any other clubs, so I’m just trying to focus on the matches.

“I’m enjoying playing. I’ve played more games than I maybe thought I would this season because of all the injuries.

“The only thing I can do is try to play well, and when it’s time to sit down see what happens.

“It would be very nice to get to 10 years at the club but I’m just concentrating on playing well.”

Hyypia has made 33 appearances for Liverpool this season, although he faces competition for his place with Jamie Carragher now free from suspension and Skrtel and Agger both fit.

But the defender added: “Whether I stay wouldn’t depend on how many games I play. I’m not like that. I’m not interested in someone promising me anything. If we have four centre-backs, then everyone fights for their place and performances should determine who plays. If I keep playing well then it’ll be very difficult for the manager to change things.”

Future Remains Unclear Despite Hicks’ Sale Denial

The future of Liverpool FC last night remained dogged by uncertainty despite co-owner Tom Hicks insisting he was not planning to sell his stake in the club.

Hicks moved quickly to dismiss reports he had invited Dubai International Capital (DIC) to inspect the club’s accounts in preparation for a takeover.

A source last night told the Daily Post the reports were “wide of the mark”.

It is understood Hicks has had talks with DIC even after a £350million refinancing package was announced on January 25.

The Daily Post also understands there has been a breakdown in relations between Hicks and co-owner George Gillett.

The pair are thought to have fallen out over Hicks insistence to make the details of the £350m refinancing package public – Gillett refused to put his name to it.

DIC are understood to be considering making an offer for Gillett’s 50% stake, but also want a slice of Hicks’ holding to gain a controlling interest.

The latest speculation follows Hicks’s son being chased out a the Sandon pub after Saturday’s match against Middlesborough.

Yesterday Hicks released a statement. It read: “Reports that I am about to sell my stake in the Liverpool Football Club, or to invite DIC to examine the club’s books in preparation for such a sale – like other such reports planted in the UK press in recent weeks by parties with their own self-interested agenda – are absolutely and categorically false.

“The reality is that I am personally, professionally and financially committed to the club and its supporters and that I will continue to honour that commitment to the best of my ability now and in the future.”

It appears no takeover by DIC is imminent but that the Dubai company, the investment arm of the Maktoum royal family, are keeping their options open.

The main problem preventing a takeover remains the price DIC are willing to pay.

It has been nowhere near the amount of money Hicks has been asking for – he would want to make a substantial sum out of selling the club.

Another hurdle to overcome is that the refinancing package announced on January 25 has loaded £105m of debt on to the club.

Of that, £60m is earmarked to kick-start the new stadium development plus £45m for future player transfers and to meet the club’s working capital needs.

Even if Gillett is willing to sell his 50% to DIC, they would still not have a controlling share so would want to buy some or all of Hicks’ stake to ensure they had a majority holding.

The takeover talk is being driven by the fact that the refinancing deal only lasts for 18 months and so Hicks and Gillett are soon going to have to start renegotiating the debts.

Furthermore, they are shortly going to have to go back to the banks to ask for a further £300m in loans to finance the rest of the new stadium at Stanley Park.

Tom Hicks In Denial But Liverpool Are Braced For Dubai Takeover

Discussions will continue between Tom Hicks and Dubai International Capital (DIC) over the coming weeks, despite the Liverpool co-chairman’s vehement insistence last night that he is not about to sell his stake in the club. The Arab investment group is expected to become a co-owner of the Merseyside club next month by purchasing the 50 per cent stake held by George Gillett Jr. in the first phase of a takeover process that will test the strength of Hicks’s latest denials.

The Times reported yesterday that, although Hicks intends to retain some of his shares and influence at the club for the immediate future, he and Gillett, his co-owner, are willing to grant DIC permission to examine Liverpool’s accounts with a view to launching a takeover bid next month. Hicks denied those reports yesterday, claiming that they had been “planted . . . by parties with their own self- interested agenda” and that he is “personally, professionally and financially committed to the club and its supporters”, but numerous sources insist that his partnership with Gillett is finished and that DIC will start the first phase of its takeover within weeks.

Hicks’s latest statement did not deny that discussions are taking place. DIC’s interest never went away after it was gazumped by Hicks and Gillett a little more than 12 months ago and, although DIC turned down the Americans’ invitation to buy a 15 per cent stake in the club after a meeting in October, discussions have taken place behind the scenes since the start of this year, particularly since January 25, when Hicks announced a £350 million refinancing deal that brought them stability in the immediate future but left their regime looking all but unsustainable in the longer term.

Gillett, who was the catalyst behind the initial takeover, with Hicks arriving on the scene late in the process, conceded some time ago that the joint partnership was not working. Gillett, the owner of the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team, has subsequently “all but disappeared”, according to sources, declining to put his name to Hicks’s frequent statements and making clear to DIC his willingness to sell his 50 per cent stake.

His son, Foster, who was initially dispatched to Merseyside as a “link man” between the owners and Rafael Benítez, the manager, has spent the past month in Montreal, apparently with no plans to return to Britain.

Hicks, who was originally seen as the silent partner, has proved to be anything but. Even if he and Benítez have tried to build bridges since their infamous falling-out in November — when Hicks declared that it was “time for Rafa to quit talking and concentrate on coaching the players we have” — the Texan has made himself deeply unpopular at Anfield.

Tom Hicks Jr, his son, has at least shown willing to ingratiate himself with the locals, but his attempts to do so backfired on Saturday, when he was confronted by supporters in a pub near Anfield after the 3-2 victory over Middlesbrough.

While Gillett is expected to sell up within weeks, Hicks is determined to retain the majority of his stake for the immediate future, but DIC is looking for guarantees that he will sell out completely at a later date. Hicks spoke to DIC officials on a trip to Dubai last week and talked to their financial advisers on Thursday and Friday. The two parties remain some way apart on various issues, not least on Hicks’s wish to be seen as the senior partner in any coalition, but a variety of sources — by no means all of them with self-interested agendas — indicate that the Anfield investment saga is about to enter a new chapter.

Dubai International Capital To Oown Half Of LFC Within A Month'

Dubai International Capital may own at least half of Liverpool Football Club within the next three weeks.

After months of negotiations George Gillett has reportedly indicated a willingness to sell his 50% stake in the club and a fee is believed to have been agreed.

A specialist team of bankers and solicitors have been put in place by the investment arm of the Dubai government as it awaits permission to study the club's books.

That permission is expected to be granted in the next couple of days and should everything be found to be in order, DIC could complete the deal with Gillett, who is ready to relinquish his stake having had a massive fall-out with Reds co-owner Tom Hicks.

The relationship between the two Americans has reached an all-time low and Gillett believes it is now beyond repair.

Hicks, though, is not prepared to give up his stake in Liverpool and DIC are prepared to enter into shared ownership with the Texan, in the short term at least.

Hicks has expressed a desire to retain control of the club but DIC are not interested in being a silent partner and want to start making decisions regarding the club's future as and when they complete the proposed deal with Gillett.

