Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rafa: I've Spoken To Sissoko About Switching

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has spoken out about recent transfer speculation, not least that surrounding Momo Sissoko.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez denies that Momo Sissoko's transfer talk has soured relations between player and manager.

Rumour had it that the two were not on speaking terms after a difficult season and talk of a move, but Benitez insists that this is not the case.

"I was talking with Momo about leaving a few times, and with his agent,” he told

“We know we have two or three clubs asking about him and we will try to find the best solution for him and for us.

"It depends on if we find the right club and the right offer. We need to wait.

"In a top side the competition is always really hard. We've brought in Lucas [Leiva] and with [Steven] Gerrard playing in the middle this year, plus [Xabi] Alonso and [Javier] Mascherano, he is under pressure.

"But he wants to play every game. We will try to find a solution for him because he is a nice boy."

Benitez went on to add that Sissoko's probable departure did not mean that a new face was to arrive with the proceeds of any move.

"We are happy with the squad," he insisted.

"We needed another centre-back but in the other positions we have enough players.

"Mascherano? We will continue to keep working and we are confident he will stay with us."

EPL Preview: Middlesborough vs. LiverpooL

Liverpool travel to Middlesbrough seeking to prove their Premiership critics wrong.

These are not Liverpool Football Club’s finest hours.

As if the rumours of ongoing tensions between manager and owners and the worries over the club’s finances were not enough, the Reds are now stuttering on the pitch as well.

Two games into 2008 and Liverpool can boast nothing more a pair of 1-1 draws against Wigan Athletic and Luton Town.

As per usual, Rafael Benítez has copped most of the flak. But against Wigan at Anfield a week-and-a-half ago the Spaniard arguably picked (injuries permitting) his strongest side.

The foreign favourites (Torres, Alonso, Kewell, Mascherano) and the home-grown heroes (Gerrard, Carragher) were all there – they just didn’t perform.

Gerrard in particular was a major culprit in that match, repeatedly failing to stick to his appointed position higher up the pitch, thus allowing Wigan the room to stride forward. And it was the captain’s hashed clearance that permitted Titus Bramble to drill in the Latics’ equaliser.

Not that Liverpool performed any better minus their leader at Luton, mind. Two years ago, against the same team at the same ground in the same round of the FA Cup, a supposedly less talented Liverpool selection saw off a Luton Town side undoubtedly better than that seen on Sunday 5-3.

True, the Reds weathered an almighty scare that day to eventually emerge triumphant, but the fact remains that they took the game to their opponents in 2006 and punished them when it mattered. Sunday’s poor effort didn’t come close to replicating the feat. Lacking both creativity and conviction, Liverpool meekly surrendered a lead they had obtained against the run of play.

They may win the rematch, but unless things improve anyone rational would back against the Reds replicating their FA Cup trophy success of 2006. With a game in hand but a gigantic 12 point deficit on league leaders Arsenal, this season’s much-heralded genuine title challenge also appears somewhat of a fallacy. Liverpool have never enjoyed games at Middlesbrough, but now would be a fine time to rediscover the winning habit.

Middlesbrough are a strange team. Great results like an away win at Portsmouth (neither Liverpool nor Manchester United could win at Fratton Park) and that superb 2-1 victory over league leaders Arsenal have been interspersed with a sorry 3-0 thrashing at Birmingham and comprehensive 2-0 loss at home to Everton.

Depending on which Middlesbrough and which Liverpool turn up, the outcome of this game could vary immensely. Liverpool may be favourites, but Boro have stopped the Reds from scoring in all of their last five trips to the Riverside. “Liverpool are a class side and it is always a big occasion when they come and play you,” said Boro boss Gareth Southgate.

Nevertheless, he knows his team need to pick up results in front of their own fans soon having notched just one win in their last seven. "Our home form hasn't been as good as it could have been so we've got to make this place an intimidating place to come to again,” he stressed.

But things aren’t all bad for Boro, and they defied many pundits by not falling victim to an FA Cup upset at Bristol City last weekend. “We have had three wins in six games, which would have been a decent record if we'd had a few draws as well,” added Southgate.



