Saturday, January 05, 2008

Benitez Puts Job On The Line.. And Rotates Yet Again

Rafa Benitez is ready for an almighty scrap to save his Anfield career, after admitting he is prepared to take another massive selection gamble.

The Liverpool manager will rest key players for tomorrow's tricky FA Cup visit to Luton, even though he knows that if the risk backfires, his position will be placed under unbearable pressure.

He will give Fernando Torres (right), Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard - who has a slight knock - the day off, and with Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio injured, a vastly-changed Liverpool side will give Luton real hope of a huge upset.

While that may seem foolhardy following two desperately disappointing performances in the last week which saw them slip out of the title race, Benitez is adamant he should be allowed to use an expensively assembled squad in cup competition.

And defending himself against charges emanating from within the club his selection policy undermines results, Benitez insisted resting his top stars tomorrow must not be seen as a gamble.

"If you can't change players for an FA Cup tie at Luton, then you can't compete to win the three competitions we're left in," he said.

"I believe all the players in my squad are good enough to play against Luton. It does not matter if you use Torres, Crouch or Voronin, for instance, because for me, it is more or less the same.

"So where is the risk? We have three players injured because they played too many games in a row, so it's more of a risk to use Jamie Carragher again and Torres again than to use Crouch, Voronin or Kuyt, for example."

Benitez accepts that should his side lose at Luton then his position at the club will become almost untenable and crucially, he seems to have lost the support of the board at Anfield.

But he said: "We finished third in the last two years, we had 82 points which was the Premier League record for the club.

"We've won four trophies, including one Champions League and reaching another final, so the progress is clear."

Sissoko Precedes Van Der Vaart?

Rafael Van Der Vaart has confirmed “I can see myself at Juventus,” but in the meantime the Bianconeri turn to Mohamed Sissoko or Javier Mascherano.

The Dutch international’s deal with Hamburg runs until July 2010, but he has rejected an offer to add another two years with wages worth £3m per season.

“I still dream of playing for one of Europe’s biggest clubs and if I signed for Hamburg until 2012, I’d have to wait too long for that to come true,” the 24-year-old told ‘Bild.’

“I still have another two and a half years on my contract and it is quite a long period. It was very difficult for me to turn down the offer, as it was an excellent proposal and the club did everything it could to keep me here.”

Inter and several Premiership and Liga sides had also shown an interest in Van Der Vaart, but he has made his preference very clear.

“I have not yet received an official bid, but I did hear that Juve are interested in me. I can really see myself at Juventus.”

An £11m proposal is already on the table with a five-year contract for the midfielder to be signed in June.

In the meantime, the Bianconeri want a January reinforcement to replace the Olympiacos-bound Sergio Almiron, who has been something of a flop since his switch from Empoli.

Their sights are firmly set on the Premier League and specifically Liverpool, where Sissoko is the prime target for a mid-season swoop.

The midfielder admitted it was “a mistake” to reject Juve’s offer in the summer and is increasingly marginalised after his row with Coach Rafa Benitez.

However, Sissoko would not be able to join his new teammates in Turin until February, as he will be playing in the African Cup of Nations.

Another alternative is his Liverpool colleague Mascherano, who could arrive on loan with a fixed payment set for the end of the season.

Rafa Benitez Faith In Fringe Players For FA Cup Test

Under-fire Rafael Benitez will place his faith in his fringe players tomorrow in the confidence that whichever team he selects should be good enough to beat Luton Town.

Liverpool travel to Kenilworth Road to face the Coca-Cola League One strugglers in an FA Cup third round tie for the second time in three seasons.

The Anfield manager will be without the services of skipper Steven Gerrard, one of several injury concerns as the effects of the hectic festive programme bite into his squad.

One name that has been linked with Liverpool is 23-year-old Zenit St Petersburg defender Martin Skrtel.

The Slovakian, who featured in Zenit’s 1-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park in December, is valued at £4-5million.

Benitez has come under renewed scrutiny after successive draws against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic left Liverpool 12 points behind leaders Arsenal in the Premier League.

Defeat at Luton would heighten the pressure, but the Spaniard has no qualms with juggling his resources tomorrow.

“It’s important for us to progress in the competition,” said Benitez. “It is clear that the league is more difficult now than two games ago, but it is a long race and we need to keep going.

“All the players in our squad are good enough to play against Luton in the FA Cup. If we decide to use Crouch, Voronin, Torres or Crouch, for me it’s more or less the same.

“I need to look at players that have not been playing. For example, Lucas Leiva was playing a few weeks ago and doing well, so he is capable of playing in these games.

“If you can’t change players for an FA Cup tie at Luton, then you can’t compete to win the three competitions we’re left in.”