Hicks had tried to secure the funding to buy Gillett but with the credit crunch biting hard has been unable to do so and is now resigned to the fact he is likely to have a new partner shortly.

DIC are also looking to buy part of Hicks' stake as they look to secure a majority shareholding in the club, which they tried to buy outright last year.

Despite losing out to the Americans in February 2007, their interest has never faded and they have now successfully negotiated themselves a position which could see them take part-ownership by mid-March.

Should that happen, it would, in all likelihood, be greeted with enthusiasm by Liverpool's fans after a series of protests against Hicks and Gillett.

Atletico Want Liverpool Coach Benitez On Board

Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez will be offered an escape route from Anfield this summer by Atletico Madrid.

The Spanish outfit have indentified the under-fire Liverpool coach as their No 1 target to replace Javier Aguirre, who is expected to be sacked at the end of the season in wake of their Uefa Cup exit to Bolton last week.

Benitez's own future hangs in the balance following Liverpool's cup failings which saw them crash out of the FA Cup to a last-gasp winner at home to Barnsley earlier this month.

The Spaniard would go a long way of preserving his position with a successful Champions League campaign and fourth-place league finish, but even that would not safeguard his job with Dubai International Capital holding out hopes of completing a takeover of the club.

Although Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks dismissed speculation that he is ready to sell his stake in the club to the investment arm of the Dubai royal family, his comments yesterday are unlikely to draw a line under the episode.

The turmoil has already affected Liverpool's season on the pitch and while Benitez might be given one-last chance to turn things around in the summer, he could be tempted by a fresh challenge back in his homeland.

Officials from Atletico, including club president Enrique Cerezo and sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch, are thought to have discussed the possibility of luring Benitez to the Vicente Calderon earlier this week with a view of making a move for the former Valencia coach at the end of the season.

"We know it might be difficult but we will fight for the chance," a club source says in the Star.

As Benitez maintains his focus to on-the-field matters at Anfield, he will have been pleased to see Daniel Agger continue his comeback from injury in Liverpool reserves' 2-0 win over Manchester United last night.

The Denmark international lasted 45 minutes before being replaced by Martin Skrtel having been sidelined with a broken metatarsal since September.

A Xabi Alonso penalty and Harry Kewell strike sealed the win which saw Liverpool extend their lead at the top of the Premier Reserve League North to nine points.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

ACADEMY: Liverpool Lack A Finishing Touch

Several missed chances meant Liverpool under-18s had to settle for a goalless draw at Newcastle United on Saturday.

Hugh McAuley’s side created enough opportunities to claim all three Premier Academy League points, but couldn’t take them.

Marvin Pourie and Nathan Eccleston were both denied by the Newcastle keeper, while Sean Highdale also went close but couldn’t find the net in the first half. While at the other end Liverpool were glad Martin Hansen was at his best in the second half, with the Danish keeper saving well on a couple of occasions.

McAuley said: “It was very windy and the conditions were very difficult. It wasn’t a good day to pass the ball. Although having said that despite playing into the wind, we created good chances in the first half.

“As the game wore on we dominated and with David Amoo and Alex Kacaniklic, who came on for his first action in a few weeks, we played some decent stuff. It was only going to be one goal that was going to win the game. And although we had a lot of possession and generally played well we didn’t capitalise on that.”

He added: “We lacked a real cutting edge in the penalty area. It was not a bad performance, but it is one where we should have capitalised on the possession we had.”

Liverpool face Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Kirkby Academy this Saturday (kick-off 11am) and will be looking to get back to winning ways.

McAuley said: “We have been going through one of those spells when we have drawn four or five games that we could have won.

“At Blackburn we scored, at Newcastle we didn’t. It is frustrating but we just need to keep working on it and creating the chances. Finishing generally hasn’t been a problem, but we just need to kill teams off.

“It is a measure of our progress, though, that we are disappointed when we are not beating teams like Newcastle and others.

“We just need to turn that domination in matches in goals and victories.”

Liverpool have a full squad to choose from.

Scott Carson Begs Liverpool To Sort Out His Future

Liverpool goalkeeper Scott Carson - currently on loan at Aston Villa - wants to sort out his long-term future for the sake of his family.

Carson has three years left of his contract with the Reds and is keen to commit himself to one club after previously having loan spells with Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton.

The 22-year-old is enjoying his season-long loan spell at Villa and has helped them maintain their push for a European spot, helped by yesterday’s 2-1 win at Reading.

But Carson has no definite idea as to whether manager Martin O’Neill is keen to make the move permanent in the summer - or before then if all parties could reach an agreement.

Carson said: “I’d like to know what is happening because I’ve got my girlfriend and my son to think about.

“My son turned two last week and he’s started going to nursery school so we need to get settled.

“I’ve still got a contract with Liverpool and. until someone does a deal with them, I can’t do anything.

“It’s not a done deal (with Liverpool). Villa paid a loan fee for me until the end of the season and anytime from now until then, they could make it permanent.”

Carson added: “I can’t really say where I’d like to be because I’m still under contract at Liverpool and I don’t know what is going to happen there.

“I like it at Villa and I want to get settled for next season.

“There’s not a lot I can do. I’ve got three years left at Liverpool and I don’t know what Aston Villa are thinking. I don’t know if there is anything else in the pipe-line. We will have to wait and see.”

Tom Hicks Jnr: Angry Fans Won't Drive Us Out Of Liverpool

Tom Hicks Jnr. today spoke for the first time about being forced to leave an Anfield pub by a group of Liverpool fans.

The son of Liverpool’s co-owner beat a hasty retreat from the Sandon pub after being confronted by supporters angry at the way his father is running the club.

After being swilled with lager and spat at, Hicks Jnr. was shepherded to safety by a team of burly bodyguards.

But today he insisted such incidents “come with the territory” and vowed to return to Liverpool in the near future.

He said: “I went to Sandon with some friends because I have wanted to go for quite some time to see the birthplace of the club.

“I also wanted the opportunity to have a direct talk with some of the supporters.

“I respect that some patrons have major disagreement with us, but that comes with the territory.

“I did have several constructive conversations in my short visit and look forward to following up with them next time I am in Liverpool.”

Hicks Jnr. turned up at the Sandon on Saturday evening after Liverpool’s game against Middlesbrough at Anfield.

He took pictures of the exterior of the pub before going inside with the security staff who have shadowed him throughout his stay on Merseyside.

He ordered drinks at the bar and stood chatting with his bodyguards before fans in the packed pub began to recognise him.

At first, the conversations were cordial with one Liverpool supporter approaching him to register his disquiet about the way Liverpool Football Club is being run.

But as an increasing number of fans recognised the 6ft 4ins Texan, the atmosphere soon turned ugly and Mr Hicks and his bodyguards quickly became nervous.

Mr Hicks decided to evacuate, but not before he was spat at by one fan and swilled with lager by another.

He was surrounded by his bodyguards and rushed out of the establishment and into a waiting people carrier which sped away from the scene as angry fans spilled out of the pub.

