Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rafael Benitez Proves A Hot Topic In New York

Rafael BenÍtez was close to securing a £6.5 million deal to sign Martin Skrtel, the Zenit St Petersburg defender, last night, but his long-term prospects as Liverpool manager appear bleaker than ever before a critical board meeting in New York today.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, Liverpool’s American owners, will meet Rick Parry, the chief executive, in a meeting that was ostensibly called to discuss plans and ways to finance the club’s proposed new stadium in Stanley Park. The future of BenÍtez is not officially on the agenda, but it is certain to be discussed, with sources indicating last night that the relationship between manager and board is more strained than ever and that a parting of the ways is only a matter of time.

Barring a dramatic development at today’s meeting, BenÍtez is expected to stay in charge for the remainder of the season, but he is increasingly aware that his days at Liverpool are numbered. Even if the signing of Skrtel, the Slovakia defender, would appear to represent a vote of confidence in the manager, BenÍtez has little doubt that Hicks and Gillett are plotting to replace him, with rumours in the football community - although not yet from within Anfield – continuing to link Jürgen Klinsmann, the former Germany coach, with Merseyside.

It is not clear whether Liverpool have a serious interest in Klinsmann or if the 43-year-old would be prepared to turn his back on his life in California, where he works as vice-president for Soccer Solutions, a consultancy firm, but there have been indications from Germany that he is eager to return to management in Europe.

Beyond the issue of BenÍtez’s future, Hicks and Gillett, whose working relationship has run far from smoothly, are under serious pressure to refinance the £270 million loan that they used to buy the club last February. The loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland expires next month and a new refinancing deal is imperative if the Americans are to have any hope of delivering the new stadium that they promised at the time of their takeover.

Luton Town are investigating claims that Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool defender, was involved in an angry confrontation with home supporters at the FA Cup third-round tie between the clubs at Kenilworth Road on Sunday. Carragher, the former England defender, is alleged to have responded to taunts from fans as he warmed down after the match by scaling a barrier and shouting obscenities at the occupants of an executive box.

Dimitar Berbatov - So Nearly A Liverpool Player

Should Dimitar Berbatov leave Spurs for an enormous fee during the January transfer window it will leave many at Anfield regretting what might have been.

In the autumn and winter of 2004, Liverpool were scouring Europe for a top class centre forward and Berbatov, then of Bayer Leverkusen, was high on their wanted list.

Leverkusen were willing to do business at the right price and the player himself was believed to have been keen on a move to Anfield.

That was until fate intervened and Liverpool were drawn against Leverkusen in the Champions League.

Any hopes of a deal being done were dashed as the German outfit decided they could not sell one of their main assets to a team they would be facing the following month and Liverpool ended up signing Fernando Morientes.

Talk about the luck of the draw.

Defender Skrtel Passes Anfield Medical

Slovak defender Martin Skrtel looks set to become Liverpool's latest signing after he passed a medical at Anfield.

Liverpool appear set to clinch a deal for Zenit St. Petersburg's Martin Skrtel after he completed a medical today.

The Slovakian international will set the Merseysiders back £6.5m, providing American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillet give their seal of approval at a meeting with chief executive Rick Parry today.

Personal terms have already been agreed with the club, and should the deal go through it would make Skrtel the most expensive defender in Liverpool's history.

Liverpool have been chasing a new centre-back for some time, and after their pursuit of Gabriel Heinze was knocked back by Manchester United and Gabriel Palletta was sent packing back to Argentina they've clearly had limited options in that position.

Daniel Agger's long-term injury has forced boss Rafael Benítez to rely almost exclusively on Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia this season, but the 6ft 4in Skrtel - tipped as one of the most promising young defenders in Europe - should add extra cover.

The Slovak has been capped 15 times at international level and recently won the Russian Premier League with Zenit in November this year as the side became only the second non-Moscow club to lift the title in the post-Soviet era.

Liverpool Aim To Have Martin Skrtel Signed For Middlesbrough Clash

Liverpool are on the brink of breaking their transfer record for a defender while insisting that boss Rafael Benitez’s job is not up for discussion when chief executive Rick Parry holds talks with the club’s American owners later this week.

Benitez is about to spend £6.5million on Zenit St Petersburg centre-back Martin Skrtel, the Slovakia international.

The player was due to have a medical today having arrived on Merseyside on Sunday evening, hours after Liverpool had been embarrassingly held 1-1 at Luton in the FA Cup third round.

The replay will now be at Anfield next Tuesday, with the added incentive of a potential home fourth round tie against non-league Havant and Waterlooville or Swansea, who must also replay next week after a 1-1 draw in South Wales at the weekend.

Chief executive Parry was in Russia at the weekend concluding negotiations for Skrtel, and returned to pour cold water on claims that he was flying to the US later in the week for talks with owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett over Benitez’s future.

Liverpool’s tie at Kenilworth Road was overshadowed by media speculation that Benitez would be sacked at the end of the season.

Hicks and Gillett have already announced that they would be making a decision this week on the design of the revised new stadium plans.

But Parry pointed out today: “The appointment is a diary engagement to discuss the new stadium plans, it has been in the diary for a long time to discuss the stadium.”

Skrtel, who was last in Liverpool in early December to play for Zenit against Everton in the UEFA Cup, is rated as one of the most promising young defenders in Europe.

The deal will mark the end of Benitez’s search for a new centre-half that began with the unsuccessful pursuit of Gabriel Heinze and which became increasingly urgent in recent weeks following injuries to both Daniel Agger and Sami Hyypia.

Skrtel, 23, has 15 caps and joined Zenit in 2004 and has gone on to make more than 100 appearances in the Russian league.

