Saturday, August 30, 2008

Barry's Liverpool Showdown

Aston Villa face Liverpool this weekend in the third round of the Premier League. Gareth Barry will likely line-up against the team that flirted with him all summer. Barry remains a committed Villan.

In one of the most protracted pieces of transfer speculation of the summer, England international and Aston Villa captain Gareth Barry had alerted Liverpool to his growth in stature. The courtship was two-ways as Barry, who has been a Villan all his professional life, went as far to criticise manager Martin O'Neill for making him feel unwanted.

The midlands club set deadlines for the deal, while the Mersey side recruited other areas of the team with expensive acquisitions, namely Robbie Keane.

The deal now looks dead. For this window at least, but the story has risen again because of the ironic timing of Liverpool's visit to Villa Park.

Barry is quoted in the Metro as saying: "Will Sunday be strange? I am 100 per cent for Villa. That's all I'll be doing. That won't be strange at all. I've spoken to the manager and I've no problem giving 100 per cent for Aston Villa - and that will be starting against Liverpool on Sunday."

"Will the fans all be behind me?" He asked. "All I can do is give 100 per cent for the club. That is all the fans will want to see anyway. I am sure that will be enough."

"Am I here for the long haul? I always take things a season at a time. This speculation happened at the end of last season and it has been decided I'll be staying at Villa. 'I'll take this season now," he continued, "concentrate on that and hopefully we can improve on last season."

Forever begging the questions Barry added: "Do I feel hung out to dry over what has happened? That is what the football business is all about. I am contracted to Villa. They set a fee and it wasn't matched. Rules are rules."

Regarding any ill-feeling toward his current manager, the 27-year old said: "The manager knows I will be giving 100 per cent for himself and the club and that will be fine for everyone.... It's also nice hearing team-mates want you to stay. We have a great dressing room. You want everyone to stay really but I would have been disappointed if they wanted me to leave!"

Perhaps due to the public flirtation between Barry and Liverpool, Martin O'Neill has alternated the captaincy, with Barry yet to receive the armband this campaign, he said: "The manager decided to change the captaincy and I've got no problem with that. Nigel Reo-Coker has done it and Martin Laursen has done it. I enjoyed being captain but it won't affect my performances," he said.

Concerning his own fitness and recent performances, the midfielder added: "I feel I am getting back to my best. It is going to take a while. It wasn't the ideal pre-season for me... the games are always the best thing. It was a nice run-out even if it was at left-back."

The Hastings-born man finished by saying: "How far am I away from my peak? I don't know. I suppose everyone will wait for top performances and then say I'm fit so I suppose I'll have to start producing some of those."

Capello Accepts Gerrard's England Absence, Says Liverpool Boss Benitez

Rafa Benitez insisted he had made his peace with England coach Fabio Capello yesterday and dismissed claims of a breakdown in communication over Steven Gerrard's latest injury absence.

Gerrard will have the second of two minor groin operations today and will miss Capello's first two competitive games in charge, as England begin their World Cup campaign against Andorra next Saturday and Croatia four days later.

Capello was reportedly unhappy at being kept in the dark over Liverpool's decision to arrange surgery for their skipper in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday night's Champions League qualifying round win over Standard Liege.

He phoned Liverpool's Melwood training ground for an explanation, and Benitez held clear-the-air talks with the Italian. 'I spoke with Fabio this morning, and he asked me what was going on,' he said. 'I know him well from his AC Milan days, and we had a good conversation, a positive one. I explained the timing to him, and he knows what we did was in the best interests of the player, Liverpool and England.

'Stevie was struggling and playing in pain, and it was clear he could not have gone on like that. If he had, he would have risked doing more damage and being out longer. I explained this to Fabio and he accepted it.

'It was impossible to delay it any longer. It needed doing as quickly as possible and our doctor was in contact with the England doctors to tell them what was happening. He had a small operation today and will have another tomorrow, but you shouldn't read anything into that. It is a minor procedure, and the recovery period is the same as we said on Wednesday.

'It should be around 15 days, and, as well as missing the two England qualifiers, it is going to be very close for our game with Manchester United on September 13.'

Any arguments over Owen Hargreaves' availability for Andorra and Croatia were finally ended when he withdrew from Manchester United's Super Cup meeting with Zenit St Petersburg in Monaco.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had risked Capello's wrath by planning to use Hargreaves for 45 minutes but claiming he would not be fit for England duty, due to a long-standing knee problem.

The likelihood of another club versus country row subsided, though, when the midfielder aggravated the injury in training.

Rafael Benitez Puts Fabio Capello In His Place

Rafa Benitez told Fabio Capello that Liverpool came before England, and that any decisions taken over Steven Gerrard's medical treatment were exclusively Liverpool's.

Capello was upset to learn that Gerrard had been sent for a groin operation, ruling him out of the start of England's World Cup qualifying campaign.

Capello’s midfield crisis deepened when Manchester United’s Owen Hargreaves failed to start last night’s Uefa Super Cup match against Zenit St Petersburg.

Hargreaves suffered a reaction to his long-standing knee injury and was understood to be very down over the return of his tendinitis.

"He trained in the stadium last night,’’ said United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, of Hargreaves.

"There is no more we could do. We gave him the right platform, the right training program and the right tempo, so that’s a disappointment.

"He said he felt his knee. He said he wasn’t fit enough to play, so there’s nothing we can do about it. If a player declares himself unfit you have to accept that.’’

England's coach names his squad for the ties against Andorra and Croatia and had been hoping to use Hargreaves and particularly Gerrard.

"He called me and we spoke about Steve's operation and how long it would be,'' Benitez said.

"Everything was really positive. If we'd delayed it, then he might have been out for even longer. Fabio Capello understands this.

"Our doctor is in contact with doctors of the national team, but the decision is our decision. Steven couldn't play and was struggling with the problem he had and was always in pain.''

An indication of the problems England currently endure was highlighted by the Portsmouth chief executive, Peter Storrie.

"If you talk to our foreign players, they also find it strange that they get so much time and space when they play England,'' said Storrie, who has players such as Croatia's Niko Kranjcar at Portsmouth.

"We allow them to knock the ball about, especially at Wembley.''

Storrie added that his manager, Harry Redknapp, was "very happy'' at the club despite rumours linking him with West Ham.

"I'd say I was 99.9 per cent certain he's not going anywhere,'' Storrie added.”You could argue that Portsmouth is a better place to be than West Ham.''

Liverpool Fans Angry At New Stadium Delay

Liverpool's proposed new stadium has suffered a fresh delay of at least a year, with fears now mounting on Merseyside over whether the ground can ever be built under the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

An official statement pointed to global market conditions for what was described as a "short-term" problem, though The Daily Telegraph understands that Hicks and Gillett accept that the earliest target for an opening date is the 2012-13 season.

However, there are now serious doubts over whether the two Americans will raise the necessary finance for a project that is estimated to cost £350 million.

Next year, they must also either extend or refinance the £350 million loan that they took out with the Royal Bank of Scotland and the American bank, Wachovia, in January.

The latest setback to the credibility of Hicks and Gillett has prompted renewed calls for them to sell the club, with Dubai International Capital's takeover offer of about £400 million still on the table.

"We feel the Americans have no intention of building the stadium," said Jay McKenna, a spokesman for the Spirit of Shankly supporters' group.

"There is a lot of anger. It does not just affect the Liverpool fans, but also the wider community – regeneration is linked to the new stadium. The best thing they could do is step aside for new owners to come in."

Liverpool City Council described the announcement as "disappointing" and warned that they would have to consider revised plans to increase the capacity of the stadium to 73,000.

It also adds to the air of soap opera surrounding the club, although the relationship between Hicks and Gillett is said to have improved significantly in recent months.

However, manager Rafael Benitez has clashed recently with chief executive Rick Parry over the failed attempt to sign Gareth Barry.

"It [the stadium] is not good news, but we cannot change things," Benitez said. "I understand very well our fans and what they may think, but they will understand that I must concentrate on the next match."

Liverpool expect officially to sign the lease from the council for the Stanley Park site next month and are adamant that they well see the project through.

"Our commitment to building a new world-class LFC stadium is undiminished," a spokesman said.

"We will use this period productively and revisit the plans for the stadium to increase its capacity to 73,000 seats."

Riera Flies In For Liverpool Medical

Liverpool are on the verge of completing the signing of winger Albert Riera from Espanyol after the Spaniard flew to Merseyside for a medical.

The terms of his transfer have agreed between the two clubs, so now Riera, 26, needs only to satisfy Liverpool’s medics about his fitness for the deal to be finalised.

The fee involved is believed to be some £8million.

The move would see Riera back in the Barclays Premier League and back in the North-West, because he spent a period on loan to Manchester City during the second half of the 2005-06 campaign.

He made 12 League appearances for City, plus three as a substitute, and scored one goal - the first in a 3-0 victory for Stuart Pearce’s side over Newcastle United in February 2006.

Riera earlier opted for Liverpool ahead of their city rivals Everton.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Gerrard Has To Put His Club Before Country, Capello

Club versus country is a perennial struggle. I used to play for England, suffer an injury and the letters from Liverpool fans would question me for putting my country first.