Reports the vehicle suffered £1,000 worth of damage seemed to be unfounded.

The people carrier had left before any supporters even made it onto the street.

Mr. Hicks has not made a complaint to Merseyside police and is looking to play down the incident.

Afterwards he was taken back to the city centre Malmaison hotel where he mixed with tourists and had at least one pre-arranged meeting with one group of Liverpool supporters.

Yesterday he watched the Carling Cup final between Tottenham and Chelsea at Wembley.

Americans On Verge Of Selling Liverpool

Liverpool's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, are understood to be just weeks from agreeing a deal with Dubai International Capital which could see the club change hands for the second time in just over a year.

After months of fraught talks, DIC are increasingly confident that they will not only reach an agreement soon with the Americans but also with the two banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia, who have just completed a £350 million refinancing of the club.

DIC's advisers have set themselves a deadline of the middle of next month to conclude the first part of a two-stage takeover process which, when complete, will be worth between £400m and £450m and includes provision for the club's increased debts.

In the next few days bankers working for DIC, the investment arm of the Maktoum royal family, are expected to be granted permission to start examining Liverpool's books with a view to tabling a formal offer.

Gillett, whose relationship with Hicks has broken down, will be first to sell out and is understood to have already agreed in principle to offload his 50 per cent stake.

But Hicks is refusing to sell out in one go. In the short term, at least, he is expected to remain on the board.

DIC plan to dilute his holding, initially by injecting further funds into the club to not only cover the new 18-month bank loan but also to help pay for the proposed new stadium and buy players. DIC want to secure a deal where Hicks sells out completely later on.

Having spent the first part of last week in Dubai, where he was seeking new backers for his US investment company, Hicks Holdings, he then flew to London on Thursday for two days of talks with DIC's advisers.

One potential stumbling block is the exact nature of the initial shareholder agreement between DIC and Hicks. It is understood his demands to retain control of the club following Gillett's exit have been rebuffed.

Under the terms of the £220m takeover deal concluded by Hicks and Gillett last February, no partner can sell out without first offering his 50 per cent stake to the other. Hicks has tried to raise the money to seize complete control but with the credit crunch hitting his businesses, he has failed.

If DIC succeed, they will aim to restore stability to a club after a period of unprecedented turbulence.

Hyypia Seeks Anfield Stay

Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia says he is hoping to win a new deal at Anfield.

A number of clubs are thought to be monitoring Hyypia's situation with his current contract due to expire in the summer.

The 34-year-old admits clinching a new contract at Liverpool is his priority as he would like to make it ten years on Merseyside.

"My priority would be to stay at Liverpool, but it's not only up to me," Hyypia told The Mirror.

"I haven't got any offers yet from here or any other clubs, so I'm just trying to focus on the matches.

"I'm enjoying playing. I've played more games than I maybe thought I would this season because of all the injuries.

"The only thing I can do is try to play well, and when it's time to sit down see what happens.

"It would be very nice to get to 10 years at the club but I'm just concentrating on playing well."

Hyypia says he is happy to fight for his place in the team with Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel all battling for a spot in the heart of Liverpool's defence.

"Whether I stay wouldn't depend on how many games I play. I'm not like that. I'm not interested in someone promising me anything," added Hyypia.

"If we have four centre-backs, then everyone fights for their place and performances should determine who plays.

"If I keep playing well then it'll be very difficult for the manager to change things."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sami Hyypia Insists Only Fourth Place With Do For Liverpool

Sami Hyypia admits fourth place is the “minimum requirement” for Liverpool in the Premier League this season.

Rafael Benitez’s side were indebted to a hat-trick from Fernando Torres to secure an unconvincing 3-2 win over Middlesbrough on Saturday and move them back into the top four with only their second league win since Boxing Day.

Hyypia said: “Everyone can smile now we’ve got the three points, but the game didn’t go as we planned but in the end the result was right.

“For their first goal, at first I thought it was a clear offside, but I guess somebody played Tuncay on because he got to the ball early and scored.

“It was a bit unnecessary to give that goal away and their second could have been avoided as well so from that point of view we can’t be that happy, but Fernando scored a good hat-trick and we got three points so that’s the most important thing.”

Liverpool’s next game is at Bolton Wanderers on Sunday, and Hyypia added: “Bolton’s not an easy place to go to, but if we get three points there we’ll be on target for fourth place which is the minimum requirement.

“All the Bolton games have been bruising games in my experience – after them you’re bruised all over – but so long as we get the three points it doesn’t matter.”

With Jamie Carragher serving a one-match suspension and Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger considered not fit enough to start, Hyypia was partnered by makeshift centre-back Alvaro Arbeloa at the heart of Liverpool’s defence.

And the Finland international said: “It’s not been a settled back four all season, but with all the injuries we’ve had it’s not always been easy to have a regular back four.

“But if the defence was the same all season there would probably be four very unhappy players who wouldn’t play at all.”

Liverpool appeared jaded by their European exploits against Inter Milan in midweek, and manager Benitez conceded the win was hugely important.

“After a Champions League game, the players sometimes are a little bit tired and it’s difficult to keep everyone ready for a Premier League game,” he said.

“It was really important for us to win, and now we have a week to prepare for Bolton then we have four games in 10 days. It was important for us to get back up into the top four.”

Middlesbrough, who had Jeremie Aliadiere sent off on 85 minutes, picked up five bookings and are now facing a £50,000 fine for the indiscipline.

And Boro manager Gareth Southgate said: “We are upset because we felt we did enough right to get something from it.

“We then suffered a red card when we had turned the tide. It’s harsh but Jeremie will have to learn from that.”

Kuyt: Torres Is Unbelievable

Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt has heaped praise on strike partner Fernando Torres following the Spaniard’s hat-trick against Middlesbrough on Saturday.

The Dutch forward, who kept his place in front on Peter Crouch after his midweek scoring appearance against Inter Milan is in awe of the former Atletico Madrid striker’s form.

El Nino has hit 21 goals this season already and Kuyt is enjoying playing alongside the youngster.

"It's great to have a player like Fernando up front - he is unbelievable" Kuyt said.

"I think he played really well against Inter in the week but he was even better against 'Boro.

"It's his second hat-trick this season so it's really good for him and us."

Schalke Star Pleased Over Liverpool Link

Highly-rated Schalke side-back Rafinha has reacted favourably to reports that Liverpool are interested in his services.

Rafinha's contract runs until 2011 and Schalke have no intention of selling him, but the Brazilian international has indirectly encouraged Rafa Benitez to pursue his interest.

"Liverpool is a top destination," said the 22-year-old in response to the reports.

"If a move would suit Schalke as well as myself, we can discuss it."

Schalke chief Andreas Mueller confirmed his side's stance on the matter by saying: "It is good that our players are being linked with such prestigious clubs, but we don't want to let anyone go."