As well as Gerrard, who has a calf problem, Fabio Aurelio (hamstring) and Alvaro Arbeloa (calf) will also miss tomorrow’s tie, although all three are expected to be available for the league visit to Middlesbrough next Saturday.

Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt, Andriy Voronin, Yossi Benayoun, Ryan Babel, John Arne Riise, Lucas and Momo Sissoko are all pressing for a starting role at Luton while Charles Itandje could replace Pepe Reina in goal.

“We know that we have had too many players playing games in a row, and it could be a risk to use them,” added Benitez. “Now, after the last game, we have Aurelio, Gerrard and Arbeloa injured.

“It’s more of a risk to use Carra again and Torres again than to use Crouch, Voronin or Kuyt, for example. We need to manage the squad and use the best players for the game against Luton.

“I don’t think the team overall looked tired at the end of the Wigan game, but maybe some of the players that were playing a lot of games in a row were a bit tired.

“We have two or three weeks where we don’t play two games a week. It means we can prepare everything much better, the players will be fitter and we can prepare the team for the rest of the season.”

With doubts persisting over Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger, Jack Hobbs is on standby to start at centre-back.

“I need to see the situation with Sami and Agger,” said Benitez. “They will train tomorrow and it would be a risk for both. I need to speak with the doctor and see how they are, but if they are available I might use one of them or maybe both. If not, then I will use Jack Hobbs.

“Daniel needs confidence. He needs to be sure. We had a problem with Alonso against Arsenal and were without him for another three weeks, so with Agger we must be careful.”

Benitez yesterday dismissed rumours of moves for Chelsea’s Wayne Bridge and Mallorca midfielder Juan Arango while insisting Hyypia, a target for Fulham, is not for sale.

Instead, a centre-back remains the priority with Liverpool confident they are close to securing a signature.

“We are working hard with the owners and the chief executive,” said Benitez. “We are progressing in some business. We need a centre-back and are not looking for a left-back.”

Time Is Precious In Race For Premier Progress

It has become tradition that whenever he leads Liverpool to silverware, Rafael Benitez buys his wife Montse a watch. Such a gift is perhaps fitting given the Anfield manager knows all too well the value of time in a profession that doesn’t grant much.

The clock began ticking a little louder on Benitez’s tenure after a festive campaign in which his team fell further behind in their quest for the Premier League crown.

Successive draws against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic have increased the scrutiny of the Spaniard’s methods and exposed how Liverpool trail Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in the top-flight pecking order.

Benitez will hope relief comes in the form of a lengthy FA Cup run, starting tomorrow with the visit to Luton Town in the third round.

A memorable 5-3 victory at Kenilworth Road at the same stage of the competition two years was the catalyst for a cup campaign which ended with the trophy being lifted by Steven Gerrard in Cardiff.

Benitez believes that triumph is an indication of the strides made under his tenure. But while confident that progress continues to be made at a rapid rate, the manager accepts keeping pace with their main rivals remains an increasingly difficult objective.

“We’ve won four trophies, including one Champions League and reaching another final, so the progress is clear,” says the Spaniard.

In the league, Arsenal, United and Chelsea have very good teams and are also spending big money. We are progressing but they are also. We need to progress faster than them, sometimes it’s possible and sometimes it isn’t.

“Expectation can be a problem. When we started this season, everybody was talking about how we can be title contenders this year. I think the same too, but with the other teams also improving their squads, you never know.

“If it’s just a race against the watch, then we are faster than before. But if it’s against the others, it depends on them also whether you finish first, second or third.”

Benitez adds: “As a manager at a football club you just think about winning. It’s difficult but it’s simple. If you keep winning then everybody is happy, the owners, everyone at the club, and the supporters.

“I don’t think that the owners are putting more pressure on me. We are working hard together now trying to improve the squad in January. I don’t have any problems with the situation now. I think it was a misunderstanding in the past, now we are working together. Foster Gillett is here now and I speak to him every day.

“We are doing the plan for this season, as this season hasn’t finished yet. We will continue thinking about this season and also the future.”

Liverpool are 12 points adrift of Premier League leaders Arsenal and are currently outside the automatic Champions League places.

While Benitez hasn’t given up hope of the title just yet, he concedes his team will almost certainly need a maximum-point haul from their trips to the Emirates, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge later this season.

“I have a lot of confidence that like two years ago we can win some games in a row and progress and try to get closer,” he says. “I cannot lie and say the Premier League will be easy. In England it’s always difficult and it’s now more difficult than it was two games ago.

