Monday, January 07, 2008

Reds Linked With Opare Move

Ghanaian starlet Daniel Opare has admitted it would be a dream come true to play in the Premier League, amid speculation linking him with a switch to Liverpool.

Opare was rated the best defender at last summer's Under-17 World Cup.

Still only 17, he has already been called up to Ghana's senior team and has been likened in style to Brazilian great Cafu.

He currently plays for Ashanti Gold SC in his homeland and is under contract until 2010, but a host of top European sides are understood to be interested.

Real Madrid and Milan are among Opare's admirers, but he has hinted that he would prefer a move to the Premier League.

"I'm calm about my future, but to play in Europe will be to fulfil my dreams," Opare said in the News of the World.

"The Premier League is sensational."

Opare's enthusiasm for the English game will have been noted by Liverpool, who have reportedly been tracking his progress for some time.

The Reds could now decide to make an offer, although Ashanti have inserted a clause in his contract that will not allow him to move for less than £1.5million.

Reds Close In On Slovakian

Liverpool are said to be closing in on the signing of Zenit St Petersburg defender Martin Skrtel for a reported fee of around £7million.

Reds boss Rafael Benitez has confirmed he is looking to bring in a central defender in this month's transfer window to bolster his squad and it appears 23-year-old Skrtel is his man.

Liverpool have struggled for numbers in central defence this season, with Daniel Agger still sidelined through injury and Alvaro Arbeloa has forced to play as a makeshift centre-half in some games

Slovakia international Skrtel is highly regarded and is believed to have interested the likes of Everton, Newcastle, Tottenham and Valencia.

However, Liverpool are thought to have stolen a march on their rivals by tabling a firm offer for Skrtel.

Defensive Benitez Denies Concern Over Sack

Rafael Benitez again leapt to the defence of his selection policy as he denied suggestions he fears the sack as Liverpool boss.

Benitez's future has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks and the rumours are unlikely to subside after his team were taken to an FA Cup third round replay by lowly Luton yesterday.

John Arne Riise's 76th-minute own goal gave the cash-strapped Hatters a money-spinning replay on Merseyside after Peter Crouch had opened the scoring against the run of play.

A 1-1 draw was no more than administration-hit Luton deserved against a disjointed Liverpool side that showed eight changes from their last outing, with Fernando Torres and Jose Reina both rested.

Asked about his team selection, Benitez said: 'What is my strongest team? Do you think our goalkeeper was troubled too much today?

'When you play Crouch, who is the centre forward for England, (Yossi) Benayoun, who is an international player, (Dirk) Kuyt, who is an international player and (Andriy) Voronin, you give the other team the message that you have a very strong side. The other players were injured.

'I think the team scored a goal and need to use their experience to control the game.

'But it's the FA Cup. Look at what happened to Everton, Blackburn and Bolton - that's the FA Cup.'

On the speculation over his job, the Spaniard added: 'I love the club and the fans and want to stay.

'I have two years left on my contract and if I could stay for two years more, I would be very happy.'

Asked if the club's American owners wanted him to stay, he replied: 'The people who own the club? I think so. But every day do I need to ask them that question?

'I love the club, fans. I want to stay. We are working together trying to improve the squad now and for the future.

'All I think is that we scored a goal today and should have controlled the game, I don't need to answer questions about anything else.'

For Luton, who have been unable to fully pay their players since being plunged into administration three months ago, the result meant a vital pay day in the replay.

Manager Kevin Blackwell said: 'I wanted to be talking about the football, but in terms of all the things that are going on, yes, it's the perfect result.

'But I'm disappointed because I thought we could have won the game.

'We asked the players to do certain things and we edged them in terms of chances.

'A bit more guile in the final third and we would have won. Our passing, invention and movement was just as good as theirs.

'We showed terrific heart and terrific fitness and when we needed a special save from Brilly (Dean Brill), he pulled it off.

'But in terms of the survival of this football club, it's a fantastic result.'