Jose Reina Denies Anfield Rift Rumours

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina insists that manager Rafael Benitez still has the full support of the Anfield dressing room.

Reports had suggested that the Reds' squad had become split between those who were in favour of the Spanish coach remaining at Anfield and those who felt that it was time for a new man to come in.

Spanish keeper Reina has refuted those claims and believes that the players are as determined as ever to help their boss overcome the debate raging over his future.

"I can tell you that there is no split in the dressing room. Anybody who reports that is lying," Reina said.

"The dressing room has been absolutely together and we have all been very strong in the bad moments.

"That is how it should be and how it is.

"One of the good things to be seen from this period is how strong the players are together. It has been one of our secrets since I joined Liverpool."

Reina did admit that the continuous speculation suggesting that Benitez is on borrowed time on Merseyside has begun to take its toll on the players.

"Everything that happens at a club can influence what happens in games," he said.

"But as players we have to do our best to concentrate and play football.

"Everything else, the comments, the rumours, have to be set apart from the football but that can be difficult.

"We have shown that we can perform under pressure though. We have the spirit to do that and in the next few weeks we must continue to show it.

"The manager has maintained the calm despite all the bad reports because in the end his philosophy is all about hard work.

"He tells us the harder we work on the training ground the better we will be able to compete in games.

"Rafa supports the players totally. He has been successful at Liverpool and, for me, there can be no doubts about him."

Liverpool’s Torres Eager To Win Titles

Liverpool striker, Fernando Torres has set his sights on winning titles, saying: “I would prefer to be remembered for the titles rather than my goals.”

The Spain international, who joined the Reds in the summer in a club record deal from Atletico Madrid, has already got to 21 goals in the season, after his fine hat-trick at Anfield against Middlesbrough on Saturday.

The 23-year-old thus became the first Liverpool forward to achieve more than 20 goals for the season since Michael Owen in 2003.

"I know the fans enjoyed the hat-trick and so did I. It was fantastic to score in front of the Kop. I am very comfortable playing here and I am very, very happy with my first hat-trick at this ground,” said Torres, whose first Reds hat-trick had come at Reading in the Carling Cup in September.

"It is important though, that we win titles. I would prefer to be remembered for the titles rather than my goals.”

He added: "I have not won anything yet, just for the under-18s and under-19s in Madrid. It is a long time ago and I have come to Liverpool to win things.

"My target is titles, not just goals. I don't know when, this season or the next but I will want that.

"I hope I stay here for a long time. I have a six-year contract so I have every intention of being here a long time, and if everything continues okay maybe I will want to sign for more."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

LiverpooL 3 - 2 Middlesbrough

Fernando Torres piled more agony on Middlesbrough as his splendid hat-trick won this game for Liverpool, adding to the stunning 30-yard effort that claimed a point at the Riverside last month for Rafael Benitez's side.

The Spaniard has become the first Liverpool forward to hit 20 goals in a season for five years, his total now being 21 since his £20million move to Merseyside.

But Liverpool were made to fight for the win that takes them back into fourth spot.

Tuncay Sanli's header gave Boro an early lead before Torres struck twice in two minutes before the break.

He completed his hat-trick, the second since he arrived at the club, on the hour.

But Stewart Downing kept his side in the game with a goal in the closing minutes.

However any chance Middlesbrough had of grabbing a point was ruined when Jeremie Aliadiere was sent off after an incident with Javier Mascherano.

Liverpool decided on Alvaro Arbeloa as the stand-in for the suspended Jamie Carragher. Martin Skrtel was only considered fit enough for the bench after an ankle problem.

A ninth minute free-kick from Downing curled into the box for Tuncay to head home, to the dismay of a static Liverpool defence who assumed he was offside. Mascherano's positioning on the back post disproved that theory.

Liverpool's response was scrappy, to say the least. The closest they came was when Dirk Kuyt fired over after a Ryan Babel run and cross.

From a side who had outshone Inter Milan in midweek, Liverpool had reverted to their former self.

Passes were going hopelessly astray, with possession constantly conceded and not a hint of rhythm.

It took Torres to pull Liverpool together. Jose Reina's clearance on 28 minutes was headed by Julio Arca straight to the Spaniard.

He raced away, went round Mark Schwarzer and then found the net with his right foot.

Sixty seconds later Torres struck again. Fabio Aurelio found the striker in midfield and Torres lashed home a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner.

Aliadiere was booked for a foul on Aurelio, before Tuncay thought he had equalised, sending a Downing cross past Reina on 34 minutes.

But referee Lee Mason ruled the Boro man had used his arm and booked the forward.

Boro were still in the game and put Liverpool under pressure early in the second period.

On 53 minutes Reina and David Wheater were booked after an incident at a corner. The Boro defender looked to have flicked his heel at the keeper, who reacted angrily.

Six minutes later Boro sent on an extra striker in Mido, replacing Gary O'Neil.

Liverpool, without Carragher, had not looked comfortable in defence all afternoon.

But again Torres bailed them out when he completed his second hat-trick for the club, the first being at Reading in the Carling Cup in September.

On 60 minutes, Kuyt's hard graft in defence saw him win the ball and launch a 50-yard angled ball towards the Spanish striker.

It looked like Wheater would comfortably tidy up the situation, but with Schwarzer almost alongside him now, there was hesitation between the pair and Torres took advantage to hook the ball home from the edge of the box into an empty net.

Yossi Benayoun came on for Babel before the restart, and Fabio Rochemback was booked for a foul on Torres.

Torres was on a roll by now and took a Steven Gerrard pass before outpacing Emanuel Pogatetz and forcing Schwarzer into a good save to his right.

John Arne Riise came on form Kuyt on 73 minutes, the hard-working Dutchman getting a well-deserved ovation from all sides of the ground.

Middlesbrough got themselves a lifeline on 83 minutes when Downing got in behind Benayoun on the left to run on into the box before beating Reina from a sharp angle.

But three minutes later Aliadiere was sent as he slapped Mascherano after an exchange between the pair on the touchline.

The Liverpool man seemed to have patted the French youngster on the cheek a second earlier.

Two minutes from time Luke Young was booked for tripping Mascherano from behind.

In Defence Of Rafael BenÍtez: Statistics Point Out Why He Should Stay

I love them (the Beatles came from Liverpool), I love them not (so did Militant). I love them (they are admirably sporting and passionate), I love them not (the fans are irritatingly certain that they power their team). I love them (what a club, what a history), I love them not (when I go to watch them play my side, I usually feel that I should take a pillow).

I am, in other words, ambivalent about Liverpool. But about Rafael BenÍtez? About Rafa, I am off the fence. Dr Henry Stott and Dr Ian Graham got up from their sofas after the FA Cup fiasco against Barnsley and started crunching the numbers. Somehow they knew that it would be necessary. And the next day, the papers were, indeed, duly full of stories about the future of Liverpool’s manager.

It is worth, therefore, starting with this. There was a 91 per cent chance of Liverpool defeating Barnsley at home. That they lost did not alter their 50 per cent chance of beating Inter Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game they proceeded to win. You simply cannot make judgments based on one result, or even a small clutch of results. You have to take a longer view.