No-one is the champion yet. But we must do everything almost perfect if we want to win the title. Now is not the time to ask if we can or cannot win the title. In two months time we will know more. The games against the other top teams will be more important now.”

With calf injury victim Gerrard among several players unavailable tomorrow, Benitez is expected to make a raft of changes for the visit to Kenilworth Road.

And the manager has urged his players to stamp out the profligacy that has undermined their efforts in recent outings.

“We were really disappointed after the Wigan game,” he says. “We deserved to win four games over Christmas and we could not. But we can’t dwell on that disappointment. We have to think about working, and the commitment of the staff and the players is 100%.

“If you analyse the other teams, then they sometimes have bad games but win, and that’s been the difference this season. We’ve been playing well but not scoring the second goal to finish off the game, and that’s been a problem. The players know that we need to improve in this particular area.”

Liverpool came from 3-1 down to win 5-3 in their famous third-round clash at Luton in January 2006, with Xabi Alonso scoring one of the competition’s great goals from inside his own half – despite Gerrard’s initial disgust the Spaniard had shot instead of passing.

And Benitez says: “It was an exciting game with a lot happening in it. I remember the goal of Xabi Alonso and how disappointed Gerrard was with the way he had shot for goal.

“Maybe I had the same reaction as Gerrard as I thought Xabi might have passed, but it was a fantastic goal in a very good game.

“I have good memories of that, if not the 5-3 scoreline. I am not sure my heart could cope with that again, especially as we were 3-1 down in the second half.

“It’s important for Luton to play against a top team. Their supporters will be pleased to see Liverpool again and maybe it will help the club’s financial situation.”

Hobbs Relishing Cup Chance

Liverpool's teenager Jack Hobbs is relishing the prospect of facing Luton in the FA Cup on Sunday.

The last time teenager Hobbs got the chance of a cup run-out for Liverpool Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink broke his nose.

The 19-year-old has been eased gently into senior action by manager Rafael Benitez these past few months but the former Lincoln City centre-back is likely to find himself involved in Sunday's third round tie at Luton.

Liverpool will be without calf injury victim Steven Gerrard at Kenilworth Road, but it is the absence of defenders Alvaro Arbeloa (calf) and Fabio Aurelio (hamstring) that increases the chances of Hobbs playing.

With Liverpool's other injury problems in central defence - Sami Hyypia (ankle) and Daniel Agger (foot) are still not fully recovered from long-term problems - Benitez may well be prepared to give Hobbs another chance to shine.

Benitez could use John Arne Riise in the heart of defence but Hobbs will fancy his chances of playing.

"We will wait for medical reports but youngsters like Hobbs and Lucas Leiva could be involved," said Benitez.

Hobbs originally made his Liverpool debut as a late substitute in the Carling Cup victory at Reading in September and his next outing came in the same competition when Cardiff arrived at Anfield with Hasselbaink and Kop legend Robbie Fowler up front.

"It was great to start that match and I learned a lot from facing Fowler and Hasselbaink," said Hobbs.

"They may not be in their prime now but they had so much experience. I really had to be on my toes against them."

But Hobbs was not quick enough to avoid colliding with the back of Hasselbaink's head, breaking his nose.

"Initially I did not realise it was broken when I collided with him. At the time the doctor put some ice on it and said it would be fine," added the teenager.

"I only found out how bad it was after the game. I don't think the medical staff wanted to tell me during the interval and I didn't want to be worried about such things then.

"The initial impact wasn't that bad, it only made my eyes water and there wasn't much blood.

"Hasselbaink gave me some stick after the collision but I didn't pay any attention to him."

But the real pain came when Hobbs needed the problem rectified afterwards. He said: "My nose had to be straightened and it wasn't a nice experience.

"The doctor needed three attempts to push it back into place. In the end he said 'Wiggle your toes' and when I did he pushed my nose back into place."

Since then Hobbs has been around the squad, travelling in the party to away matches, and got another chance when Jamie Carragher was injured in the home win over Bolton in early December.

Hobbs came on as a second half substitute and found himself facing Nicolas Anelka.

Liverpool were 2-0 up at that stage and Hobbs said: "One of my mates texted me afterwards and said I had Anelka in my pocket.

"That wasn't the case; he's one of the best around but he'd probably lost interest by the time I got on."

Whether Hobbs is plunged into a televised match against a Luton side desperate for a top club's scalp is open to debate.

Had Liverpool been in a better position in the league and viewing the cup ties as matches to rotate younger players into the action, Hobbs may have been a certainty to start.

But Liverpool need to win and attempt to give the back-end of a disappointing domestic season a significant target like an FA Cup final.

Hobbs said: "It gives me a lot of confidence that the manager has been willing to put me in the team.

