Friday, February 15, 2008

Benitez: We Can Beat Anyone

Ahead of Liverpool's crucial cup week, manager Rafael Benitez has urged for his players to put the club's league troubles behind them and prove their worth in the FA Cup ahd Champions League.

It has been far from a season to remember for Liverpool as we are now fast approaching March and the beginning of what is known as the 'business end' of the season.

Liverpool have been in woeful form in the league — even at home, to the shock of many — and are well off the pace for the coveted Premier League title, which they have yet to win in the competition's 15-year history.

The worries do not end there, as they are now underachieving to the point that their place in the top four is under serious threat and as a result, so is their Champions League future.

However, it's 'business' that Rafa Benitez handles best. Come what may, the man produces results and has the trophies to prove it. Nobody will be counting Liverpool out; though they were knocked out of the Carling Cup by Chelsea (who play Everton in the final in just over a week) they remain outside contenders for both the FA Cup and the Champions League.

The outside is where Benitez prefers to be; too often he has come into games the favourite and been embarrassed, while making misery for Europe's more glamorous clubs has been his fore in his tenure at Anfield and indeed before then at the Mestalla with Valencia.

So despite the fact Liverpool almost suffered incredibly embarrassing exits from both of these competitions — with Havant and Waterlooville giving them a first-half scare at Anfield in the FA Cup and Marseille being within 90 minutes of sending them crashing out of the weakest Champions League group of the lot — they are still in with a chance, something Benitez is only all too aware of.

"We know we are not doing as well in the league and we must improve, but the FA Cup and Champions League are different competitions and we can beat anyone," declared Benitez.

With Championship side Barnsley being Liverpool's fifth round opponents in this weekend's FA Cup tie, Benitez is confident there will be no element of complacency amongst his men, and that lessons have been learned from previous somewhat unpleasant experiences.

"We have a difficult game, and I say difficult because we have some experience in the Cup," he said. "Everybody says that we'll beat Barnsley but we must be careful and do the right things.

"Always when you play a team from another division you must still do your jobs properly. We have the game against Havant and Waterlooville as experience. We were thinking about scoring goals and we conceded.

"We knew before that game about the dangers, and if you remember we had a chance to score first with a Yossi Benayoun header. In this game we must not give the other team any options.

"Clearly this is a cup final for them, so it's a tough game. We also know they are physically very strong, so we must be careful. We have to give them a lot of respect.

"We have to score first and everything will be okay."

Following Barnsley, Serie A reigning champions, runaway leaders and unbeatable machine Inter will be Liverpool's next encounter, and quite how Benitez expects to come away from that with a good result yet remains to be seen.

Alonso Aims To Reclaim Reds Place

Xabi Alonso is hoping to use the FA Cup tie against Championship outfit Barnsley as a springboard towards a starting berth in an improving Liverpool side.

Xabi Alonso is ready to put his injury and form woes behind him and force his way back into the Liverpool starting XI.

The frustrated midfielder has started only 13 games this term for the Reds, but is now seemingly ready to rise to the challenge of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva to reclaim his place.

"It hasn't been an easy season for me," Alonso admitted to the club’s official website.

"If you ask any player what it is like coming back from injury and they will tell you the most important thing is to get a run of games.

"That is exactly what I need now and hopefully I can get that, although I know it will be difficult because Steven [Gerrard], Javier and Lucas have all been doing well.

"But I will keep on working hard in training and hopefully my chance will come."

The 26-year-old is now targeting an impressive FA Cup showing against Barnsley at Anfield on Saturday.

Indeed, Lucas was afforded a run in the side after a superb strike against minnows Havant and Waterloovile in the last round, with Alonso targeting a similar outcome.

"You have to make sure you are ready when your chance does come, so if I am selected tomorrow I will give everything.

"It is always nice when fans tell you they like to see you in the team, and I am grateful for the support I have had from them, but now is the time for me to deliver."

In light of the wayward title challenge, Alonso has turned his thought towards the Fifth Round of England’s premier cup competition. He enjoyed winning the trophy against West Ham in 2006.

The Spaniard is keen, though, to take part in a Wembley showpiece, having celebrated at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff two years ago.

"Wembley is a big incentive for me and the rest of the players because it is such a special place to play.