Match Result Date Championship
Bristol City - Middlesbrough 1 - 2 05/01/2008 FA CUP
Middlesbrough - Everton 0 - 2 01/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Portsmouth - Middlesbrough 0 - 1 29/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Birmingham - Middlesbrough 3 - 0 26/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Middlesbrough - West Ham 1 - 2 22/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Derby - Middlesbrough 0 - 1 15/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE


Match Result Date Championship
Luton - Liverpool 1 - 1 06/01/2008 FA CUP
Liverpool - Wigan Athletic 1 - 1 02/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Manchester City - Liverpool 0 - 0 30/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Derby - Liverpool 1 - 2 26/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Portsmouth 4 - 1 22/12/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Chelsea - Liverpool 2 - 0 19/12/2007 CARLING CUP



Lee Cattermole and Julio Arca are both suspended, leaving Gareth Southgate with a few decisions to make in midfield. George Boateng has settled his differences with the boss and should play, Gary O’Neil may also earn a recall, but Woodgate (hamstring) and Tuncay (knee) are unlikely to figure. Wheather, who got the winner against Bristol City last weekend, should start in central defence

Likely XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer – Young, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz – O’Neil, Rochemback, Boateng, Downing – Hutchinson, Lee


Liverpool have an unusual wealth of central defensive options for this game: Daniel Agger is finally ready to return from his foot injury while Martin Skrtel completed his move from Zenit St. Petersburg on Friday. Reina, Arbeloa, Gerrard and Torres were all rested against Luton last weekend and should all start. It’s more or less a full squad available to Benítez, the exception being the Juventus-bound Mohamed Sissoko.

Likely XI (4-4-2): Reina – Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Arbeloa – Pennant, Gerrard, Mascherano, Kewell – Torres, Voronin


Boro – Mark Schwarzer

The Aussie goalkeeper often sums up Middlesbrough as a whole, alternating between brilliance and blunders. Liverpool will undoubtedly create chances in this game, so Schwarzer will need to be on top form to maintain Boro’s run of Riverside clean sheets against the Reds.

Liverpool – Steven Gerrard

After finally regaining form and enjoying a rich scoring spell, Gerrard hasn’t been quite the same against Christmas. The skipper will have to show both tenacity and vision to break through Middlesbrough’s stubborn defensive line on Saturday. With a great performance Gerrard can often drag along the rest of his team in a game they desperately need to win.

Skrtel: Rafa's The Reason I Signed

Martin Skrtel admits the impression left on him by Rafa Benitez was key to him spurning offers from other Premier League clubs.

The Slovak trained with his new teammates for the first time on Friday morning before was granted the first interview.

Skrtel - who was reportedly a target for Everton, Spurs and Valencia - told us his new boss made quite an impression during negotiations between the Reds and former club Zenit St Petersburg.

"The manager wanted me to come here which was important for me," said the 23-year-old. "I found him to be a nice man and Rafa was a big influence on me coming to Liverpool.

"I am looking forward to my first game at Anfield and playing in front of the Liverpool supporters. I can't wait. I have been to Anfield and it is beautiful. I can't wait to see it when it is full of fans."

The Russian Premier League is currently in the middle of a winter break, meaning Skrtel is not fit enough to play any part in this weekend's clash with Middlesbrough.

It may take the new boy 10 days to find match fitness, but with three established centre-backs already at the club, he knows he may have to be patient.

He said: "Obviously I was aware about the competition for places. Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger are players with immense quality.

"I will do my best to get into the team as soon as possible. For any team to have competition in all positions is good and I will work as hard as possible to challenge for a place. Rafa hasn't said too much to me about my place just yet."

Skrtel has already had a taste of playing with Premier League players having pitted his wits against Andy Johnson and Everton in the UEFA Cup earlier this season.

Never, though, has he played alongside players of the quality of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – until this morning, that is.

He admits his first training session was a nerve-wracking experience.

"I had my first training session with the team today and the lads all welcomed me to the club. I was a bit nervous because they are huge stars but once training started I was okay."

As well as getting used to new surroundings here on Merseyside, Skrtel will embark on a crash course in English. Not that he'll need as many lessons as some who arrive at Melwood.

He explained: "The coach at Zenit, Dick Advocaat, spoke English to the players, so I already know many of the football phrases - that should help."

Skrtel admits he owes Advocaat a debt of gratitude, not only for the English lessons, but for allowing him to complete a dream move to the Premier League.

"The past few days have been full of anxiety and wait but I'm glad it's all sorted now and I am finally a Liverpool player," he said.

"I would like to say a big 'Thank you' to Zenit St Petersburg for allowing me to come to Liverpool. I was under contract at Zenit and they helped me with this move.

"When I played against Everton it showed me why I always wanted to play in the English league. I am very happy to be here."

The player also revealed the move to Liverpool means he will have to give up his other favourite pastime, hockey.

"As a child I played a lot of hockey. When I was at Zenit we had a winter break and the manager let me play hockey then. Now I'm here at Liverpool I won't be able to do that anymore more."

Benitez Insists He Is The Man To Lead Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez pointedly talked about his and the club's long-term future at the end of a week which has seen his longevity at Anfield called into question.

All the speculation that Jurgen Klinsmann was being lined up to replace Benitez was swept away today by the news the former Germany coach will take over at Bayern Munich in the summer.