"Now that I have played a few games it means he believes in me. I have got to pay back that trust by putting in good performances.

"Hopefully I will get the chance to do that in the second half of the season."

Preview: Luton Town vs. LiverpooL

Liverpool travel to Luton on Sunday aiming to avoid an early exit from the FA Cup.

The pair served up a cup classic when they met in the third round in 2006 with Liverpool finally prevailing 5-3 at Kenilworth Road.

Liverpool will be hoping that the draw is a good omen for them as they went on to win the cup in 2006 after overcoming Luton.

Luton, who were docked ten points after going into administration in November, go into the game in good form after winning three of their last four matches.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is expected to shuffle his pack for the trip south after a busy festive programme.

Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun, Lucas and Andrei Voronin could all be handed places in the starting XI.

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard has been ruled out with a calf problem.

Luton are still without suspended duo Chris Coyne and Anthony Grant.

Sam Parkin is pushing for a recall after recovering from injury and Paul Furlong could start after a hamstring problem.

Veteran striker Paul Peschisolido is ruled out for the rest of the season with a serious ankle injury.
More updated details soon....check back in 24 hours.

Alonso Awaits Luton Town Rematch

Liverpool face a potential banana skin of an FA Cup third round tie this weekend as they take on League One strugglers Luton Town at Kenilworth Road.

But the Reds have proved they know how to get the job done against the Hatters, even if they suffered an almighty scare during their cup clash in the same round two years ago.

Rafa Benítez' ultimately rounded out 5-3 winners, with the highlight being Xabi Alonso's strike from inside his own half. "Of course I remember that one," smiled Alonso when reminded of his last-minute wondergoal.

"I don't score so many goals so I remember all of them. That goal became very popular because of where it was scored from and because of Stevie's reaction. It was great for me, for the team and for the supporters.

"But I would think it's not likely to be repeated anyway. It brings back good memories for me though. It was a very exciting game and we managed to win it after being 3-1 down and we ended up going to the cup final that year."

Liverpool famously lifted the FA Cup that year after an equally entertaining 3-3 draw and penalties win over West Ham United, a game many fans heralded as the best FA Cup final for 50 years.

The Reds would like to repeat the feat in 2007, but Benítez would prefer that the players didn't put themselves in such great danger before coming back to win this time.

"The manager would just like us to win because I don't think he is really a big fan of big scores where you concede a lot of goals," explained Alonso. "This is the first round of the FA Cup for us and it is a great competition so we are really looking forward to it. But it is a tricky tie and we will have to see what happens.

"The thought of getting to Wembley is a motivation for us but there are still a lot of games to play before anyone thinks of that and first we have to concentrate on Luton. It's going to be a huge game for Luton and I'm sure they are going to work really hard so it is not going to be easy for us."

Wenger: Don't Write Off Liverpool's Title Challenge Yet

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has not written off Liverpool's title challenge just yet.

Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Wigan last weekend left them 12 points behind Barclays Premier League leaders Arsenal and outside of the Champions League places.

To make matters worse for under-pressure Anfield boss Rafael Benitez, his side still have to travel to Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.

But Wenger knows from personal experience that Liverpool cannot be discounted with half the season remaining. In 1997-98, Arsenal came from 13 points off the pace to win the title.

And Wenger said: 'I wouldn't say it is completely (a three horse race). I still feel Liverpool are in the race but they cannot have any blips anymore.

'They are still a dangerous team. The disadvantage for them is that there are three teams in front of them (Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea) who might not drop many points.

'I still don't dismiss them at this stage. It happened to us in 1997-98 and we made the ground up.'

Rafa Eager To Keep Mascherano

Rafa Benitez wants to keep Javier Mascherano at Liverpool, and sign a new centre-half in January.

Mascherano has been a big hit at Anfield since arriving last January on an 18-month loan deal.

But the Reds have yet to take up a £17million option to sign him permanently, leading to speculation he could end up elsewhere.

Benitez however is hoping that Mascherano, a target for the likes of Barcelona, will stay on Merseyside. The player himself has already said he wants to remain with the Reds.

"We know Juventus and other top sides are interested in him but we have the option," Benitez told the club's official website.

"Javier is happy here and wants to stay. We will do our best to keep him here."

Benitez meanwhile says he's hoping to sign a centre-half during the January transfer window, and not a left-back as many reports have claimed.

Some speculation was linking Chelsea's Wayne Bridge with a move to Merseyside, but Benitez says he won't be arriving, and added that veteran central defender Sami Hyypia won't be leaving.

"We are looking for a centre back and not a left back," he added.

"We are working hard with the new owners and the Chief Executive to find an option."