It seemed harsh at the time, especially when I was nursing a broken ankle, but they had a point: I was being paid by Liverpool and missing matches through injuries collected in an England shirt. I estimate that I missed hundreds of Liverpool games. Their harsh words told me what I already knew - Liverpool was my day job.

Your club always has to come first. Not just because of the growth in prestige of the Champions League and the Barclays Premier League in the modern game, but because they are your paymasters. Club first, country second. It's how it has to be.

Liverpool's coaching staff would not have thought for one moment about England's World Cup issues in deciding on an operation for Steven Gerrard. A difficult away game in Zagreb is nothing more than a necessary distraction to them.

There is nothing wrong with them choosing the timing and sending Gerrard for his operation, if that is the advice of their medical staff. It's a loss to England but no club would act any differently.

He will be upset at missing the two World Cup qualifiers, but particularly that match away to Croatia. The England players will feel they have unfinished business against Slaven Bilic's team after the haunting experiences of the last meeting between the nations. You want a player like Gerrard in the trenches for a tricky game like that. England will do well to earn a draw there.

The best players want to play in the big games. This isn't about a player choosing the draw of the Champions League ahead of England duty. What more could he have done?

Gerrard wasn't himself against Standard Liege and nor was he a driving force for England against the Czech Republic, though starting him on the left side didn't exactly help.

So I can understand the need for him to have an operation. Go under the knife, get it right and come back on top of his game for the rest of the season and the qualifying campaign. It's better that he returns to full health, rather than playing on through the injury without being able to fully let himself go.

His absence is a loss for England but it makes the selection simple. If Fabio Capello wants to play with four in midfield, Joe Cole will come in on the left and he's played there before. He's also started the season well and will thrive on the responsibility of taking that position against Croatia.

It will leave Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the centre. Capello may choose to add Owen Hargreaves, too, if he is fit to play and England want to play with the 'belt-and-braces' tactic of two holding midfielders throwing a screen across the back four.

The other thing to remember is that England have more than enough quality players to emerge unscathed. Let's not start looking for excuses already.

Mascherao Set For Villa Return

Olympic gold medallist Javier Mascherano will almost certainly be plunged into Liverpool's tough away Barclays Premier League game at Aston Villa on Sunday.

The match has added spice after the summer of disagreement between Villa boss Martin O'Neill and Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez over the drawn-out saga of Gareth Barry's on-off move to Anfield.

And their confrontation will be the highlight of the afternoon at Villa Park under the eagle-eye of the TV cameras.

Benitez will go into the match without skipper Steven Gerrard, who has had an operation on a groin problem that will rule him out for a fortnight.

Therefore the game will miss out on a clash between Gerrard and Barry, with many thinking that by now the pair would be side by side in Liverpool's midfield.

The Villa man has been the subject of a summer-long transfer wrangle, only ended this week when the player opted to stay with Villa this season - although he was not prepared to discuss a new contract until the end of the campaign.

Mascherano's return from the Olympics, where he helped Argentina retain their crown, gives Benitez the obvious option to replace Gerrard in midfield.

Benitez said: "Mascherano is training well, Lucas likewise, so both of them will come into contention for the Aston Villa game. And we also have the young player, Damien Plessis.

"We have plenty of options now in the middle, but I have no problem considering Mascherano for the match after his trip to Beijing.

"Maybe having won a second gold medal he will be inspired to perform well for us.

"He has kept in contact with me during the Olympics and has been keen to know everything that has been going on at the club. Now he is back he is a welcomed addition to our playing strength."

Benitez will also expect another all-action display from Dirk Kuyt, who grabbed the late goal on Wednesday that made sure Liverpool reached the Champions League group stage.

Benitez said: "You must give credit to Dirk Kuyt. Sometimes he makes a mistake and people react, but he never lets it worry him.

"He goes again, he gives everything and he did just that for 120 minutes to make sure we qualified for the group stages.

"The key is that he never hides. He played on the right, on the left and then as a second striker with (Fernando) Torres.

"What he gives to the team is really important. You must judge over a full season - sometimes in one game it may not always be perfect.

"People call for more pace and special ability. But over a whole season he is always available, always ready and he is a fantastic professional."

Anfield Saviour Savours New Role

IT’S no wonder Dirk Kuyt isn’t making any demands to be restored to his favoured centre-forward role – as he’s become a Liverpool goal hero playing out of position.

The Dutchman proved to be their Champions League saviour once more on Wednesday when his extra-time goal ensured progression to the group stages at the expense of the battling Belgians from Liege.

Kuyt popped up in the penalty area for a classic poacher’s strike – even though he again spent the game playing wide on the right.

And although it might not be his natural position, it hasn’t affected his ability to find the net on the European stage.

He scored eight times in 12 Champions League games last season and his goal against Standard was the fourth consecutive two-legged tie in which he has netted for Liverpool.

For someone who hasn’t hit the target in a Premier League game since last November, the statistics are rather puzzling – but it’s not something Kuyt will waste his time worrying about.

“I was pleased to score again in Europe and I have a good record in the competition. But the fact that we won was the main thing,” he said.

“I’ve played on right for the last 10, 15 games for the team. I try to work really hard, also in defence, and do a lot of important things for the team as well as scoring goals. So I don’t mind playing on the right.

“I will play wherever the boss wants me to play. For me the most important thing is to win some trophies and I think we have a good enough squad to do something this year.”

Since a worryingly below-par performance yielded a goalless draw in the first leg in Liege, Liverpool have won three consecutive games.

But the displays have hardy got much better and Kuyt’s intervention on Wednesday was the fourth goal in three matches Liverpool have scored in the final 10 minutes to snatch those victories.

But far from being disheartened that they have had to do it the hard way, those inside Anfield are putting a more positive spin on things.

The results are gelling together even though the players aren’t, and at the moment that is the most important statistic.

Kuyt explains: “We know we’re not playing really well, but we’re good in defence and we always have the quality and belief that we can score in every game.

“And that’s the important thing. We can play better and things will come right.

“That’s the thing about the team. Speaking for myself, I didn’t give my best performance for Liverpool. But that’s not important.

“What is important is that we won the game and I did everything to make that happen. One chance can change everything and I was really happy to score.

“Sometimes things like this happen in football. I just said before you can’t find any bad sides in Europe and Standard Liege are a very tough side. They were really strong. In the end, we were really happy that it didn’t go to penalties.

“But this is the fun thing about football. We know how good the Champions League can be and we always want to be part of it, fighting until the end.

“The fans were great for us and they helped us keep going right to the end.”

But they were also deeply frustrated and although they were grateful for Kuyt’s late volley, they were also bemoaning the lack of natural width from both sides.

The left is likely to be the first flank where that problem is addressed with the capture of Albert Riera, while time is running out to find an adequate outlet for Kuyt’s side.

But he is not concerned that his manager Rafael Benitez is in the market for someone to challenge for the slot he has unexpectedly made his own since the back end of last season.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen about players coming in,” said Kuyt.

“We’ve got a good squad and every good player is welcome in our team. I want to win things and you can only win things with the best players.”

Before Kuyt struck, there was an inevitability starting to swell around Anfield that penalties could be imminent.

Which might not necessarily have been a problem in terms of Liverpool’s progress given that they have a goalkeeper who has such an impressive shoot-out record since arriving in England.

Pepe Reina’s saves have already got LIverpool to a Champions League final and won them an FA Cup and the importance of his early block from Brazilian full-back Dante in the first leg against Liege was underlined heavily on Wednesday.

But the Spaniard said: “We were a bit tired in extra time and we thought it might go to penalties – but thankfully it didn’t, Dirk scored and we are through.

“They were a good team over both legs. It was really tough. It was not the best game, but we are through. Dirk scored at the end for us, which was great. I don’t know how many goals he has scored now in Europe, but it is his competition.

“We are not playing our best and we need to do better. We are at the early part of the season and in a few months we will be at the top of our fitness. Every team is like this.

“But, yes, it would probably have been a disaster if we had missed out.”

Luck Will Run Out If We Don’t Improve – Dirk Kuyt

DIRK KUYT has warned that Liverpool’s luck will run out if they continue to under-perform – resulting in an early Champions League exit.

Yesterday’s draw for the group stages paired Fernando Torres with his former club, Atletico Madrid, who finished fourth in La Liga last season.

Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven are also in Group D as well as Marseille, who shocked Liverpool 1-0 in the group stages at Anfield last season.

In fact, it was only a victory in France in the final group game that saw Liverpool through to the knockout stages.

And Kuyt fears a similar struggle this time after it took his late extra-time goal to break the deadlock against Standard Liege in the third qualifying round this week, following another underwhelming Liverpool display.

“One day your luck will run out and then we will have to perform really well to win,” said Kuyt.

“Of course if we play like that in the group stages we will be in danger of not progressing.

“We all know what happened last year in the group stages and we just want to improve as quickly as possible.

“We know it was not the quality we want to show. Off the pitch we are speaking with each other about this because we want to improve.