What happens when you do? Using a weighted measure of goals and shots on goal (the weighting is the one we use to beat the bookies season after season), we can compare Liverpool’s attacking and defensive strength with the best in the Barclays Premier League. This allows us to see whether they are getting closer or farther away from the top side and whether there has been a dip this season.

The results are clear. In May 2005, Liverpool’s attack was 71 per cent as strong as Manchester United, now it is 82 per cent. And over the same period their defence has improved from 79 per cent of Chelsea to 89 per cent. This season? Defence shot up, then fell back, but is still higher than it was at the beginning (83 per cent of Chelsea). Attack has remained pretty constant.

The graphic is another way of looking at things. Liverpool’s ranking has been remarkably constant over three seasons. So what, if anything, is going wrong this season? (And they have gone wrong. The chance of a top-four finish is now only 58 per cent). Three things come out of the data. The first is that Liverpool are scoring a smaller proportion of their shots on target than they were. The second is that they are letting in a larger proportion. And the final point is that they are accumulating disappointingly few points for the goals they do score.

Here’s a remarkable set of statistics. This season Liverpool have scored two more goals than Chelsea and conceded the same number. Yet Chelsea have 11 more points.

If all this stuff sounds sort of familiar to you, that’s because it is broadly what happened to Arsenal last season. They had some bad luck and this year they are having good luck. That’s just the way it goes.

There are two more points worth touching on briefly. It may be that in the mix of bad luck, José Manuel Reina has added some pretty poor play. He is having a very bad season, whereas last year he was one of Liverpool’s best players. This year the star is Steven Gerrard - a player the Fink Tank hasn’t always raved about.

One thing I do want you to forget about is rotation. Our new rotation measure (of which more soon) does not show BenÍtez as the biggest rotator.

Rafa must stay.

Article courtesy of Daniel Finkelstein, Times Online.

Jose Reina Rallies Around Rafael Benitez

Jose Reina has reacted angrily to suggestions that the Liverpool squad has become split on nationality lines but admitted members are divided in terms of their fondness of Rafael Benitez.

The goalkeeper, one of Benitez's strongest advocates, made his remarks while issuing a strong defence of his much-criticised manager following Liverpool's Champions League victory over Inter Milan on Tuesday.

"He is the boss and he has been quite successful in his four seasons, and there is no doubt about him," Reina said, while conceding that while some players, such as Fernando Torres, have spoken up for Benitez, others have been less willing.

"There is a dressing room and there are different opinions," Reina said. "Rafa brought Fernando to English football and with him he has become an even better player, and its normal he can speak really well about him. I have the same feelings. He brought me here three years ago and all I have done has been improvement."

Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are among senior players who have declined to make pronouncements backing Benitez during a period in which the Spaniard has been under fire because of Liverpool's poor domestic form, and the revelation the club's owners held talks with Jurgen Klinsmann about replacing him as manager.

Reina insisted, however, that nothing should be read into this. "To be a good manager you cannot be the friend of the players, because they have to respect you and know who is boss," he said.

He heaped scorn on theories that the Anfield dressing room is divided, with Spanish and English players at odds: "That is being said in a few newspapers that are lying. The dressing room has been absolutely together and quite strong in the bad moments."

Benitez Warns Hat-trick Hero Torres To Expect More Rotation

Rafa Benitez admitted that he is still prepared to rest Fernando Torres despite seeing the Spanish striker rescue Liverpool with a hat-trick in Saturday's 3-2 win against Middlesbrough.

Torres, a 26.5million pounds signing from Atletico Madrid, took his tally for this campaign to 21 goals as Liverpool moved back into fourth place in the Premier League.

Middlesbrough, who had French forward Jeremie Aliadiere sent off on 85 minutes for hitting out Javier Mascherano, had made life difficult for the home side, even taking the lead at Anfield through Tuncay Sanli in the first-half.

Torres, 23, proved to be the difference. Yet despite his increasing value to Liverpool, Benitez insisted that he will not burden the striker with too great a workload in the closing weeks of the season.

Benitez said: "Will he play every week? Well, with one game a week it would be easier for me, but I have explained 100 times that I need everybody fit.

"If you are playing three or four games every ten days, and we have West Ham, Newcastle and Inter Milan all coming soon, you need to see how players are and make sure that they are fit.

"It is not easy for foreign players in their first season, but Fernando is a player with power and pace and I felt that, in England, those qualities are suited to the league.

"We had two or three targets when we were looking for a striker last summer, some good options, but we decided on Torres because he is young, hungry and his ambition was to play in the Premier League. We also knew that he could be good for us.

"It is really difficult for players to score 20 goals in any season, never mind their first season in the Premiership, but Fernando has done that. His work-rate is good as well, so everything is positive for us.

"There has never been a target for him, other than for him to score goals. I want my strikers to score goals, but they also have to make space for the other strikers and play well."

Liverpool, who beat Inter Milan 2-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday, have struggled to repeat their European heroics in the Premier League this term, so Benitez admitted that this victory was crucial.

He said: "After a Champions League game, the most important thing is always to win.

"After we scored the third goal on the counter-attack, we could have scored more, but the key was to win and we did that."

Boro had been impressive and Stewart Downing's late goal gave them hope of a draw before Aliadiere was dismissed by referee Lee Mason following his clash with Mascherano.

And boss Gareth Southgate admitted that the former Arsenal youngster may now pay a heavy price for his moment of madness.

Southgate said: "Jeremie raised his hands and, although he didn't exactly floor his opponent, you must accept that if you raise your hands, particularly in front of an inexperienced referee, then you are going to get punished.

"It is something that Jeremie will have to learn from. He has done well for us this year, but he will obviously now miss three games through suspension.

"With the great competition that we now have for places up-front, it could be difficult for him to win his place back."

Southgate added: "After a tough game against Inter on Tuesday, I just felt that this game could be an anti-climax for both the Liverpool supporters and players.

"We were very solid and defended well, but we just had a two or three minute spell when the game was turned on its head when Torres scored twice in the first-half."

Fabulous Fernando

Matt Le Tissier hailed Fernando Torres as the difference he fired Liverpool back into fourth place.

The Spaniard's first Premier League hat-trick secured a vital win over Middlesbrough and with Everton playing on Monday night, took Rafa Benitez's side back into the Champions League places.

And last weekend's disastrous FA Cup defeat by Barnsley and indeed, Tuncay's ninth-minute opener for Boro, Torres' treble on 28, 29 and 61 minutes, could not have come at a better time.

It took his tally to 15 in 23 Premier League appearances so far and says Le Tissier, proved just how important he is to Liverpool's chances of salvaging something from what has been a disappointing season at Anfield.

"We all know about his quality," he told Soccer Saturday. "When he's on the pitch Liverpool have a chance of winning games, it's as simple as that. Today he was the difference.

