Sunday, February 17, 2008

Benitez: 'I Am Really, Really Disappointed'

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez had little but cliches to offer after his side were stunned by a brave Barnsley side.

Benitez is under yet more pressure after his team were knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley.

Championship side Barnsley caused the biggest upset in this season's competition so far as they came from behind to grab a late 2-1 win at Anfield.

"It is very difficult [to describe his feelings] you must be frustrated today," Benitez told Sky Sports News.

"In terms of work ethic we cannot say anything to the players. They worked really hard, we had a lot of chances, but again it was the same situation as in other games.

"We are controlling games but we cannot take our chances and finish games.

"So today was the same. The keeper was a very good signing, he was man-of-the-match with some great saves.

"I am really, really disappointed.

"We had chances, their keeper made fantastic saves, they score in the last minute and sometimes that is football."

Liverpool now have just one more trophy to compete for, and must overcome red hot Inter to stay in the hunt.

"All we can do now is prepare for the next game, we know it is an important game so we must put our heads up and be ready to work really hard for this game," concluded Benitez.

Smith Blast For Benitez

Legendary Liverpool defender Tommy Smith has launched a stinging criticism of Reds boss Rafael Benitez after his side were knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley.

Brian Howard's injury-time winner at Anfield dumped Liverpool out of yet another competition, leaving them with just the Champions League - in which they face Inter Milan this week - to contest.

And Smith, who captained Liverpool to the 1971 league and UEFA Cup double, has hit out at Benitez's controversial rotation policy and decision to rest several key players for yesterday's visit of the Coca-Cola Championship side.

Smith told BBC Radio Five Live: "In the programme for Saturday's game Benitez said cup competitions are always dangerous if you think you can beat teams easily. So why on earth didn't he put a strong team out against Barnsley?"

Smith admitted Reds fans may finally start to run out of patience with the Spanish boss.

"I should imagine so. At the end of the day Bill Shankly used to tell us you're only as good as your last result. How on earth does Benitez think he's going to win stuff if he puts a second-class team out?

"Because Liverpool's squad is not as strong as I think he thought at the beginning of the season. I don't think he's even got a strong first XI.

"How could he leave (Jose) Reina, (Steven) Gerrard and (Javier) Mascherano out?"

Smith admitted the last-16 European tie with Inter is now do-or-die.

"I'm afraid so," he said. "He keeps going on about winning four cups and all that but at the end of the day it's not even entertaining at Anfield at the moment. The crowd keep it going but they booed everybody at the end of the game and quite rightly.

"The first person you put on the team-sheet is Gerrard. How on earth could he sit on the bench for 75 minutes and watch that...then he (Benitez) talks about chances. Well, they've gone. You can't score after the game finishes."

Benitez Demands Respect

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has hit back at his critics after the Reds were dumped out of the FA Cup by Barnsley.

The Tykes, who sit mid-table in the Championship, recorded a huge upset as they came from behind to knock Liverpool out 2-1 at Anfield.

And the defeat adds increasing pressure on under-fire Benitez as Liverpool can now only realistically target silverware in this season's UEFA Champions League.

But Benitez, who took over at Anfield in 2004, has defended his record at Liverpool after guiding the Merseyside outfit to two Champions League finals in the past three years - including winning the competition in 2005.

Benitez has also steered Liverpool to success in the 2006 FA Cup and Community Shield, alongside the 2005 European Super Cup, and the Spaniard believes that record deserves respect.

"If you analyse the last few years since I came to the club we have won four trophies and been in seven finals, including two in the Champions League," Benitez said in The People.

"How many other managers have done the same in their first three or four years at the club? People can talk about being successful but nobody is winning trophies every year.

"To do that is really difficult so I think we are in a really good position with a very young squad, so I have a lot of confidence in the team for the future."

Benitez's relationship with Liverpool's American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks has also been questioned and his future at the club was cast into doubt after the duo met Jurgen Klinsmann, who is set to takeover at Bayern in the summer, earlier in the season.