"I have never played there before but Stevie, Carra [Jamie Carragher] and Crouchy [Peter Crouch] have played there for England since it was re-opened and they have all spoken about how good it is.

"That day when we beat West Ham was a very special day for the team and for myself even though I had to go off after 70 minutes because I'd picked up a knock when we played Portsmouth in the league in the game before.

"The atmosphere was fantastic and the game had everything which makes the FA Cup such a great competition."

Liverpool’s Premiership performance against Chelsea last week was a big improvement after a worrying slump. Alonso is keen to help his side put a run together and achieve in cup competition, with the Champions League also due to resume.

"The performance at Chelsea was very good, but now we have to carry that on," he continued.

"It was the first step but we need to put together a run of wins.

"We know it is going to be very difficult to challenge for the title but there are still a lot of games to play so we have to do everything we can to move up the league and try to make sure we get into the top four.

"There is still a lot for us to play for."

Liverpool Open Crouch Contract Talks

Reports of Aston Villa intensifying their interest in Peter Crouch appear to have spurred Liverpool to enter into contract extension talks with the towering striker.

Villa boss Martin O'Neill is said to be plotting a £9million bid for the 26-year-old in the summer, which in turn seems to have prompted his opposite number at Anfield to send love declarations up towards the big man's direction.

There has been serious doubt about whether Rafa still rates Crouch, but apparently the former Southampton star has a significant part to play in the Spaniard's plans after all. The England striker has been overlooked for much of the season, but he has been given the nod from the start for the last two league matches and the Liverpool brass are now hoping he will agree with minimal fuss to add to the 16 months left on his £40,000-a-week deal.

Although he has shown frustration over his lack of playing time in the past, Crouch has never hidden the fact that he would always prefer to stay at Anfield so long as he is given a fair shake.

What Benitez's sudden reaffirmation of faith in Crouch does, however, is increase the speculation over whether misfiring Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt still can count on having a Liverpool future.

Liverpool 'Closer' To Mascherano Deal

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez insists he is edging closer to completing the permanent signing of Javier Mascherano despite fresh reports linking the Argentine with a move elsewhere.

Mascherano had expected his future to be decided by the end of last week but with the situation still ongoing, Spanish daily Marca now claims the player has been offered to Barcelona. Benitez said yesterday: "We are closer than we were one week ago but I don't know how close." The 23-year-old remains on loan at Anfield from West Ham, although the player is effectively owned by the sports investment group MSI.

It is just the kind of distraction Benitez does not need following the resumption of rumours about a fresh takeover of the club from a Dubai consortium, and the ongoing possibility of legal action against a Sunday newspaper.

Benitez is still consulting his lawyers over an article referring to the manager's relationship with the club's American owners. Benitez said: "You don't like doing these things but sometimes you have got to protect yourself, and the lawyer will be in contact with them. You can have your own opinion, but when somebody is twisting things you must say stop."

Defender Martin Skrtel is a major doubt for tomorrow's FA Cup tie with Barnsley after he picked up a calf injury in training.

With Daniel Agger recovering from a metatarsal injury, it could mean a place in the squad for Spanish youngster Mikel San Jose.

Liverpool To Change Hands Again As American Owners Cash In

Liverpool are poised to change hands again - by the middle of next month - as the club's US owners close in on a double-your-money offer from Dubai.

Despite denials from Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Mirror Sport understands that an outline agreement to transfer ownership of the Anfield giants to Dubai International Capital is in the pipeline.

Sources in New York have confirmed that a £460million deal with DIC - the Dubai government's financial arm and headed by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum - is now on the verge of conclusion. Anfield fans will rejoice at the news that the two Americans' ill-starred reign is ending after a series of protests in recent weeks over their treatment of boss Rafa Benitez.

Supporters have demanded a sale to DIC, who were jilted at the end of 2006 when the Liverpool board wrongly believed the deal with the Americans would safeguard the interests of the club. Hicks is expected to stay as part of the new club directorate in the immediate aftermath of the sale.

The effective sale price is nowhere near the ambitious £1billion valuation Mirror Sport exclusively revealed was put on the club by Hicks in November. He and Gillett paid just £219m to take control of Liverpool from David Moores a year ago.

One insider said: "These talks are still ongoing. Tom and George want to make sure they get the right price for giving up the club."

Despite leaving Liverpool with a £350m debt, they will be able to walk away having made a substantial profit.