And the Reds boss chief was in relaxed mood as he spoke about his new signing - £6.5million defender Martin Skrtel - and the departure of Sam Allardyce from Newcastle.

The Spaniard consistently underlined his good working relationship with American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett by emphasising his and the club's long-term planning.

"The owners have allowed me to spend and people should realise that," said Benitez.

"Maybe because everyone seemed to be focusing on me they did not see that we have all been working together, the owners and me, to improve the squad for the future.

"It is important to realise that we were all trying to do the right things for our club and in this case it was to sign a young player for the future.

"There have been headlines (about Klinsmann) but my aim is to focus on my team and work with my squad to win games. I have been busy but now I think some people have been pointing in the wrong direction."

The 23-year-old Skrtel, signed from Zenit St Petersburg, is unlikely to be involved in tomorrow's match at Middlesbrough but could be given a debut on Tuesday at Anfield for the FA Cup third round replay against Luton.

Fellow centre-back Daniel Agger may have finally returned to the squad after four months out with a broken metatarsal but Benitez explained there was still a desperate need for defensive re-enforcement.

"We needed a new centre-back - a necessity - with the injuries we have had. The aim, though, was to bring in a young player to build for the future," said the manager.

"He is just 23 and we have a lot of young players here now who will be very good for our future as well as important to boost the squad.

"He has a good mentality and he is very strong but I will not put him under pressure, everyone needs time to settle.

"Agger needed six months and he is now a fantastic player, Martin will be used carefully and not rushed."

But after a week which began with claims - since forcibly denied by the Spaniard - Benitez privately expected to be sacked in the summer he was determined to emphasise the healthy relationship he maintains with the owners.

"After the meeting (in December) I had with the owners everything was much better," said the former Valencia coach, who had a public disagreement with the Americans in November over transfer plans.

"We have been talking almost every day and we have continued with the plan and that is to bring in young players who will be good for the future.

"The squad has young players who will improve each year and gain experience. It shows we have a good relationship with the owners.

"And after the meeting this week (in New York) between the owners and (chief executive) Rick Parry we have signed a new player almost straight away - that is very, very positive."

Benitez ruled out any further significant spending unless he gets a large fee for midfielder Mohamed Sissoko, who believes he is on the brink of a £10million move to Juventus.

"We have had some clubs asking about Sissoko and we will find the right solution," said the Spaniard.

"If we get the right club and right offer we will be able to progress.

"In a top side there is always tough competition. We have Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and then we bought in Lucas Leiva so Momo was under pressure.

"We are happy now with the squad. We have good competition in all the other positions and I feel we only needed a deal for a centre-back."

Benitez even found time to offer sympathy to Allardyce, an opposite number with whom he has had a number of run-ins when he was Bolton boss.

"I do not expect things to be done like that in England," said Benitez.

"People who take decisions must understand that if you want to improve something then it takes time.

"It is happening like this more often and people start saying it is normal with the pressure and the money involved but I believe it a big mistake.

"How long did it take Alex Ferguson to win the title, seven years. If the board had changed their manager then Manchester United would not be where they are now.

"That is a good example to explain why it is wrong to act so quickly."

Rafael BenÍtez Sees End To Threat From One Potential Successor

There is a deafening silence from the Liverpool owners on Rafael Benítez’s future, a situation that the manager admitted yesterday he can’t control, but at least he is rid of the spectre of Jürgen Klinsmann, who has agreed to take over as Bayern Munich coach in July.

Rumours had been rife throughout the football community about contact between Liverpool and the German — who is said to have links to George Gillett Jr, one of the club’s co-owners — and there were reports last night that Klinsmann was offered the manager’s job at Anfield before deciding to join Bayern, where he takes over from Ottmar Hitzfeld.

Benítez had been considered by Bayern for that position — as had José Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager — but his preference has always been to stay at Liverpool. However, his long-term future at Anfield looks bleak unless he can somehow repair a damaged relationship with the club’s board.

He must establish a better working relationship not only with the owners, but with Rick Parry, the chief executive, who is to liaise ever more closely with the manager in a revised structure that will result in Gillett and Tom Hicks appointing another senior executive to oversee other projects, most notably the club’s proposed new stadium in Stanley Park.

Despite invitations to do so, Hicks and Gillett have offered nothing approaching a vote of confidence in Benítez since he antagonised them in a damaging dispute over transfer policy. But Benítez, who completed a £6.5 million deal to sign Martin Skrtel, the Slovakia defender, from Zenit St Petersburg yesterday, believes that the only way to win their backing is to keep his head down and win matches, starting away to Middlesbrough this afternoon.

“If I can prepare the team properly for Middlesbrough and Luton [in an FA Cup third-round replay on Tuesday] and we keep winning each week, it will be easier to find an answer to these questions,” he said.