Monday, January 21, 2008

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs Aston Villa

Liverpool have been more miss than hit in front of their own fans this season but when they do win at Anfield it is usually in style.

It begs the question which Liverpool will turn up against Aston Villa on Monday night?

Looking at their home form in the Premier League Liverpool have won four out of 10 games - a dreadful win ratio for a team that won 14 out of 19 last campaign.

In those four victories they have won 6-0, 4-0, 4-1 and 2-0, suggesting that if they do get some breathing space they go on to put the result beyond doubt.

The trouble with Liverpool hasn't been getting the breakthrough. Only twice have they failed to score at home - in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United and the 0-0 draw with Birmingham.

Their problem has been getting the killer second goal. Rafa Benitez's team led 1-0 against Arsenal, Chelsea and Wigan but all three games ended 1-1.

With Villa in town, there are plenty of reasons to think Liverpool will struggle to get the win again.

The obvious statistic to take note of is that Liverpool have drawn five out of 10 at home while Villa have drawn five out of 10 away.

Liverpool's inability to finish off games will also hearten an Aston Villa side who haven't done too badly at Anfield in recent years.

Okay they have lost on their last four visits, but between 2000-2003 Villa won twice and drew twice in league visits to Anfield.

Confidence increases in Villa when you consider they have lost just once on the road this season - and that was a 1-0 reverse at Manchester City who remain unbeaten at Eastlands.

On top of this Villa are also no strangers at coming from behind to get a result on their travels.

Villa fell a goal behind at Bolton, Sunderland, Chelsea and Wigan but managed to get results and though they were 4-1 up in the 4-4 draw at Tottenham they were originally 1-0 down.

Obviously losing a goal doesn't dent their confidence.

11/4 about a draw in the outright market is big enough for us to get involved while it is hard to resist a spectaculative punt on Liverpool-draw in the half-time/full-time market given Coral offer 18/1.

Verdict: Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 1

Match preview courtesy of By Ben Linfoot of

Rafa Aiming To Cut Gap

Rafa Benitez has urged his Liverpool side to focus on catching the top three in the Premier League.

Liverpool have slipped out of the top four and appear to be in a race with Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City for the final UEFA Champions League place.

The Reds face Villa on Monday evening and Benitez believes it is time for his team to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with.

"Villa are closer to us now, as are Everton and Manchester City, so we know we cannot make any mistakes," said the Spaniard.

"The next target is to beat Aston Villa, then to beat West Ham and then the same against Sunderland. These are our next three league games.

"Then we go to Chelsea. That game will be the key; our targets must be short-term ones to win these games before we go to Stamford Bridge.

"Three wins and a cup win also on Saturday against Havant and Waterlooville, that is our immediate aim.

"The real key now is that if we want to reduce the gap at the top we must win the away games at Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

"Normally our performances in such games are not the best but if we really want to change something, the way the season is going, we must go into these away games with the teams above us knowing we still have a chance.

Liverpool's cause was not helped by victories for the top three on Saturday, with leaders Manchester United now 15 points clear and third-placed Chelsea 11 ahead.

Benitez said: "We are not thinking about the gap, we can see it. To change it we must win games in a row rather than to keep looking at the table and worrying.

"The problem for us this season has been the expectation. We were told we were spending big money and can be contenders but if you look at the last 10 years, the difference between Liverpool and the top has frequently been around 20 points.

"We need to gain some points now and see what situation we are in when we go to Chelsea next month."

Relief for Rafael Benitez

Speculation continued on Sunday morning in the newspapers about the future of Liverpool Football Club amid rumours that a Dubai-based group was prepared to launch another bid to the buy the club from American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

Dubai Investment Capital (DIC), the company beaten to the purchase of Liverpool by Hicks and Gillett are reported to be back in town with a £500m bid for the club.

Not only might this bid appeal to the Americans, rumoured to be increasingly concerned about their needs to refinance the debt they took on to buy the club in order to continue plans to build a new stadium, it might also appeal to the manager, Rafael Benitez.

The relationship between the Americans and the Spaniard have been publicly shown to be strained but if the Gillett and Hicks are leaving Liverpool, the Benitez's long term future at the club could be secure once again, with the Arabs keen to keep Benitez on board.

That was the argument Paul Hetherington of the Daily Star on Sunday made on the Sunday Supplement this week that Sunday morning's headlines will have pleased Benitez.

"It has got to be good news for him," said Hetherington, "because his relationship with the American owners is fraught to say the least.

"Gillett and Hicks don't understand the way that football works and the Jurgen Klinsmann situation was an example of that. I am not saying that clubs don't go around tapping up managers to replace the guy that they have got if they don't want him but they don't come out and admit it publicly.

"You can admire their honesty, they haven't told a lie, they haven't ducked. They have done it the American way, they Americans like being up front and bold about things. That's obviously the way they see things being done and should be done but it is not the way things are done in English football.

"It is good news for Benitez and I am certain that he will be delighted. DIC looked like taking control of the club before the Americans seemed to come from nowhere to pip them, and it has to be good news for Benitez if there is a changed of ownership.

"He is aware of what they (Gillett and Hicks) have been doing, they have been playing games and he has wanted to get his message across."

Liverpool Fans Crave Dubai Ending To Nightmare

Liverpool fans planning what is likely to be the first in a series of anti-American protests at Anfield tonight are in no doubt. Having seen their bid dramatically trumped by Tom Hicks and George Gillett last year, Dubai International Capital are the only solution to a crisis distinctly out of keeping with the club's dignified and illustrious history.