Inter Overtake Juve And Fiorentina In Sissoko Race

The race for Liverpool's Mohamed Sissoko is heating up, as over the last hours, Inter have surprisingly overtaken both Juventus and Fiorentina in the contest.

The Nerazzurri could be closing in on an important transfer according to '', as Sissoko has become the number one objective of coach Roberto Mancini.

Inter have thus stormed ahead in the negotiations that favoured Juventus ahead of Fiorentina until a few days ago: thus, the latest developments could see the French midfielder joining the Italian champions instead of either of these teams.

With Patrick Vieira almost certainly leaving the club at the end of this season, Mancini has requested Sissoko to president Massimo Moratti, as he believes that he would be the perfect replacement for the veteran midfielder.

Inter's sudden acceleration has surprised both Juventus and Fiorentina, who will now need to hurry things up if they do not want to lose the 22-year-old player.

Rafa Benitez: I Won't Quit

Rafa Benitez claimed he loved Liverpool and had no plans to quit as manager after escaping an embarrassing FA Cup exit at League One Luton last night.

Benitez, who has fallen out with the club's American owners, has been linked with a summer move to Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.

But after a 1-1 draw with the Hatters, he said: "I'm very clear - I love the club, I love the fans I want to stay."

Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry has flown out to the US to be at a scheduled board meeting in New York tomorrow, where Benitez's future is bound to be among matters discussed.

Benitez is under pressure with the club fifth in the Premier League and 12 points adrift of leaders Arsenal.

Defeat to Luton would have added to that pressure and although Liverpool went ahead last night through Peter Crouch, a John Arne Riise own goal earned Luton the replay their spirited performance deserved.

A bullish Benitez showed more fight than his lacklustre team afterwards by insisting he wanted to stay at Anfield beyond his current deal, which runs out in 2010.

"I have two more years of my contract and if I can stay for more than two I'll be really happy," he said. "I want to stay. Finish.

"I will not talk about this all the time. I want to stay, I'm happy here, I love the club and the fans so you can write this."

When asked if he believed owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett still had confidence in him and if he would be at the club next season, he replied: "I think so.

"To help with the situation is just to keep working hard and keep winning."

Benitez Summit As Parry Flies To US For Crunch Talks On Liverpool Boss

Rafa Benitez's Anfield future will be discussed on Tuesday following fresh claims that he fears his Liverpool reign will end with the sack.

Chief executive Rick Parry is flying to America for a summit meeting with co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett about plans for a new stadium at nearby Stanley Park.

But it is understood Benitez's increasingly uncertain position has been added to the agenda and yesterday's 1-1 FA Cup draw at League One strugglers Luton is unlikely to have improved his standing.

Benitez is desperate to remain at Anfield and said: "It is very clear. I love the club, I love the fans and I want to stay. I have two more years left on my contract and if I can stay for longer I will be really happy. I think the people at the club want me to stay.

"We are working together trying to improve the squad, now and also for the future."

Benitez saw his weakened line-up take the lead through Peter Crouch, only for John Arne Riise's own goal to earn Luton a replay tomorrow week.

All this on a day which started with the Liverpool manager's misgivings being aired by an unnamed confidant in a move that seemed to underline how he senses there may be no healing his rift with co-owner Tom Hicks.

For all the recent attempts to patch up their differences following a two-hour meeting over Christmas that was described as cordial and constructive, Benitez was said to be resigned to his fate and bracing himself for the axe.

There are echoes of Jose Mourinho's downfall at Chelsea about the way Benitez has taken on a wealthy club owner in a power struggle and antagonised him by stubbornly refusing to climb down.

Like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Hicks, in particular, has taken exception to what he views as his manager overstepping the mark.

Matters came to a head when Hicks felt Javier Mascherano's £17million permanent transfer was being pushed through without due consultation and he responded by ordering Benitez to back off and concentrate on the players already at his disposal.

Benitez evidently believes the unwavering support of Liverpool's vast following will stand him in good stead.