"Today he was fantastic. They were probably the only three chances he had all game and he's walked away with a hat-trick - and that's what you want from a top-class centre-forward.

"The first was a horrendous mistake from Julio Arca. He tried to head it back to Mark Schwarzer and there was no chance of him getting enough power on the header to reach him and Torres just ran on to it, rounded the keeper and tucked it in.

"The second goal a minute later was fantastic, 25 yards out, right foot, he just arrowed it into the far corner. And from that point on Liverpool were a different side and deserved to go 3-1 up when Torres took his hat-trick goal - although again there was another bit of a mix-up."

Le Tissier did have some sympathy for Middlesbrough though and suggested that on this showing, Gareth Southgate's men will not get dragged into a relegation struggle.

He felt they deserved their early lead and hauled it back to 3-2 through Stewart Downing, before the comeback was stopped in its tracks by the sending off of Jeremie Aliadiere.

Which says Le Tissier, was referee Lee Mason's only mistake of the day.

"I've got to say the ref had a very good game the major decisions he made he got right, but I think he was a little bit harsh with this one," he said.

"Javier Mascherano had a little bit of a set-to with Luke Young and Aliadiere didn't have to get involved, but there was a little bit of chat between them and Mascherano put his hand up to his face and just gripped his jaw.

"In response Aliadiere gave him a little slap around the face and that was obviously the moment Lee Mason turned round and saw him raising his hands.

"Once you raise your hands you get sent off, but I think this makes a mockery of that rule because he barely touched him.

"Also Mascherano had raised his hand to Aliadiere's face so if you are going to apply this rule, they've both got to be sent off."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

English Premier League Preview: LiverpooL vs. Middlesbrough

Liverpool will hope to convert their European form to the Premier League when Middlesbrough visit Anfield on Saturday.

The Reds silenced the critics with a 2-0 victory over Internazionale in the UEFA Champions League last 16 on Tuesday to ease the pressure on under-fire manager Rafa Benitez.

Tuesday's impressive display against 10 men demonstrates Benitez, who has come under intense pressure this season as Liverpool limp along domestically, has the Midas touch when it comes to football on the continent.

But the Spaniard will be well aware that his fifth-placed side are running the risk of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League and any slip up against Boro will be followed by rapidly returning critical sniping.

However, Boro will be unlikely to want to aid any renaissance on Merseyside and Gareth Southgate's side will be keen to upset the odds as they remain apprehensive about being drawn into a relegation scrap.

Boro are on a fine run of form and last weekend's FA Cup draw with Sheffield United ensured the Teessiders have now lost only once in 10 games in all competitions.

And Benitez will be well aware that should he tinker too drastically with the starting line-up which overcame Inter, he will be leaving himself open to intense tactical questioning.

However, it is expected Liverpool will revert to a four-man midfield against Boro, which will see captain Steven Gerrard drop back into the centre after being given a free role against the Italians.

This is likely to mean Lucas Leiva will miss out, but Ryan Babel could keep hold of his place on the left of midfield after being handed a run of starts by Benitez.

Fernando Torres should also maintain his place in attack, while defender Martin Skrtel has returned to full training following a calf problem, but Andrei Voronin (knee) and defender Daniel Agger (metatarsal) remain out.

Jamie Carragher is ruled out due to a one-match suspension and so full-back Alvaro Arbeloa could partner Sami Hyypia in the centre of defence

Meanwhile, Southgate will make late checks on Robert Huth and Tuncay Sanli before naming his starting XI, but Afonso Alves could make his first start.

Huth missed the FA Cup fifth round trip to Bramall Lane with a foot problem but could return at Anfield, while Tuncay is back in training after a hamstring problem.

David Wheater is available before sitting out Wednesday night's cup replay through suspension, but Lee Cattermole (knee) and Chris Riggott (hamstring) remain on the sidelines.

Capello Warns Liverpool

England boss Fabio Capello has warned Liverpool not to be complacent in their return UEFA Champions League fixture at Internazionale.

The Reds head into the second leg with a 2-0 advantage following their first leg triumph against a 10-man Inter at Anfield on Wednesday.

But Capello warns that Liverpool must in no way think their lead means they have secured qualification to the quarter-finals as Inter will pose some tough opposition at the San Siro on 11th March.

"Liverpool must be very careful at the San Siro," he told Gazetta dello Sport.

"Inter are really strong at home. Even at Anfield they defended with order after (defender Marco) Materazzi's sending off, conceding only a couple of chances.

"They can reverse the result, although it shouldn't be forgotten that Liverpool haven't reached two finals in three years by chance."

The former Milan chief also issued a similar caution to his ex-club, who drew 0-0 with Arsenal on Wednesday at the Emirates Stadium.

"Milan must be just as careful as Liverpool," Capello said.

"Arsenal are capable of important feats, they find spaces and they strike at speed."

US Owner Showing Support For Rafa Benitez

Rafael Benitez has revealed that Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks is now ‘very supportive’ of him and contacts him several times each week with good luck messages.

Hicks incurred the wrath of many Liverpool supporters when he disclosed that he had entered into discussions with Jurgen Klinsmann in November with a view to offering him the Liverpool manager’s job despite Benitez still being in the position.

The talks occurred after the Spaniard fell out with the club’s American owners over his role in recruiting players and infamously declared “I’m concentrating on coaching and training my players” – a sentence he repeated at least 10 times in his pre-match Press conference for the Newcastle United away game.

Benitez, who usually wears a shirt and tie for matches subsequently donned at tracksuit for the trip to St James’ Park to seemingly emphasise his point and with the battle lines drawn between the owners and manager many fans sided with the Spaniard who brought the European Cup back to Anfield for the first time in 21 years in 2005.

Many fans remain unhappy that Hicks and George Gillett retain ownership of Liverpool and there have been demonstrations both inside and outside the stadium plus various supporter schemes to try and purchase the club but Benitez insists that his relationship with the Texan billionaire is now a positive one.

He said: “After the meeting we had, everything was clarified.

The misunderstanding was clarified and after the meeting I have had the support of Tom Hicks.

“Almost every week, not every day but before or after a game, he contacts me. He sends me e-mails saying ‘come on’, ‘well done’ and ‘you can do it’ – very positive. I e-mail him back saying ‘thank you’.

“He does it for different games. Before this game against Middlesbrough he e-mailed me saying ‘come on.’

“Before and after the Inter game he e-mailed me.

“After Barnsley he said ‘come on, keep focused on the Champions League’ – he’s very supportive.”

Benitez insists that he has had no such contact from the club’s other co-owner George Gillett in recent weeks or his son Foster, who is believed to be back in the USA, but would not comment on whether he thinks Liverpool fans should stop their protests against the Americans.

He said: “No. (I do not have any contact with Foster Gillett or George Gillett).”

“I haven’t seen Foster Gillett (for a long time). I was not doing anything different (before the fall out in November).

“I was just trying to keep in contact with them through Rick (Parry).

“After the meeting, communication has been much better.