At the same time as angry supporters were bombarding Hicks's New York-based public relations advisers, Kekst, with abusive emails last week, desperate electronic missives were being sent to DIC's Dubai offices urging the country's fabulously rich ruling al-Maktoum family to launch a rescue bid for Liverpool.

That bid, which could be worth around £350 million, remains on hold today following a refusal from Hicks to allow DIC access to talk to his bankers, Royal Bank of Scotland.

Hicks wants to wait until after a £350 million refinancing is concluded in the next few days, believing that he will then be able to ask DIC for more money.

But DIC are anxious to strike immediately, fearing the financial position of the club will only worsen if the refinancing goes through. In addition to around £25 million of 'rolled up' interest, the refinancing is set to cost £15 million in fees to the banks, RBS and Wachovia. DIC are likely to reduce the value of their offer to Hicks and Gillett in order to ensure that no more money is wasted. Another £20 million is thought to have been spent on fees to architects for the delayed new £400 million stadium at Stanley Park.

Despite threats that they will walk away if the refinancing goes through, DIC remain committed to buying Liverpool. That will be welcomed by supporters who, according to one online poll last week, overwhelmingly want to see Hicks and Gillett replaced by DIC. Just one per cent want to see the Americans remain in charge while 83 per cent want to see DIC take over.

But would DIC necessarily be the answer? In terms of financial muscle there can be no question that they are far more powerful.Although DIC chief executive Samir Al Ansari, a lifelong Liverpool supporter, will want to run the club along proper commercial lines, he is backed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and will be able to call on tens of billions of pounds. Crucially, with the stadium plans on hold, DIC will be able to dodge the global credit crunch by borrowing from Dubai state funds at lower interest rates.

Gillett, the owner of the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team, was never likely to be the sort of super-rich chairman Liverpool needed. That is why, as DIC stalled over the deal last December, he brought in Hicks to help him secure the club. Hicks, one of the pioneers of leveraged takeovers in the United States, has a wealth estimated at $1.3 billion (£665 million), according to last year's Forbes magazine 'Rich List'. But the Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers owner has been hit hard by the credit crunch.

There is also a question of will. Hicks and Gillett only put up £7.5 million each to secure the costly loans taken out with RBS last year to buy the club in a £220 million deal. And the new refinancing deal has stalled largely because of the Americans' attempt to load that debt on to the club's books and their reluctance to put up more of their own cash.

DIC sources, on the other hand, insist they have a true and long-term commitment to Liverpool - despite leaks of a sensitive City document last year which set out how they could reap a 25 per cent profit if they sold out by 2012. DIC sources insist there was never any intention to sell the club on so quickly.

In the absence of any serious rival bidder, DIC are seen as the only way of ending what has turned from an American dream into a nightmare.

Anfield Owners Holding Out For A Windfall

Tom Hicks last night insisted he would not sell his 50% stake in Liverpool, as a game of brinkmanship developed between the club's American owners and Dubai International Capital, the corporation which would usurp them.

DIC, the investment arm of the Dubai government, is prepared to lodge a formal takeover bid for Liverpool this week having come to doubt the reported determination of George Gillett, Hicks's co-chairman at Anfield, to oust his business partner from the club after 11 troubled months in charge. But the company is adamant it will not pay an inflated price for a club who may be saddled with major debt in the coming days and who still require significant investment for a new stadium.

For their part, and despite frequent public denials, Hicks and Gillett are understood to be receptive to DIC's interest in the entire company, but only for a price that would give them a huge profit on their initial £218.9m investment. It is believed DIC inquired informally whether a £300m bid might be acceptable approximately 10 days ago and were told the Americans were seeking a far greater return. DIC's formal bid for Liverpool would have to be in the region of £350m.

The Dubai company had proposed giving Gillett the financial backing he needs to purchase Hicks's stake in the club, Gillett having been enraged by his co-chairman's admission that they approached Jürgen Klinsmann about Rafael Benítez's job and by the amount of debt the Texan wants to put on to the club's books. But Gillett has not turned his doubts into a direct challenge to Hicks and is close to agreeing to a £350m loan with the Royal Bank of Scotland and US-bank Wachovia.

That would allow the Americans to refinance their original purchase of Liverpool last February, repay loans acquired to buy players in the summer and commence work on a 70,000-seat stadium. That in turn, the Americans believe, would allow them to name a higher price for Liverpool, although DIC doubts whether they can afford the £30m-a-year interest repayments and believes they will have to sell at a later date to avoid financial meltdown.

Until DIC raises its offer or the Americans lower theirs, the stand-off and the instability surrounding Liverpool will continue, though Hicks last night angrily denied reports that a deal to sell the club had already been struck.

"A report issued today claiming that the Liverpool Football Club has been sold to DIC is a complete fabrication," said Hicks in a statement. "I have not received any offer to purchase the club from the DIC or anyone else, much less accepted any such offer. Nor do I have any intention of doing so. The facts are that I and my family have always been, and remain, fully committed to co-owning the club; that no one in my family has ever indicated any intention or desire to sell our stake in the club; and that we expect and intend to be co-owners of the club and to actively and enthusiastically support the club's manager, players and fans for many years to come."

It is a turbulent background against which Liverpool face Aston Villa at Anfield tonight needing a win to break back into the top four, having been overtaken by Everton and Manchester City yesterday.

"Villa are closer to us now, as are Everton and Manchester City, so we know we cannot make any mistakes," said Benítez.