“We are going to improve, but it has to be quickly because one time our luck will run out.”

The game with Atletico will also see a reunion for Luis Garcia with his former club, as he moved to Madrid shortly after Torres made the switch in the other direction in the summer of 2007.

Ex-Liverpool forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle is also in their squad as well as established internationals Maniche, Diego Forlan, captain Maxi Rodriguez, Tomas Ujfalusi and Simao.

Atletico haven’t played in the Champions League since they reached the quarter-finals in 1997 but showed their pedigree with a 4-0 win over Schalke 04 on Wednesday

to secure their place in the group stages with a 4-1 aggregate victory.

The group as whole should hold little fear, however. Liverpool brushed aside PSV in both the groups and the last 16 on their way to the 2007 final and Marseille were easily beaten 4-0 on their own turf once Liverpool had regained their foothold in the group.

But with Standard occasionally threatening to pull off another Anfield surprise on Wednesday, Kuyt is only too aware that Liverpool need to up their game once again.

However, he feels the character and belief they showed to ensure their progress can act as a platform for improvement – which is much-needed with a trip to Aston Villa in the Premier League looming on Sunday

“It was a very difficult match for us, but we showed belief in ourselves and kept working hard,” said Kuyt. “We got our goal and we’re in the Champions League.

“We all want to play really well as a team. We haven’t given our best performance so far, but we are working very hard in training every day to progress.

“We know we have to progress. Maybe we have had a lot of luck so far, but we know we are going to improve, but to do that we have to change things and quickly.

“We know that we have to get much better and we will. We know we have the quality. I think the good thing is that even when we are not playing well, we fight for each other.

“We just want to improve as quickly as possible, starting with Aston Villa on Sunday.”

Arbeloa Acknowledges Stiff Competition

Alvaro Arbeloa is refusing to get cozy in Liverpool's starting XI, as he is well aware of the competition he will face from his team-mates throughout the season.

Arbeloa has started all four of the Reds' competitive fixtures so far this season, leading some to declare that he has won the title of first-choice right-back.

But the Spaniard dismissed the notion that he has cemented his place in the team, saying in LFC Magazine: "No way. You can never say that you are a first choice at this football club.

"If you start to think like that then you can just about guarantee that you are about to lose your place.

"It's a big fight to get into the team – it's a bigger fight to stay there. I need to play to the best of my ability in every minute of every game I start to stand a chance."

Nonetheless, it seems clear that Rafael Benitez prefers his compatriot over the ageing Steve Finnan, who for so long owned that slot on the right-hand side of Liverpool's rearguard.

The other key challenger is Philipp Degen, the Swiss international who arrived at Anfield on a free transfer earlier in the summer, but his opportunities have been non-existent thus far due to injury.

But Arbeloa was full of praise for both Degen and Finnan, insisting each will prove tough competition as the campaign wears on.

"I don't know too much about Philipp Degen but what I have seen of him since he came to Liverpool you can see why the manager signed him. He is good going forward," the EURO 2008 winner continued.

"You also have Steve Finnan still at the club and any time he plays he plays well. He is very consistent and no-one ever seems to get the better of him.

"Degen has been injured but he has come here to compete and he will want to play. When he is fit then I know that I will have a bigger battle on my hands than ever before."

Thompson Satisfied With Reds' CL Draw

Phil Thompson believes Liverpool will have few problems negotiating their way to the Champions League knockout stages despite drawing one of the tougher groups.

Last night's official draw saw Rafael Benitez's men pitted against Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, French giants Olympique Marseille and Spanish up-and-comers Atletico Madrid in Group D.

The Reds have met PSV and l'OM during their past two Champions League campaigns, but Atletico remain an unknown quantity as far as the Mersey men are concerned.

And while Thompson admitted that los Rojiblancos could be a stumbling block, he insisted that Liverpool should have no problem topping the group.

"Atletico are a tough draw, but we've got enough to get through," the man who won two European Cups during his playing days at Anfield told the club's official website.

"We have the know-how and the knowledge to get through this group - I can't see it being a problem.

"We know about PSV and Marseille and I can't see a problem there. Atletico, yes, that'll be difficult but we will go through.

"The important thing is making a good start. We took one point from the first three games last season and we've got to do better."

Benitez Will Try To Deliver Width With Riera And Milner

Liverpool are set to make Albert Riera and James Milner their priorities before the transfer window finally shuts on Monday.

Despite going into the summer with the wide positions at Anfield being a huge concern, the bulk of Benitez’s money has been spent on Irish striker Robbie Keane. This has created some discomfort amongst Liverpool fans, who weren’t too disappointed with Steven Gerrard’s and Fernando Torres’ contributions last season.

Despite picking up three wins and remaining unbeaten in all competitions so far, Liverpool’s performances have been poor at best and it took everything barring penalties to see off Standard Liege in the Champions League qualifiers.

The lottery of penalties was avoided only with a last gasp Dirk Kuyt effort against the tiring Belgians, who deserved to progress over the two legs.

Qualification for the Champions League proper is not only vital to avoiding depressing Thursday night football, but it massages egos / reputations and the money secured will mean that Benitez will have another attempt at adding the finishing touches to his squad, before he has to be happy with what he’s got.

These final jig-saw pieces (in what must be the biggest jig-saw ever...) have supposedly been sounded out in the form of Espanyol’s Albert Riera and Newcastle’s James Milner.

Negotiations with the Spaniard are at a very advanced stage, where as James Milner’s recent transfer request has meant a fury of activity from clubs who are eager to add a talented Englishman to their squad, namely Aston Villa and Everton among others.

Liverpool’s supposed interest in the former Leeds and Villa midfielder (Milner) is likely to frustrate David Moyes, who saw a heftier bid for Riera rebuffed as the player was not interested in moving to that half of Merseyside.

Milner’s written transfer request was allegedly sent on the 20th of August, yet it was only made public on Wednesday. From that, it is likely that Milner is confident of a move away from the club, despite Kevin Keegan’s reluctance to talk of his (Milner’s) possible departure.

As an English player, the Leeds-born winger may prove difficult to resist as Benitez rubs his last pennies together, given UEFA’s new rulings on English players.

Any move away from St James’ Park is likely to upset Newcastle fans. The Geordies have held high hopes for Milner, who despite his seemingly long career, remains only 22 years old.

Fans of Liverpool may be disappointed that these two players [should they join] are not of the Quaresma or Silva mould but Benitez is most likely doing the best he can with the funds remaining. I know I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed with the arrival of both, despite the boo-boos of a Man City loan, long in the memory.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Match Report: LiverpooL 1 - 0 Standard Liege

Dirk Kuyt struck the extra-time winner which will be worth millions to Liverpool as they secured their place in the Champions League group stages.

Kuyt has been Liverpool's lucky charm in such games, and this was his ninth goal in 15 European outings.

Last season he scored seven times as Liverpool reached the semi-finals, but none were worth more than the one he forced over the line tonight with two minutes of extra-time left.

Liverpool had stood on the brink of a shattering elimination from the competition as brave Liege pushed them to the very limits.

But somehow Liverpool held their nerve, winning through after another performance which left much to be desired.

Brazilian full-back Fabio Aurelio replaced new signing Andrea Dossena for Liverpool, the only change from the side that beat Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Such was the impact Liege made on Liverpool in the first leg, maybe that change was a reflection on the hounding Dossena suffered from Wilfried Dalmat a fortnight ago.

The Belgian champions, trying to reach the group stages for the first time, had American defender Oguchi Onyewu back from suspension and he came into coach Laszlo Boloni's side.

Roared on by 3,000 noisy Belgians, Liege went searching for the away goal which they knew would make Liverpool's task so much more difficult.

It took a fine, low save from Jose Reina after seven minutes from Dieumerci Mbokani's 20-yard shot to keep Standard from taking that early lead.

Liverpool responded with an Aurelio curling free-kick which was punched away by Aragon Espinoza, with Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane both failing to capitalise on the loose ball.

Then Steven Gerrard's instant pass into Yossi Benayoun's feet ended with the little midfielder mis-hitting his shot wide.

But Liege were intent on testing Liverpool. Marouane Fellaini forced Reina into another save, stretching full-length to his right, Mbokani having failed to connect seconds earlier as the ball dropped invitingly in the box.

In a very open game, Xabi Alonso saw a 25-yard strike skim away from goal with Espinoza beaten.

Liege were certainly not overawed by Anfield, and their pace and confidence increased by the minute.

They had run Liverpool ragged in the first game, and at times they achieved the same effect in this second match.

Fellaini and Steven Defour were again giving Liverpool plenty to worry them in midfield, picking up possession and breaking Liverpool's flow.

Another Aurelio effort saw Espinoza in action again, but Liverpool were not making genuine chances.

The talented Mbokani, with four goals already this season, was engaged in an uncompromising war with Martin Skrtel while Dalmat and Axel Witsel on the flanks stretched Alvaro Arbeloa and Aurelio.

Liverpool opportunities were rare. Kuyt, in his 100th game for the club, headed wide from Aurelio's corner after 40 minutes, but the game was not going according to the home side's script.