“I cannot say anything to our supporters in terms of what they must do or not.

“My relationship with Tom Hicks is good and I don’t have any problems because I’m professional.

“It was a misunderstanding and I think he understands now all the things I was telling him before.”

Benitez insists that it is his will to do well in his role as Liverpool manager that has spurred him on in this difficult period and he prefers to concentrate on football matters rather than the off-the-field issues at Anfield.

He said: “I am a fighter, I have always been a fighter so when we had the problems I was fighting. When everything was much better I was really focused.

“I like to do my job, I am a professional and I try to do my best – always. I don’t have any concerns (that he will approach another manager in the future).”

Benitez added: “I don’t know the situation (over ownership/possible sale of the club) so I am trying to concentrate on football. The communication with Tom is through e-mail, it’s just talking about games or business for the future with players but nothing really serious because we go through Rick to do the other things – it’s just to support me and the team.”

With Jamie Carragher suspended today, Benitez must decide who to pair Sami Hyypia with in central defence.

New boy Martin Skrtel has been declared fit but while Daniel Agger is also finally back in contention, the Dane is not believed to be ready to play 90 minutes yet.

Alonso Key To Future Plans, Insists ‘Confident’ Rafa Benitez

As Liverpool continue their push for Champions League glory and regaining a top four spot to ensure qualification to next season’s competition, now is not the time for Rafael Benitez to consider cashing in on one of his most prized assets.

Benitez’s side can regain their place in the Premier League’s top four this evening – for 48 hours at least – with a victory over Middlesbrough at Anfield and a win would cap an excellent week after Tuesday’s Champions League success over Italian champions Internazionale.

It’s all so different than just seven days ago when Barnsley shattered Liverpool’s FA Cup dreams.

But in maintaining his team’s push home and abroad, Benitez insists he needs at least two quality options in each position and that’s exactly why he refuses to entertain any talk that Xabi Alonso’s days are numbered at Anfield.

For all Benitez’s rotations, the Basque playmaker used to be as close to what could be called a permanent fixture in the Liverpool line-up.

However, the emergence of South American stars Javier Mascherano and Lucas has ensured competition for places is now fierce in the midfield engine room and Alonso, returning from injury has found it difficult to get back into the side.

Although several leading clubs from across Europe are believed to be monitoring the ex-Real Sociedad man’s situation, Benitez says that they’re wasting their time. He said: “Xabi’s agent (Inaki Ibanez) was coming over this week to watch both games as he also has a player at Everton (Mikel Arteta) and I was talking to him because we have a good relationship.

“We were just talking about football but because there had been stories about Xabi I was telling him that he is a player in my mind should be here for the future.

“I like to have four midfielders because each one is different.

“Lucas is different to (Javier) Mascherano and (Steven) Gerrard and Xabi so it’s very positive to the team for me.

“He’s not going anywhere. The agent wasn’t asking, we were just talking about football. We don’t think about selling him.”

Benitez added: “All players who don’t play must be a little bit frustrated but they must compete and Xabi knows my idea.

“He’s been injured for a long time so he needs to improve his physical condition and his tempo and match fitness.

“It is always difficult when you can’t play so you must train and try to be ready.”

Alonso, who cost £10.5million in 2004, was one of Benitez’s first signings at Anfield and the manager is adamant that there has been no fall-out.

He said: “Xabi has been here a long time and if you want to win trophies and you want to compete for all the trophies you need top-class players.

“It’s important to have two good players for each position. He’s a holding midfielder with quality so he’s a key player for us.

“Now he has Mascherano playing with Gerrard or Lucas but he played against Barnsley because he can pass the ball long with accuracy.”

Benitez added: “All the players want to play. I’m sure if I said to (Daniel) Agger ‘you’re not playing because Sami (Hyypia) is playing well’ then he won’t be happy.

“If I say to Mascherano ‘you won’t play because Lucas is progressing’ then he won’t be happy – it’s part of the relationship between a manager and a competitive player.

“I didn’t have any problem with Xabi – he was injured. Now everyone is talking about how good Mascherano and Gerrard are plus Lucas is playing well.”

The Spaniard continued: “Xabi is training really hard. The other day when I was talking to him, he said ‘you told me that I had to train harder’.

“I replied ‘Xabi I know that you train hard but match fitness depends on games – if you cannot play you cannot reach this level.

“You must train harder if you want to stay at this level – all the players who are not playing.”

With Liverpool’s second leg in the San Siro coming a week after the rest of the Champions League matches because of Milan’s return match against Arsenal, Benitez’s side have four Premier League fixtures in which to try and regain a foothold in the push for qualification into next season’s competition.

Three of the games are at home with West Ham United and Newcastle United both coming to Anfield after Middlesbrough’s visit today. Benitez said: “We have two competitions now but we have four games to play before Inter again.

“Our priority now is to win all of these games and get into the top four again.

“Clearly we must think about the Premier League because to be in the top four is really important and we know this. We know that we need to improve in the Premier League and be more consistent, it’s something everyone has been talking about in the last few months and we agree with everyone.

“We need to improve, especially at home and it will be easier for us to approach every game with more confidence.”

He added: “I have confidence. My idea is to finish in the top four because I know we can do it.

“But to win the Champions League is really difficult against top sides – you can play really well and lose.

“It’s important to finish in the top four and try to progress as much as you can in the Champions League.”

Earlier this week, Benitez suggested that he found it easier to influence European matches than Premier League games as they depended more on tactics but he does not feel that the Teessiders’ visit will be a case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s show’ following the high-profile win over Roberto Mancini’s super stars.

He said: “It’s different. In Europe you can do a lot of things tactically that you can’t do in the Premier League because it’s a different style of football.

“The kind of player that you need and the way you approach the games is different.

“Some people forget that in the Premier League we have finished with 82 points, a record in the history of the club, so we can do it. We can win a lot of games – we won 11 games in a row so we know how to do it but to do it every year and be consistent is the key now.”

Benitez added: “If we start well against Middlesbrough we can maybe see a good game.

“If we get an early goal it can change the tempo of the game.

“It is always important to see the table and see if you’re in a good position so for us it is an opportunity (to go fourth) and we must take it.”

Lucas On A Learning Curve

Liverpool’s Brazilian ace Lucas Leiva is happy to continue to learn from the “best midfield in the world”.

The youngster arrived full in the knowledge that he would have to bide his time to share the field with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard, however, since Momo Sissoko’s departure to Juventus, Lucas has seen a lot more first team action than he expected, and the all-action midfielder is loving every minute of it.

"We have a lot of good midfielders at Liverpool and I am learning a lot from them," said Lucas.

"I think Steven is one of the best players in the world, so I watch him a lot to see the way he plays and the movements he makes.

"Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso are different kinds of players to Steven but they are also very, very good players and it is good to be able to work alongside them.”I have to keep working hard if I want to stay in the team," added the 21-year-old.

"There are so many good players at Liverpool, particularly in the position that I play, that if I was to stop working and doing the right things to improve, I'm sure I would lose my place.