Benitez’s defensive problems started when Agger damaged a metatarsal in September, and he has still not returned to action.

Hyypia made his comeback at Luton from an ankle injury sustained at Derby on Boxing Day, but he looked rusty and short of pace.

Benitez has had to use Alvaro Arbeloa in central defence, but a calf injury ruled the Spaniard out at Luton, and 19 year-old Jack Hobbs was on the bench as the only other option.

Benitez will be keen to see the deal for 6ft 4in tall Skrtel tied up as quick as possible so he can be added to the Liverpool squad, possibly even in time for the trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Liverpool The Latest Club Poised To Move In For Hutton

Liverpool want to know if Alan Hutton will reject every Premiership bid for his services this month after his shock decision to snub £9million interest from Spurs.

But one Ibrox player who is sweeter on making a switch south is Brahim Hemdani — and former Rangers manager Alex McLeish is ready to grant him his wish of playing in England by taking the midfielder to Birmingham.

Rangers are aware it is the Anfield club, and not Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United, lying in wait to offer Hutton top-flight riches down south and Walter Smith the opportunity to recoup his entire spending from last summer.

The interest has been lodged with the 23-year-old's agent, John Lonergan, who saw a transfer to Tottenham collapse on Thursday night, despite Rangers accepting the record offer.

As Sportsmail revealed on December 2, Spurs were prepared to match the Ibrox asking price and did so after failing with a bid of £6m, plus a selection of Spurs fringe players.

But Hutton has told colleagues that a desire to win the title at Rangers this season was the chief reason behind his stunning decision to reject a £30,000-a-week contract from White Hart Lane and that may yet keep Rafa Benitez waiting until the summer.

The Liverpool boss, while making left-back a priority in the next few weeks, wants to improve his lot on the other flank where Steve Finnan is the only genuine performer. Reports on Hutton have been glowing enough to merit making their interest abundantly clear.

That option presenting itself may go some way to explaining why Spurs were blanked by the player. A move to the northwest of England may then appeal more than London for the young full-back in what now seems an inevitable lucrative move across the border.

However, midfield class act Hemdani has no such concerns over a move.

He wanted away in August but was persuaded to stay on by boss Smith's insistence that his experience was vital to helping his Champions League rookies in Europe, although he was considered surplus to requirements by the manager for the majority of domestic duties.

With that thrill gone, Hemdani believes the coast should now be clear to begin the latest chapter of his career and Birmingham will be willing participants.

Hemdani has 18 months of the deal he signed under McLeish at Ibrox remaining and is the second-highest earner at the club behind captain Barry Ferguson, so now would be the logical time to cash in, although his qualities would be a loss.

If his departure looks inevitable, Smith will want a replacement lined up on loan at the very least and that brings Napoli's former Chelsea man Sam Dalla Bonna into the picture.

He was watched by Rangers before the Serie A winter shutdown. The other fear in the midfield department is Kevin Thomson's proximity to a suspension and Hemdani could be a late play in January with that in mind.

Lower League Opposition Awaits If Liverpool Progress In FA Cup

Liverpool’s reward for a successful conclusion to their third round FA Cup tie against Luton Town will be a tie against Swansea City or the only non-league side left in the competition, Havant & Waterlooville.

In the draw today at Soho Square, conducted by Anfield legend John Aldridge, the Reds were paired with the winners of the tie between the League One team and the Blue Square Conference South side, who are based in Hampshire.

The sides drew 1-1 at Swansea's Liberty Stadium on Saturday with the 10-man visitors equalising late on to force a replay on Wednesday week at their West Leigh Park ground.

The Reds have not played non-league opposition in the FA Cup since Altrincham were seen off 4-1 in a 1981 third round tie but have been embarrassed by minnows before, famously losing to Worcester City in 1959.

Liverpool and Swansea City have met on five previous occasions in the FA Cup, the most recent being in 1990 when the Reds ran up an 8-0 scoreline in an Anfield replay following a goalless draw at the Vetch Field.

Liverpool also progressed after ties in 1936, 1971 and 1982 with Swansea's sole triumph coming in a 1964 quarter final.

With Bill Shankly's side striding towards their first championship under his reign, the then Second Division side stunned Anfield by winning 2-1 with left-back Ronnie Moran missing a penalty late on.

After semi-final defeat to Leicester City the previous season, it appeared Liverpool's FA Cup jinx would never end although it would only be another 12 months before the FA Cup finally resided at Anfield following victory over Leeds United at Wembley in 1965.

Full draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup

Arsenal v Stoke City/Newcastle

Coventry v Walsall/Millwall

Oldham v Huddersfield Town

Swindon/Barnet v Fulham/Bristol Rovers

Wigan v Chelsea

Luton/Liverpool v Swansea/Havant & Waterlooville

Southend v Barnsley

Southampton v Norwich/Bury

Man Utd v Tottenham/Reading

Portsmouth v Plymouth

Derby/Sheff Wed v Preston

Watford v Wolves

Peterborough v Charlton/West Brom

Sheff Utd v West Ham/Man City

Mansfield v Middlesbrough

Tranmere/Hereford v Cardiff

Ties to be played on 26 & 27 January

FA Cup third-round replay dates

Tuesday 15 January

West Brom v Charlton

Bury v Norwich

Barnet v Swindon

Reading v Tottenham

Millwall v Walsall

Bristol Rovers v Fulham

Sheffield Wednesday v Derby

Liverpool v Luton

Wednesday 16 January

Man City v West Ham

Havant & Waterlooville v Swansea

Newcastle v Stoke

Hereford v Tranmere