Belief was flooding through Liege's minds and bodies, and Liverpool were not playing well and making too many unforced errors.

Defour volleyed over the bar, and there was pressure and tension every time Liege got near Liverpool's area.

The longer it went on, the more mistakes were made. Alonso's passing often went astray, with Benayoun seemingly unable to find a red shirt while Keane was virtually anonymous.

Mohamed Sarr was booked after an hour for a foul on Torres, with Ryan Babel replacing Benayoun before the re-start.

Torres then worked his way through to see a shot blocked by Onyewu, who was having a fine game in defence to keep the Spaniard relatively quiet.

Alonso produced a rare shot after a quick-passing move, but Espinoza was equal to it.

Liverpool continued to labour, with Keane missing in the area after being set-up by Kuyt.

Gerrard fired over the bar soon afterward, and then saw an angled cross-shot fly well wide.

With seven minutes of the regulation 90 left, Benitez sent on youngster Nabil El Zhar for Keane, with Kuyt pushing forward to support Torres.

Igor De Camargo headed just wide in the closing minutes, Milan Jovanovic having replaced Dalmat, but extra-time was an inevitability.

The tension escalated, and Liverpool upset the Belgians by not returning the ball after it had been kicked out for a player to have treatment.

Then Bonfim Dante was booked for a foul on El Zhar, amid continued exchanges of views on the benches.

Liege sent on Salim Toama after 100 minutes for De Camargo, but still Liverpool were making bad errors while the visitors kept coming forward with confidence.

In the second period of extra-time, Espinoza was finally extended when he beat away a 30-yard shot from Arbeloa, with Torres heading wide soon after.

El Zhar should have had a penalty when he was sent tumbling in the box, but eventually Liverpool forced their way ahead.

Babel crossed from the left with just two minutes left, and Kuyt forced the ball home on the far post for the only goal of the tie, leaving Liege barely any time to regroup.

Can Liverpool Turn Luck Into Fortune?

In one sense, Liverpool have had a perfect start to their season. Six points from two Premier League games and successful passage into the next stage of the Champions League is the best they could have accomplished to date. They’ve been almost-perfect at the back, conceding just one goal in 390 minutes of football.

This, of course, is painting a picture so pretty that it would make Water Lillies look like a photo of horse dung. Liverpool have yet to face anything approaching the top class teams they’ll have to overcome if they’re to have a truely successful season. They have yet to score a goal in the first 80 minutes of any match. They have yet to win a game by more than a single goal.

If Liverpool are to continue to be lucky, rather than good, then their season is surely about to fall badly off the rails. Their upcoming Premier League fixtures involve a trip to Villa Park and a visit from Manchester United. They are also just three weeks away from the group stage of the Champions League. Their recent success in this competition means they will be the top seed in their group, but they can still expect to face much sterner opposition than Standard Liege.

And yet, a glorious opportunity awaits if they can kick their season out of first gear. Another two Premier League wins would see them eight points clear of Manchester United and looking down on every other team apart from, most likely, Chelsea. A kind draw from Mr Platini would pit them against Eindhoven, Basel and, I kid you not, Anorthosis Famagusta (who, interestingly enough, are managed by former Newcastle player Timur Ketsbaia).

Gareth Barry Deal Finally Over For Liverpool

GARETH BARRY’S agent has stated the England midfielder will stay with Aston Villa rather than make a late move before the transfer window closes.

Liverpool have been eager to sign Barry this summer but have been unwilling to match Villa’s £18million valuation of the 27-year-old.

Agent Alex Black said: “After much speculation I can confirm that Gareth Barry will not leave Aston Villa before the transfer window closes.

“Gareth made the decision to stay two weeks ago and informed Aston Villa of his intentions.

“During this time discussions have taken place to decide the best way forward for all parties.

“Any talks regarding potential new contracts at Aston Villa will not take place until the end of the season. Gareth wants to concentrate on playing on the best of his ability for Aston Villa, and we hope this draws a line under the matter.”

Meanwhile, Villa manager Martin O’Neill believes Barry has been in the right frame of mind mentally since returning to the side after the collapse of a move to Liverpool.

He said: “If Gareth stays with us for the foreseeable future, I will be really delighted.

“I would have said only a few weeks ago, I was resigned myself to the fact he would no longer be here – around about the time we played Reading in a friendly and when he didn’t come with us to Malaga.

“If he does stay, I will be delighted. It will be a really big bonus for us.

“I think Gareth has played four games in quick succession – with the one for England. Four in 12 days after a stop- start pre-season, which hasn’t helped him.

“He will have better days for us than on Saturday at Stoke with a bit of luck but Saturday might just have been a culmination of the four games in quick succession, the lack of any steady pre-season, and all of those things. I couldn’t have faulted him in any of the matches he had played for us before that.”

Liverpool FC Fans Get Minister's Backing

THE Liverpool fans group who want to buy the club last night received the backing of sports minister Andy Burnham.

The MP for Leigh, a life-long Everton fan, will put aside cross-city allegiances to back ShareLiverpoolFC’s dream of co-operative ownership of the Anfield club, eventually ousting American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Burnham was due to speak at a meeting with fans prior to the last nights Champions League qualifier with Standard Liege, at a pub near the stadium.

Also speaking will be officials of the Spirit of Shankly fans organisation to emphasise the solidarity of Liverpool supporters’ groups behind the scheme.

ShareLiverpoolFC founder member Dr Rogan Taylor will also address the meeting, aimed at re-establishing the group publicly as the current Liverpool owners try to raise money to re-finance their own loans as well as the £400m needed to build a new stadium.

Taylor, director of the Football Industry Group at Liverpool University, said: “We want to make sure everyone realises that we are serious and intend to be around and ready whatever happens.”

Taylor believes that financial pressures will soon call into question once again the Americans’ ability to continue as owners and prompt more interest from Dubai-based investors, who have been waiting in the wings to mount another takeover bid.

Taylor added: “Whoever takes over the club, they are going to need a local partnership. We are here to stay, and have people signed up to help and support the plans we have.

“We want to be around when the next roll of the dice comes, and that could be very soon.”

The grand idea is to have 100,000 people pledging £5,000 to create a financial base to fight for control of the club.

Currently the group have 9,500 who have signed up.

It is believed that ShareLiverpoolFC have held meetings with possible Dubai investors and members of the previous Anfield hierarchy.

Injured Steven Gerrard Will Miss England's Next Two World Cup Qualifiers

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard is out of England's opening two World Cup qualifiers as he goes into hospital for surgery today.

Gerrard played through the pain barrier to see his side make the Champions League group stage, but he was at half power with a groin problem.

Boss Rafa Benitez revealed that the decision was taken to send Gerrard for surgery before the game with Standard Liege and his absence will hit England coach Fabio Capello for the ties against Andorra and Croatia next month.

Gerrard will also be absent from the Manchester United showdown on September 13 and Benitez said: "I'm disappointed because Steven Gerrard will have a groin operation.

"He will be out for 10 to 15 days - he needed to do it. He had pain and had to do it.

"It happened when he went with England. We spoke to the doctor, but Steve said he would play with pain. He kept going but will have surgery."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Liverpoool FC Wants Trophies Not Cash

RAFAEL BENITEZ insists silverware and not money is the motivating factor as Liverpool’s Champions League hopes go on the line tonight.

The Anfield outfit host Standard Liege in the second leg of their third qualifying round tie knowing only victory will guarantee them passage to the lucrative group stages.

Benitez’s side were grateful for Pepe Reina’s penalty save in the first leg a fortnight ago as they escaped with a goalless draw having been completely outplayed by the Belgian champions.

Liverpool’s failure to net an away goal means Standard need only a score draw tonight to eliminate the five-time European Cup winners while a second goalless match would send the game to a decisive penalty shoot-out.

Elimination would cost Liverpool an estimated £12m and potentially hamper Benitez’s future transfer plans.

But the Liverpool manager, who has guided his team to victory in all four previous encounters at this stage of the competition, instead regards the chance of lifting another trophy as the driving force behind his team.

“For me, the first thing is silverware,” said Benitez. “I like to talk about trophies, that is the main thing. But the Champions League is also about money and you have to take the two things together. But we are here to win titles, not to make money.

“I always tell my players that if they win games, they win trophies and then they will have higher wages and more money. We need to win silverware so we will be better in all of these areas.

“Do our finances in any way depend on getting through? No, I don’t think so. It is not about money, it is about winning.

“We know the Champions League is a fantastic competition and it is really, really important that we go through and that we can approach the game against Aston Villa with confidence.”

Liverpool experienced a hostile atmosphere in Liege’s intimate Stade Maurice Dufrasne two weeks ago.

And Benitez is confident the Belgians will receive a warm welcome of their own by a packed Anfield this evening.

“I don’t like to talk about the supporters in this case because when you say you need the supporters, it implies that you did not have the support before,” he said.

“We always have our supporters backing the team. They know how important this game is to the team so they will be supporting them from the first minute to the end.

“That is always their way. You cannot say anything about the fans – they are the best.