There are even claims that Hicks and fellow co-owner George Gillett, beset by problems over financing a new stadium and with their own relationship strained, may look to sell up before having the chance to dismiss the manager.

Even so, Benitez appears to be playing a dangerous game.

Suggestions that Real Madrid are waiting to offer him a fresh start hardly tally with the views of Bernabeu insiders.

Real are looking unstoppable at the top of the Spanish league, while coach Bernd Schuster has been widely credited with restoring discipline and harmony in the dressing room and revitalising the careers of Robinho and former on-loan Arsenal forward Julio Baptista.

Luton Town 1 - 1 LiverpooL

An own goal by Liverpool's John Arne Riise piled on the problems for manager Rafael Benitez and earned Luton a deserved replay in a thrilling third round FA Cup clash at Kenilworth Road.

Liverpool looked to have won the tie when Peter Crouch made the most of two defensive blunders to put the Reds in front in the 72nd minute.

But Luton were level inside three minutes when Riise turned a cross from Drew Talbot past his own goalkeeper. It had promised to be a good afternoon for Liverpool when Ryan Babel tested Dean Brill within seconds of the kick-off.

The striker spun into the penalty before firing in a right-foot shot that Brill did well to hold at the second attempt.

But it was Luton's turn to squander a real opportunity in the fourth minute when Dave Edwards got clear of the Liverpool defence but his shot was well saved by Charles Itandje.

It was the best possible start to the tie with both sides playing attacking football. But the lack of finishing class was proving to be a real problem, particularly for Liverpool.

Dirk Kuyt was the next Red to waste a real chance when he blazed a pass from Crouch over the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area.

Babel then provided a fine cross for Kuyt moments later but the striker failed to direct his diving header on the target and the chance went begging.

Luton were certainly not being outplayed by the Barclays Premier League side and they continued to cause the Reds problems.

Luton's Talbot proved a particular menace and in the 20th minute he burst down the left flank, left Hyypia for dead, and delivered a low cross which Itandje had to clear in haste.

England striker Crouch twice wasted clear chances to put Liverpool in front in the 34th minute but the tall striker could not find the target on either occasion.

But for all their early dominance, Liverpool struggled to provide either Crouch or Kuyt with a clear-cut opportunity to break the deadlock.

Just before the interval, Talbot was in the thick of the action again when he got the better of Jamie Carragher before sending over a cross that eluded everybody in the penalty area.

Under-fire Liverpool boss Benitez must have thought his side had taken the lead in the 51st minute when Riise let fly with a 22-yard drive which took a deflection off Chris Perry.

But Luton goalkeeper Brill pulled off a magnificent save when he palmed the ball to safety.

Liverpool had a lucky escape themselves in the 54th minute when Darren Currie crossed perfectly for Talbot but instead of planting the ball into the net, he headed the ball over the crossbar from six yards.

It was their second good chance of the game and they almost paid for their wastefulness seconds later when Brill froze on the edge of his penalty area and was robbed of the ball by Babel.

Luckily for Brill, Luton managed to clear the danger as Babel failed to control the ball quickly enough.

Luton's Calvin Andrew was off target when decided to let fly from 25 yards in the 58th minute but the home side were growing in confidence.

Liverpool's Riise was booked for bringing down Talbot when Currie put the Luton man in the clear. Riise was lucky to escape with just a yellow card as Talbot appeared to have a clear run on goal.

Currie then sent a right-foot volley just wide of the far post as Luton kept up the pressure.

But Liverpool looked to have won the tie when they scored against the run of play.

A catalogue of defensive errors finally led to Crouch breaking the deadlock in the 73rd minute.

Chris Coyne lost possession on the halfway line and there seemed no danger until Perry's wayward header allowed substitute Andriy Voronin a clear run on goal.

But although Brill saved Voronin's shot it ran free to Crouch to slot home.

But Luton deservedly earned a replay when Riise turned a cross from Talbot into his own net from six yards just three minutes later.