"I think the manager trusts me and has confidence in me though and I am just trying to keep on working hard and learning."

Lucas unexpectedly started in the win against Inter Milan, and although he was subbed off on the hour mark, the fact he started ahead of Alonso reflects manager Rafael Benitez’s faith in him.

He said: "I enjoyed it because it was a good result and we played very well. We'd had a difficult week after being knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley and we knew we had to deliver a big performance - and we did.

"The atmosphere the supporters created was beautiful. The crowd was fantastic and it was great for me to play in such an atmosphere.

"But now we must concentrate on finishing the job in Milan because we know that it will be tough when we play Inter in the San Siro.

"For me, the Champions League is the most important competition in the world and it would be fantastic if we could do well in it again, because Liverpool have a wonderful history in it.

"Liverpool is one of the top five clubs in the world, so we should always be looking to do well in every competition we are in at home and abroad."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Kuyt Looking To Build On Inter Success

Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt is hoping that the dramatic victory over Inter on Tuesday will serve as a catalyst for a campaign that has disappointed on so many fronts until now.

The Dutchman scored the crucial breakthrough goal in the 85th minute of the 2-0 success, and he sees no reason why the Reds can't transfer their strong form in Europe to their domestic challenge.

"Everyone I've spoken to, especially the Dutch players around Europe, know how good Liverpool can be - even if we've not shown it over the last couple of games," he said.

"First we have to beat Inter, and reach the next round, and then we can take it from there.

"The manager and all the players are saying the same thing - keep focused. We played well against Inter but want to play more like that in the Champions League and Premier League now.

"If we can go a long way in this competition like last year, it would make up for the disappointments so far this season. We know we have the quality, we just have to show it on the pitch."

Carragher: We Must Forget About Inter Milan

Defender Jamie Carragher has cut short Liverpool’s post Inter Milan celebrations to warn his team mates against losing focus in the Premiership.

Tuesday’s Champions League defeat of Italy’s top side was the highlight of a largely disappointing season for Rafa Benitez’s side.

Carragher wants the performance to be a springboard to a top four finish in the Premiership. He has told Liverpool players not to lose focus in the run up to the return match at the San Siro stadium next month and has demanded total concentration in tomorrow’s home match against Middlesbrough.

"We realise that we've now got three or four league games before the second leg in Milan and we're going to have to make sure that we are in this competition next season,” he said. "There's something about us when we play in Europe but we've got a job to do in the Premiership and we have to make sure we don't lose sight of that.

"I thought Inter defended brilliantly at times but in the end we got a couple of goals. If someone had offered us that before the game we would have been delighted but I'm still expecting a really difficult game when we go over there."

Skrtel Back In Training

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel has returned to full training following a calf problem.

The Slovakia international only joined The Reds last month but he has been limited to just four appearances and has not featured since the goalless draw with Chelsea.

However, he could now be available for this weekend's Premier League clash against Middlesbrough after recovering quickly from a pulled muscle.

Skrtel told SITA: "The treatment has been going well. It has got better and better.

"The prognosis was that I should be back in up to 10 days and this is the ninth one."

Skrtel was delighted with the performance of his team-mates in the 2-0 victory over Internazionale on Tuesday, which sets Liverpool up as favourites to make it through to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.

"The whole team played very well. We were the better team for the whole 90 minutes, we did not give them anything," he said.

"Of course, we had it easier after (Marco) Materrazzi's red card which was perhaps too harsh.

"It was just a pity we did not score more goals, but even so the result 2-0 is very promising ahead of the second leg. I believe we will go through."

Daniel Agger Set To Be Eased Back Into Action

Injury-jinxed Daniel Agger has been given the go-ahead to resume his Liverpool career.

But the centre-back will be eased back into the first-team fray by Rafael Benitez after missing the last five months with a broken metatarsal.

Agger was told he can make his long-awaited comeback after visiting a specialist in Denmark yesterday.

The 23-year-old has been training in a pair of specially-modified boots and was close to making a return last month before suffering a setback.

Now his injury nightmare appears to finally be at an end, although Agger is unlikely to be thrown straight into the team despite Liverpool facing a centre-back crisis tomorrow.

With Jamie Carragher serving a one-match suspension, Martin Skrtel almost certainly still out and Jack Hobbs on loan at Scunthorpe United, Sami Hyypia is the only other senior centre-back available to Benitez for the Premier League visit of Middlesbrough.
Skrtel has missed the last two games after picking up a calf injury during training last week, and isn’t expected to regain full fitness in time for tomorrow’s game.

“The treatment has been going well,” said the Slovakian international yesterday.

“It has got better and better. The prognosis was that I should be back in up to 10 days and this is the ninth one.”

Meanwhile, Xabi Alonso will decide on his Anfield future at the end of the season.

The Spain midfielder became a regular in the Liverpool team on his arrival from Real Sociedad as one of Benitez’s first signings in August 2004.

However, this season Alonso has suffered from a metatarsal injury and a loss of form, and has seen both Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva move ahead of him in the central midfield pecking order.

Alonso, who has started just 13 games this campaign, was an unused substitute for the Champions League triumph over Inter Milan on Tuesday.

The 26-year-old signed a new five-year deal in the summer but has long been courted by Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Former Liverpool youngster Besian Idrizaj has been released from hospital in Austria after collapsing while playing for new club FC Wacker Innsbruck on Saturday.

The 20-year-old fell to the floor 14 minutes after coming on as substitute in his team’s game against Sturm Graz.

Extensive heart and brain tests showed no obvious problem and Idrizaj, who never played for the Liverpool first team but scored a hat-trick in the friendly win at Wrexham in July, has been allowed to return home.

The striker left Anfield for his homeland on transfer deadline day last month after loan spells at Luton Town and Crystal Palace earlier this season.

Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt Certain That Reds Can Improve Their Premier League Standing After Champions League Win

Dutch International Dirk Kuyt is hoping that Liverpool can repeat their performance in the Premier League as they did in the UEFA Champions League, where they beat Inter Milan 2-0 at Anfield in the first-leg last night.

Rafael Benitez’s side have had a comfortable time in the European League in the last couple of years attaining the crown in 2004/05 and making it to the finals last season.

Despite their fine performance in the Champions League, the Reds have so far failed to deliver the same level of performances in the Premier League.

However, Kuyt is certain his side will be encouraged by Wednesday's 2-0 UEFA Champions League triumph over Internazionale and deliver some fine performances in England’s top flight league.

“Everyone I've spoken to, especially the Dutch players around Europe, know how good Liverpool can be - even if we've not shown it over the last couple of games," he said.

"First we have to beat Inter, and reach the next round, and then we can take it from there.

"The manager and all the players are saying the same thing - keep focused. We played well against Inter but want to play more like that in the Champions League and Premier League now.

"If we can go a long way in this competition like last year, it would make up for the disappointments so far this season. We know we have the quality, we just have to show it on the pitch."