“If I’m asked 100 times whether we will win and go through to the Champions League, 100 times I will say yes.”

Sami Hyypia has beeen declared fit and Ryan Babel could start, but his fellow Olympians Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva won’t be considered.

Standard Liege Fear Liverpool FC Big Guns

STANDARD Liege boss Laszlo Boloni admits he fears the damage Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard’s partnership can do to his team.

The Belgian title holders will prepare for their Champions League third qualifying round second leg with confidence after their 0-0 draw in Liege a fortnight ago.

But at Anfield tonight Boloni sees Torres and Gerrard as the main obstacle to his club reaching the group stages for the first time.

Boloni won the European Cup 22 years ago in the infamous Steaua Bucharest side that overcame Barcelona in a boring goalless clash in Seville after which the Romanians were accused of playing for penalties from the start.

Boloni scored in that penalty shoot-out, and many feel Liege will need that level of defiance to survive against a chastened Liverpool.

Boloni said: “What does concern me is the relationship that Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard have achieved.

“They are two fine players and have a fine link, something they have struck up very quickly as players. It is very important to Liverpool, they know each other’s game very well.

“But then Liverpool can be dangerous from every part of the field, we will have to be very careful. If I was 30 years younger, I would love to be involved myself.”

And he sees coaching a victory at Anfield comparable to anything he achieved as a player.

Boloni said: “Over three or four years at Steaua, I cannot say to anyone that we were the best, but we were beating the best.

“For Standard to win here would be comparable to anything I achieved as a player at Steaua.”

Liege have defender Oguchi Onyewu, who had a spell at Newcastle, back from suspension.

CL Preview: Liverpool v Standard Liege

Liverpool will be aiming to avoid European disaster when they face Standard Liege in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League qualifier at Anfield.

The tie is delicately balanced following a goalless draw in Belgium two weeks ago, but the Reds rode their luck in the first leg.

Standard appeared to have a legitimate goal ruled out, while Jose Reina saved a penalty as the Belgian champions gave Liverpool an almighty scare in the first leg.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has no fresh injury worries to contend with as he likes to guide his side into the lucrative group stages.

Sami Hyypia misses out again with a hamstring injury meaning Martin Skrtel is likely to partner Jamie Carragher in central defence.

Steven Gerrard, who started the first leg against Standard on the bench, is expected to start in midfield alongside Xabi Alonso.

Javier Mascherano and Lucas Levia will not be involved as Benitez does not feel they are ready having only recently returned from the Olympics.

Ryan Babel could be involved after making an appearance as a substitute against Middlesbrough last weekend.

Standard have former Newcastle defender Oguchi Onyewu available again after he was suspended for the first leg.

Steven Defour is set to return to the starting line-up after being used as a substitute last weekend against KVC Westerlo

Striker Milan Jovanovic, who missed the first leg, could be involved after a possible move to PSV Eindhoven stalled.

Rush: Time To Win With Style

Ian Rush has hailed Liverpool's ability to grind out results but is now calling for them to start winning in style.

The Reds legend is delighted Rafael Benitez's side have taken maximum points from their opening two league matches and now wants them to step it up a gear in terms of performance levels on the pitch.

"You can't ask for any more from a team than to take six points from their first two games of the season and that is exactly what Liverpool have done," said Rush.

"Sunderland and Middlesbrough are going to give a lot of teams problems this season but, despite being nowhere near their best, Liverpool have somehow managed to come up with a way to beat both of them.

"In this respect, you can't ask any more of Rafa Benitez and his players. They have done just what we all hoped they would do in terms of getting off to a good start.

"But there is no doubt they are going to have to improve if their winning run is going to continue because their opening two performances have not been of the standard expected."

Rush admits developing a habit of 'winning ugly' is essential if the Reds are to challenge for the title but believes it would be unwise to suggest they don't need to raise their game in the weeks ahead.

"Winning when you are not playing well is something you have to be able to do if you are going to challenge for the title but it isn't something that can be sustained too long," he said.

"If you're sloppy in possession and not creating many chances then it is inevitably winning matches is difficult.

"That's what happened against Middlesbrough on Saturday when Liverpool didn't get anywhere near hitting the kind of form they are capable of. They could so easily have dropped valuable points.

"The fact that they didn't though says a lot about the character of the team and I'm sure that's one of the big plus points that Benitez is taking from the game."

Liverpool needed two goals in the last five minutes to see off Middlesbrough on Saturday and Rush wasn't surprised that it was the club's home-grown duo who stepped up to the plate.

"When things aren't going well you need your big game players to pull something out of the bag and that's what Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard did.

"When things aren't going well it can sometimes be easy to just accept that it isn't going to be your day but that's never going to be the case with players like Carragher and Gerrard.

"In taking the initiative they led by example and it was thanks to their interventions towards the end of the game that Liverpool were able to come away with three points they might otherwise have missed out on.

"The concern is that Liverpool cannot continue to rely so heavily on their captain and vice captain and other players are going to have to start chipping in if the good start to the season is to be maintained.

"I know the fans will be concerned about Liverpool's current form but the most important thing at this stage is to get points on the board.

"If you do that then it breeds confidence and it sends out a message to the rest of the league that you are going to be hard to beat.

"But Liverpool need to get better and I believe that they will, especially if Benitez can add a bit of width to his side before the transfer window closes."

One of the major positives that came out of the 2-1 win over 'Boro' was the partnership of Robbie Keane and Fernando Torres.

The duo have begun to show signs that they could well develop an understanding to rival any in England and Rush is confident they will make it work in time.

"There were welcome signs against Middlesbrough that Fernando Torres is beginning to strike up an understanding with new strike partner Robbie Keane," he said.

"You could see that they were starting to get used to each other's movement and were picking up their running off the ball.

"There was one moment in the first half when Keane went on a little run and picked Torres out with a perfect pass with the outside of his right foot.

"Torres wasn't able to take the chance on this occasion but at least it showed that they are getting to know one another better and that bodes well for the future.

"If these two hit it off, and I've got no reason to doubt that they will, then it will really benefit the team as a whole and I'm sure they're both working really hard to make it happen."

Rafael Benitez and his side now head into tomorrow night's Champions League qualifier with Standard Liege determined to improve on their showing in the first-leg in Belgium.

Rush feels the Reds cannot take progress for granted and expects the Belgian champions to give them a tough test.

"Anyone who saw the first leg of Liverpool's Champions League qualifier against Standard Liege a fortnight ago will know the Belgians are no pushovers," he said.

"Standard are the champions of their country and that means they deserve respect, especially after the way they performed against the Reds in Liege.

"Had it not been for Pepe Reina's heroics then Standard would be coming to Anfield tomorrow night with a lead to protect and that would definitely have made the tie even more difficult than it already is for Rafa Benitez's men.

"As things stand, Liverpool do not have an away goal to fall back on so they will be looking to keep a clean sheet otherwise things could get very tricky.

"Obviously, Liverpool are big favourites to go through but they cannot take anything for granted because if they do Standard might just take advantage.

"Importantly though, Liverpool have encountered this kind of situation so many times in Europe in recent seasons so they know exactly what they have to do and how to go about it.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if it is a tight affair because Standard looked a well organised and decent side in the first leg but Liverpool should have enough know how and experience to get through."

Espanyol Announce 72-hours Deadline for Albert Reira To Finalise Move To Liverpool

Espanyol have told their winger Albert Reira that he has just 72 hours before the decision regarding his switch to Liverpool will be made.

It seems that the Reds are ahead in the race to sign the Spanish International after claiming that talks between Rafael Benitez’s side and Espanyol were “going well", on their official website. This is despite Liverpool having offered less for Riera than their Merseyside rivals Everton

Earlier reports suggested that Liverpool had agreed to pay £8million (€10m) for the Spaniard. However, despite it looking like Riera's move to Anfield will happen, Espanyol sporting director Paco Herrera has revealed that before the deal can be done there were some issues to be taken care of.

'This is a sensitive time, and we need to make sure we reach a solution one way or another," he said.

"Everything is going well and a deal can be reached.

"The differences we have are ones we can solve and in the next two or three days there has to be a solution because there is no more time."

Liverpool Agree Albert Riera Fee

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is reported to have agreed a fee for Espanyol winger Albert Riera.

The Liverpool Echo understands that Liverpool have beaten rivals Everton in their attempt to land the player and agreed to the Spanish club's £12 million fee.

Espanyol were reluctant to allow the former Manchester City winger to leave the club, but after spending some considerable time yesterday in negotiations, Riera's wish to join Anfield now appears within reach.

Liverpool have been hunting for a left-sided midfielder for some time, but deals for targets such as Gareth Barry and Stewart Downing have not materialised.

Riera, 26, had expressed his desire to play under Benitez, with Espanyol adamant their £12m asking price would be met.

Everton counterpart David Moyes was hoping to make Rieira his second signing of the summer, following the deal for Lars Christian Jacobsen, and is understood to also have offered Espanyol their valuation.

Riera, though, was reluctant to join, with the prospect of playing Champions League football at Anfield too hard to resist.

Espanyol sporting director Paco Herrera, formerly a member of Liverpool's backroom staff, said: "One team is offering what we want and another one isn't.

"But the player is interested in the one that is offering the least."

However, Benitez appears to have used all of his connections at Espanyol to win the race for Riera's signature, satisfying the club's president, Daniel Sanchez Llibre, after he insisted he would not back down on the asking price.

Gerrard: Trio Will Make Big Difference

Steven Gerrard believes the return of Olympic trio Javier Mascherano, Lucas and Ryan Babel will have a massive impact on Liverpool's football.

The skipper accepts that while results have been excellent, the club's early season performances could have been better.

However, with three of the Premier League's most talented players now back at Melwood, Gerrard expects the Reds to step up a gear.

He said: "You can see the squad is now starting to look stronger, with the return of Ryan, Javier and Lucas. The manager has a lot more options now.

"There is still some time in the transfer window and I think in that time you will start to see our squad get to full strength.

"I think there will be another arrival before the deadline.

"The manager's obviously got his eye on two or three different players and I think it would help us if another new face came in."

Next up for the Reds is the return leg of our Champions League third qualifying round tie against Liege.

While some took qualification for granted when the draw was made, a hard-fought stalemate in Belgium means Gerrard and co still have much to do as the sides head for Anfield.

He said: "Sometimes you need the kick up the backside similar to the one we had against Liege. You don't want to go into the season a little bit complacent, and no one could argue against the fact Liege were the better team on the night.

"It was certainly a wake-up call for us, and the best thing about it was that we didn't get beat.

"We're still in the tie and know that at Anfield we will play a lot better. Liege will also find it more difficult."

Gerrard goes into the game on the back of yet more late heroics in the 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough on Saturday.

He hopes the character displayed to overturn a 1-0 deficit in the dying moments is a sign of things to come in 2008-09.

"Last season we only lost once at home but had too many draws, which isn't good enough," he said. "You need your home form to be immaculate.

"We have got maximum points from our two games and still haven't played anywhere near the level we are capable of. We know we can improve but we kept going until the end against Middlesbrough and showed great character."

Reina Does Not Expect More Heroics

Pepe Reina is confident it will not take more goalkeeping heroics for Liverpool to overcome Standard Liege on Wednesday.

The Spanish stopper had to be on top form to keep a clean sheet during the first leg in Belgium, thwarting a penalty just minutes after a superb goalline save.

His antics mean Liverpool remain well in the Champions League qualifying tie as the teams head to Anfield, where Reina expects a more comfortable evening.

"The team have forgotten the match in Liege," he told "It was just a bad day and we are thinking about qualifying at Anfield.

"For Liverpool, the Champions League is a huge competition and it would be a disaster not to get through.

"Nobody in the squad is thinking about anything other than qualifying.

"I am always optimistic and I am convinced we will beat Standard.

"But there are no easy games in Europe and we are aware that this match is not decided."

Reina has forged a reputation as a master penalty saver but he played down his heroics in Belgium.

"I am not a hero for the penalty in the first match," said Reina. "I have just done my job. For me, the penalty was just a part of it."

Rafa: There's A New Buzz In Training

Rafa Benitez has revealed there is a new buzz around Melwood following the return of our Olympic trio – but neither Javier Mascherano nor Lucas will feature against Standard Liege.

The Champions League qualifier comes too soon for the pair following their Beijing exploits, though both are fighting for a place in the starting XI versus Aston Villa on Sunday.

Despite being out of Wednesday's game, Benitez claims the duo – as well as Dutch forward Ryan Babel – has spiced things up in training.

He said: "You can see the impact in training. They have a really good mentality and they are really happy – especially Mascherano and Lucas because of their medals. I think it will be positive for the team.

"If everything is okay, maybe they could play this weekend. They will be around and we will decide, but they cannot play in the Champions League.

"They're not playing this game so they have time in training and they'll be okay."

Mascherano became the first Argentinean footballer in history to claim two Olympic gold medals following a 1-0 victory over Nigeria.

The boss added: "Everyone knows what a good professional he is. He is a nice boy and a good player, so everyone is pleased for him. It's amazing."

Meanwhile, Benitez admits that, of his 5 Champions League qualifying campaigns with Liverpool, this has so far been the toughest.

"They could be the best team we've faced. If you look at some of the other games, we were much better than the opposition," he said.

"But if we do the right things we can be on top of them at Anfield. We will try to play at a high tempo and I'm sure they'll try to play on the counter-attack. I think it will be more or less similar to the first game but the difference will be Anfield.

"We have to improve at everything – set pieces and open play. We had a bad game. The best thing was the result but this time we have to play better and we have to score goals.

"You can know a team but sometimes you don't know exactly how they will play until you get on the pitch. You can watch videos and things like that but you do not always know. Now we know a lot about them so it will be easier to not make any mistakes.

"But I wasn't surprised by them - I was surprised at how badly we played.

"We have a lot of confidence that we will go through. We are at Anfield and we have to improve – and we will improve."

Benitez has been handed a major boost ahead of the clash with news that he has a fully fit squad to choose from.

"Everybody is available," revealed the Anfield boss. "We have training tomorrow and then we'll decide on the one or two players who have had problems."

Defeat or a score draw on Wednesday would see Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Benitez.

It's a prospect which the man himself isn't giving much thought.

"If you ask me if I am considering this option, the answer is no. I am just thinking about winning."

Quizzed on whether he'd throw Saturday's goalscoring hero Jamie Carragher up front if a late goal was required, the boss added: "I don't think so! I think we have better options but, if we're desperate, we can send anyone up there. We can send Pepe Reina if necessary."

Benitez Waits For Liverpool To Click

Manager Rafa Benitez said on Tuesday he was still waiting for Liverpool to move up a gear as they prepare for their crunch Champions League qualifier with Standard Liege.

Wednesday's game follows a disappointing 0-0 draw in Belgium two weeks ago and some mediocre form in the Premier League, where late goals have yielded two victories and masked some mediocre performances.

"We were scoring lots of goals in pre-season and the team was improving. It was really pleasing," Benitez told a news conference as he looked ahead to their third qualifying round second leg.

"I thought we were in a good moment but we didn't play well in our last three games. That was clear."

Liverpool had been expected to enjoy an easy passage to the lucrative group stage when the Champions League draw was made.

Though their indifferent form has since raised a few question marks ahead of the Anfield game, Benitez was is no mood for contemplating a shock exit for the five-times champions.

"If you are asking me if I am considering defeat then the answer is no," Benitez said. "I am only thinking about winning.

"They were good in the first game but we were really poor. If we improve and play at our level it will be difficult for them."

Looking on the bright side of their victories over Middlesbrough, on Saturday, and Sunderland, he added: "If we are winning games and not playing well, it means we should find it easier to win games when we do play well."

He was also defensive about the partnership between new striker Robbie Keane and Spaniard Fernando Torres.

"On Saturday, they were much better," Benitez said. "But the team wasn't good enough around them. But they showed they are playing together much better."

Liverpool Move Into Motor Racing

Liverpool's commercial director Ian Ayre is confident the club will feel the financial benefit of competing in the new Superleague Formula series.

The Superleague Formula is a motor sport series consisting of 17 teams all driving identical 750 brake horsepower cars, carrying football club branding.

"We get a guaranteed signing-on fee and each year we have a guaranteed revenue stream," he told BBC Radio Merseyside.

"We're licensing our colours, our brand, into the series."

Ayre is keen to stress it will not cost the club any money to compete in Superleague Formula.

"The race series, the drivers, the tracks - all of that is covered by the race organisers and the series organisers," said Ayre.

"We're hopefully supporting [the series] and hopefully bringing some of our sponsors along to support it but we have no financial burden."

To date the Superleague Formula has attracted two other British clubs - Spurs and Glasgow Rangers - alongside some of the biggest names in world football, including AC Milan and Corinthians.

Ayre is aware Liverpool supporters will expect their car to win races but stressed that the running of the race car is out of the football clubs hands.

"We're taking it very seriously [but] unfortunately the on-track performance is largely in the hands of the driver and the team.

"We've got a professional race team and we've got a great driver, so we're very excited and are expecting results."

Ayre has been in his role as Liverpool Football Club's first ever commercial director for just over a year. He says he is enjoying his role and the challenges the job presents.

"Its been great. When we are out there talking to potential partners in all sorts of categories, Liverpool Football Club just opens doors and that makes life a whole lot easier."

The first round of action in the Superleague Formula competition takes place at Donnington Park on 30-31 August.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Liverpool’s Finnan Linked With Blackburn

Liverpool full-back Steve Finnan is being linked with a move to Blackburn Rovers as Paul Ince is thought to be looking for a specialist right-back.

The former Ireland international, who was linked with Aston Villa in the deal that would bring Gareth Barry to Anfield earlier in the summer only for the move to fall through as both clubs failed to agree on Barry fee, had recently admitted that his Reds career is ‘in limbo.’

But with Rovers, who had centre half Andre Ooijer playing in right-back role so far under Ince, and Finnan unused by Reds boss Rafa Benitez so far this season, an Irish website has reported that the 32-year-old could be set for a move to Ewood Park.

Keane Happy With Liverpool's Form

Liverpool striker Robbie Keane says he is confident his team's performances will improve as the season progresses.

Rafa Benitez's side have taken six points from their opening two Premier League games but have struggled to hit top-form so far.

"We haven't been playing unbelievably in the last two games," Keane told BBC Radio Merseyside.

"But as long as you're winning games that's the most important thing, the flowing football will follow."

The Republic of Ireland international made his competitive debut at Anfield against Middlesbrough on Saturday.

And the 28-year-old feels his fledgling partnership with fellow striker Fernando Torres is beginning to show signs of development.

"A few times we linked up [against Middlesbrough] and we played each other in so there's definitely signs there.

"It would have been nice if we had of scored but, I think it doesn't matter with strikers, as long as the team is winning that is the most important thing," he added.

Merseysiders Must Pay Up For Riera

Espanyol president Daniel Sanchez Llibre says Albert Riera could soon move to the Premier League - but insists the winger will not come cheap.

Sanchez Llibre admitted he had received offers from two English clubs, reported by the Spanish press to be Liverpool and Everton.

The Spanish side have fought throughout pre-season to keep hold of their best players, with repeated bids from Benfica for forward Luis Garcia rejected because the Portuguese club would not meet Espanyol's asking price.

And Sanchez Llibre insists he is ready to do the same with the Merseyside duo if they are not prepared to pay what the club is asking.

"We have received two interesting offers, both of which are from English clubs," he told Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo.

"What we always do is defend our interests. We won't sell any player if the bid is not the amount we have asked for.

"If they want Albert Riera, they'll have to pay what Espanyol is asking."

However, he went on to add: "While Luis Garcia's possible transfer to Benfica has stalled, this one could be in its final hours.

"If someone does leave, within the next 24 hours they will be replaced."

Sporting director Paco Herrera was more specific about the situation, explaining a deal for Riera had yet to be completed because the 26-year-old was more interested in joining the club which had tabled the lowest bid, believed to be Liverpool.

"There is a team which is offering what we have asked and another one which isn't, but the player is interested in the one which is offering the least," he revealed. "We will not lower our asking price."

Liverpool FC Takes Positives From Boro Win

Rafael Benitez chose to concentrate on the positives after Liverpool secured an unlikely win over Middlesbrough.

A deflected Jamie Carragher strike and a trademark screamer from Steven Gerrard inside the final four minutes cancelled out Mido’s 70th-minute opener to leave the Teessiders heartbroken.

Despite the three points, it was another below-par performance as Liverpool continue to find their form in the opening weeks of the season.

And Benitez said: “I am very happy with the result, but I am not happy with the performance of the team. The last three games, we have not played well. But we were playing really well during pre-season.

“If we can bring in new faces then the competition will be better for me and we can improve. The main thing for me is the mentality of the players. We were trying until the end, we were going forward, working really hard with determination and that is important.

“I will try and find a positive message from these kind of games and it is that we won without playing well. Last season we played well in a lot of games but never scored the goals from the chances we had.

“Now we have six points out of six points and when everyone is ready we will play much better and it will be difficult to stop us.”

Of the game, Benitez added: “We had a lot of offensive players on the pitch, but if you had said to me we would draw then maybe I would have said yes because we had conceded late.

“It is always difficult to score two goals in that length of time.

“I want to play well, but if you don't play well and win then the confidence of the team will stay high. It is impossible to play well all the time, so you need to keep going.

“You have to give credit to Middlesbrough. They were pretty good and well organised.

“They had good players in front and could play good football.

“They had players in the wide areas who were good. They worked really hard in defence.”

Robbie Keane, along with Andrea Dossena, made his competitive home debut for his new club on Saturday.

And Benitez said: “I thought he was pretty good. The understanding with Torres was much better. He worked hard with good movements. The key is the rest of the team giving them good passes.”

Benitez singled out the contribution of Nabil El Zhar, who came on as an 82nd-minute substitute and helped turn the game in Liverpool’s favour with a direct performance down the right wing.

“That is the reason why Nabil was a key player for us,” said the Anfield manager.

“I was saying to him ‘stay wide, stay wide’ and he offered the wide areas.

“Dossena was going forward in the first half and Arbeloa in the second half but really our wingers are not players who play on the lines.

“We have to try through our full-backs and keep the other team back.”

Liverpool’s problems out wide highlighted their need to bring in a wide player before the transfer window closes, and Benitez added: “I think it is important to keep the balance. We will try and do our best.”

Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate could barely contain his disappointment at his team’s late capitulation.

“Liverpool were starting to get frustrated and there were long balls that were running out of play,” he said. “I couldn't ask more from the lads and again when they look back they will realise how close they came to getting a result.

“Liverpool have the ability to keep going, resilience, and they have players who can pop up and score important goals as Gerrard and Torres have done in the last two weeks.

“They are what they are. We didn't have any fear but we couldn't get the win we wanted.”

Liverpool FC Close In On Albert Riera

Liverpool are edging closer to signing Espanyol winger Albert Riera despite Everton’s attempts to hijack the deal.

The Anfield outfit are ready to lodge an improved bid to sign the 26-year-old Spain international.

While Everton are thought to have met Espanyol’s asking price, Riera has set his heart on a move to their Merseyside neighbours.

However, that will only happen if Liverpool increase their bid of around £9m for a player Espanyol value nearer the £12m mark.

Benitez has tracked Riera all summer and has now turned to the former Mallorca and Bordeaux man in an effort to solve Liverpool’s problem left midfield area.

Aston Villa’s £18m valuation ultimately scuppered a move for Gareth Barry while Middlesbrough have slapped a similarly prohibitive price tag on Stewart Downing.

Riera spent six months on loan at Manchester City in 2006 but the Premier League club failed to agree a fee with Espanyol over a permanent transfer.

Espanyol president Daniel Sanchez Llibre yesterday admitted Riera is on the brink of a move to England, but reiterated his club’s determination to receive top dollar.

“We have received two interesting offers, both of which are from English clubs,” said Llibre. “What we always do is defend our interests. We won’t sell any player if the bid is not the amount we have asked for.

“If they want Albert Riera, they'll have to pay what Espanyol is asking.”

And Espanyol sporting director Paco Herrara, a former member of Benitez’s backroom staff at Liverpool, was even more specific.

He said: “There is a team which is offering what we have asked and another one which isn’t, but the player is interested in the one which is offering the least.

“We will not lower our asking price.”

Meanwhile, Robbie Keane is confident Liverpool can soon click into gear following a spluttering start to the campaign.

Despite winning their first two Premier League games, Benitez’s side have been worryingly below par after earlier being fortunate to escape with a goalless draw from their Champions League game at Standard Liege.

Liverpool entertain the Belgians in tomorrow’s second leg and Keane reckons results are what count at the moment.

“We know we haven't been playing unbelievably well in our first two games but as long as you're winning games that's what really matters and I'm sure the flowing football will follow,” said the Ireland star.

“It's important that you get off to a good start in the Premiership because it is such a competitive league and we've managed to do that.

“You have to remember we've only played the first two games of the season and what you have to do at this stage is get points on the board. I'm sure the good football will follow.”

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool FC Will Be Better

Rafael Benitez has promised Liverpool’s Champions League form will be “much, much better” when they bid to reach the group stages for the fifth successive time tomorrow night.

The Liverpool boss is acutely aware that his side’s qualifying round first leg display at Standard Liege was unacceptable and they were fortunate to cling onto a 0-0 draw.

That display in Belgium has put at risk the crucial flow of Uefa prize money Liverpool need, more than ever, to maintain their position amongst English football’s top four.

Now Benitez’ side must produce their best display of the season so far to make sure that they reach the group stages.

Benitez said: “Our display this time will be much, much better. Of that I am confident.”

Anything less could create the biggest financial crisis in the club’s recent history.

The American owners are facing huge costs to build a new stadium, and also to re-finance loans. They have already transferred some of their debt to the club, which means that £30m a year has to be found to meet interest repayments.

In four years, Liverpool have claimed over £100m in prize money from Uefa, averaging more than £20m a season having reached two finals, a semi-final and the last 16 in that time.

Failure to even reach the group stages would cost an immediate £12m and put in question Benitez’s plans.

Liege have never reached the Champions League group stage and Benitez knows Liverpool must win tomorrow’s second leg.

He said: “Our performance in Liege was poor, but the result was good. We did not concede an away goal and we hope that playing the second leg at Anfield will make a massive difference.

“The entire team did not play well. They (Liege) were organised, pressed well and were very aggressive.”

Fernando Torres will make his 50th appearance for the Reds tomorrow, having scored 34 goals. Only George Allan, 111 years ago with 41, scored more in his first 50 games for the club.

Anfield Our Only Target, Says DIC

Dubai International Capital are “only interested” in buying Liverpool FC, it was confirmed by a source last night, after it was reported the company was bidding for a stake in Manchester City.

It was reported yesterday that troubled Manchester City owner Thaksin Shinawatra was in talks with DIC about buying a 10% to 15% share in the club.

The Daily Post under- stands that, while there is Middle Eastern interest in buying into Manchester City, it is not coming from Dubai.

A source close to DIC said: “DIC are not interested in getting involved in Man City, their interest is only in Liverpool Football Club.”

If DIC were to acquire a share in another Premier League club, it would then not be able to buy into Liverpool if American co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks decided to sell.

Companies are not allowed to own more than one football club.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Returning Javier Mascherano Set To Miss Liege Clash

Javier Mascherano is unlikely to be involved in Liverpool’s Champions League crunch tie against Standard Liege on Wednesday.

Mascherano led Argentina to a second consecutive Olympic title in Beijing after his country retained their crown by beating Nigeria in the football final and he is heading back to Merseyside after his triumph.

The 24-year-old midfielder was due to leave China at the weekend, but boss Rafael Benitez does not think he will be prepared enough to face the Belgian champions at Anfield in the third qualifying round, second-leg tie.

The match is poised at 0-0 after Liverpool’s alarmingly poor performance a fortnight ago in the first leg in Belgium.

The Reds stand on the brink of losing a minimum of £10million prize money from UEFA if they fail to qualify for the group stages.

Benitez said: “Javier will be back with us soon. But I do not think he will be in contention to play in Europe.

“He has spent too much time travelling and playing, which makes it difficult to be at your best.

“The same thing applied to Ryan Babel. He returned from China last week after Holland were knocked out, but I only really considered him as a substitute at the weekend.”

Babel came on for the final 25 minutes of Saturday’s 2-1 home win over Middlesbrough, but looked short of fitness.

Brazilian midfielder Lucas has also returned to Liverpool from the Olympics.

Liverpool Boss Benitez: Nabil El Zhar Was A Key Player Against Middlesbrough

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has acknowledged the impact made by youngster Nabil El Zhar in the weekend’s last-gasp 2-1 win over Middlesbrough at Anfield.

The 21-year-old came on as a substitute in the 83rd minute when the Reds were trailing by a goal. The home side soon wiped out the deficit before the Moroccan international winger played an important role in the build-up to captain Steven Gerrard’s late winner.

Benitez said on the club’s official website: "That is the reason why Nabil was a key player for us at the weekend. I was saying to him 'stay wide, stay wide' and he offered the wide areas.

"Andrea Dossena was going forward in the first half and Alvaro Arbeloa in the second half but really our wingers are not players who play on the lines. We have to try through our full-backs and keep the other team back."

Carra: Liege Is The Toughest Tie

Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher has admitted that Standard Liege is one of the most difficult draws the club could have faced in Champions League qualifying.

Liege, the Belgian champions, held Rafael Benitez’s side to a 0-0 draw in the first leg and with the two sides scheduled to play the return match on Wednesday night at Anfield, Carragher has admitted the Merseysiders are in for a tough night.

Speaking to the News of the World, Carragher revealed that he felt being drawn against the Belgian side was one of the most difficult ties the club has ever faced in qualifying for the competition proper. He said: “They are definitely the toughest opponents we’ve had in a qualifier.”

Whilst a scoreless draw was disappointing for the Reds, it could have been a lot worse. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina saved a first half penalty which prevented Liege taking a vital lead in the tie.

However, the veteran centre back admitted that Liveropol were facing quality opposition. He said: “I know people expect us to get through but it’s not as if we’re playing a Mickey Mouse team. The Belgian league has a lot of quality and their champions are used to getting into the group stages.”

Despite Carragher’s remarks, Liverpool are widely expected to beat Liege and qualify for the group stages of the competition and the scoreless draw in the first leg was something of a surprise. The defender explained what had happened: “They caught us a bit cold in the first leg. Their manager said we were sleeping but they deserve credit for the way they played. They were spot on tactically, hitting us on the counter-attack. We didn’t play well and we know we’ll have to improve tactically.”

The former England defender also went on to praise Wednesday night’s opponents for their defensive display, which ensured that the Anfield side had few sights of goal. He confessed: “Any side which can keep Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane as quiet as they did in the first leg has quality. We didn’t have any chances in the game.”

Yet whilst Carragher is happy to praise Liege, he is clearly confident ahead of the second leg and admitted that it is vital that Liverpool win on Wednesday night to progress into the competition. He concluded: “It would be unthinkable for us not to be in the Champions League. To go through will give us momentum and confidence.”

Gerrard Close To Full Fitness

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has recognised that he is not yet at full fitness, but considers himself to be a mere three weeks away from his best.

The energetic midfielder is the hero’s name being sung in the Kop yet again, after he snatched a dramatic late winner against Middlesbrough at Anfield yesterday.

Liverpool looked unlikely winners against a very well organised Boro side, after Egyptian striker Mido put the visitors ahead on 70 minutes. This goal was cancelled out by Jamie Carragher, whose shot cannoned off Boro defender Emmanuel Pogatetz, to send the home fans into raptures.

The home side weren’t finished there however, as deep into injury time, the ball fell to Gerrard’s famous right foot on the edge of the box, and as so many times before, the heartbeat of the Liverpool side snatched all three points for his team.

Speaking to Football365, Gerrard said, “You could tell how much our winner meant to the fans, the roof came off when my goal went in.

“Everyone knows that these are the games we have to win if we are going to mount a serious title challenge. Too many home points were squandered last season.”

Liverpool’s home form was heavily criticised last season, as The Reds dropped a massive 15 points at Anfield, ending hopes of a serious title challenge, a point backed up by Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez.

“Maybe our fans were thinking of what happened last season, when we drew too many games at home.

“But this time we have sent out a message that we can produce results like this.

“Last season we had some bad home results. But this time around we have tried very hard to be positive and to make sure such things do not happen again. This win shows we can do it.”

Despite showing he has what it takes to last the full 90 and more, Gerrard is still admitting that he is not yet at full fitness, but has said that it can be achieved sooner rather than later.

“I've had problems with my groin throughout pre-season, and things have not gone the way I wanted them to,” he said.

“I have missed a lot of training and I am a couple of weeks behind the other lads when it comes to match fitness.

“The only way I am going to get that edge again is to get out on the pitch and play.

“I am not at my best at the moment, but I hope the fans will be patient because I am only three weeks away from my best form and fitness.”

The Reds now sit at the top of the Premier League table for the moment, and they will continue their quest for a first Premier League trophy against Aston Villa next Sunday.

Gerrard: Reds Sent Out Message

Steven Gerrard feels Liverpool's 2-1 win at Middlesbrough was a sure sign that they are now ready to challenge for the Premier League.

Four minutes into injury-time, Gerrard's blistering 18-yarder secured a victory that had been the unlikeliest outcome as Middlesbrough deservedly led from midway in the second period.

Last season Liverpool finished 11 points behind champions Manchester United, who dropped only five home points. Rafael Benitez's side squandered 15 at home from six draws and one defeat.

It has been a blot on the Anfield landscape which has nagged away at the manager, players and fans all summer.

Benitez has persistently claimed that Liverpool's shocking home form last season cost them any hope of a serious title challenge.

So it needed the massive efforts of Gerrard, and his home-grown team-mate Jamie Carragher, whose 86th-minute shot deflected in off Boro defender Emanuel Pogatetz, to drag a 2-1 victory from the jaws of defeat.

Gerrard said: "You could tell how much our winner meant to the fans, the roof came off when my goal went in.

"Everyone knows that these are the games we have to win if we are going to mount a serious title challenge. Too many home points were squandered last season."

In a week which has seen 'peace in our time' statements from both Benitez and chief executive Rick Parry after a summer of acrimony between the pair, it was good to see Benitez and his captain also singing from the same hymn sheet as well.

Benitez said: "Maybe our fans were thinking of what happened last season, when we drew too many games at home.

"But this time we have sent out a message that we can produce results like this.

"Last season we had some bad home results. But this time around we have tried very hard to be positive and to make sure such things do not happen again. This win shows we can do it."

Gareth Southgate's organised, effective side had deservedly led with 20 minutes to go through a fine drive from substitute Mido.

But Carragher's deflected drive beat goalkeeper Ross Turnbull - a last minute inclusion when Brad Jones dislocated a finger in the warm-up - then Gerrard got the winner.

In a week where England manager Fabio Capello criticised Gerrard's lack of fitness, the player said: "I've had problems with my groin throughout pre-season, and things have not gone the way I wanted them to.

"I have missed a lot of training and I am a couple of weeks behind the other lads when it comes to match fitness.

"The only way I am going to get that edge again is to get out on the pitch and play.

"I am not at my best at the moment, but I hope the fans will be patient because I am only three weeks away from my best form and fitness."

Benitez explained: "Gerrard has quality, he can score the sort of goal he got. He has that ability right at the death, he has done it before and he will continue to have the mentality to win games at the end.

"We sent a lot of players forward, the idea was to have many people around their box. It does leave us open to a counter-attack, but it is a gamble we will take.

"We know we did not play well. But you have to win games like this if you want to be contenders for the title. It is a message for everyone for the rest of the season.

"Last season we would probably have lost or drawn. But now we have different qualities and we have many options.