"When you are trying to work hard and do your job it is hard to accept the criticism that is always following me," Benitez added. "And, yes, it is a big surprise to see another manager in the background."

Benitez, though, is confident Liverpool stand a good chance of progressing in the Champions League when they meet Italian champions Internazionale in the last 16 on Tuesday.

"It could be important to us to progress in Europe because that would give us more confidence, particualry if we beat a team like Inter," Benitez continued.

"It's not impossible. We have done it before and we could do it again - why not?"

Crouch To Leave Amid Kop Crisis?

Sensational rumours are circulating that Peter Crouch may use FIFA's controversial Article 17 to quit Liverpool, having been out of favour for much of the season.

Article 17 produced a huge dispute involving Andy Webster recently; the regulation allows players to hand in a transfer notice if they have played three years (or two if they are over 28) or a four or five year contract.

The move's legality was challenged by Hearts, and FIFA at first demanded the defender pay £625,000 in compensation to the Scottish club, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the fee to just £150,000, which was proportionate to the player's wages as opposed to his transfer value.

This was said to infuriate Hearts — who valued Webster at £4.6 million — but the player managed to engineer the leave, having been frozen out by the Edinburgh club.

Sepp Blatter described the decision as "far-reaching and damaging" — and many concur it is the most controversial introduction to transfer regulations since the Bosman ruling — this, though, taking player power to an almost ridiculous level.

It is now, at least potentially, rearing its ugly head again. Frank Lampard has been rumoured on numerous occasions as one who will exercise the ruling to engineer a move to either Barcelona or Juventus, and now out-of-favour Liverpool striker Peter Crouch is thought to be considering the same.

Despite an impressive goals-to-minutes ratio, the beanpole striker has failed to win over Rafael Benitez for one reason or another, and despite his usually cheery demeanour, he has apparently had enough of playing third or fourth fiddle at Anfield.

There have been no concrete statements made by the player or his agent Jonathan Barnett, but Barnett has spoken to The Daily Telegraph and suggestions are mounting that the threat of Crouch buying his contract out for far less than his market value a la Webster will pose a major threat to the 'Pool, who are already enduring a miserable time, out of both domestic cups, woefully behind in the league and facing Europe's best side Internazionale in the Champions League in just two days.

"Certainly [the new rule] will change the way things are conducted and we are probably heading for a period of shorter contracts," declared Crouch's agent Barnett. "But I've never heard of a player volunteering to leave a club when he is happy and being well-paid."

The rule only applies to cross-border transfers, it has received fierce criticism from many personalities from different sections of the beautiful game. Sports lawyer Graham Shear insists it "would certainly be challenged."

Meanwhile, Leicester Chairman Milan Mandaric went one further, blasting the plan altogether.

"It's totally unfair," he said. "Clubs often take players on long contracts to develop them into better players. To just say goodbye and wind up somewhere else for far less money than you would want to sell them for will cause unbelievable instability. How on earth do you build for the future?"

"We discussed this at the Premier League meeting and you could see some concerned faces," recalled David Gold, chairman of Birmingham City.

The rule was supposedly designed to provide unhappy players a way out — despite the fact the transfer list works perfectly well most of the time — and this move mainly seeks to benefit agents, who are sure to make mountains of money negotiating new deals for their players at every available opportunity, knowing the many clubs will be forced into compliance due to the threat of players walking out for a fraction of their market value.

Hick-up For Rafa ...Dubai Or Sell?

Rafa Benitez has been painted as a whinger, a moaner and a difficult manager since his rant back at Tom Hicks and George Gillett last year.

But Benitez was, in fact, being very shrewd. Rafa flushed out Liverpool's co-owners and effectively went public by raising his concerns in code as to whether the Americans had the financial clout to run the club successfully.

Now it seems as if Hicks and Gillett are ready to sell again to the Dubai consortium who have some serious Liverpool fans as well as finance behind them.

That's the key for Liverpool, to have some proper genuine fans who care about the club.

This has not been about whether Liverpool are challenging for the title or not or about disappointing results.

That has been frustrating for the players and the fans. But this has been about Hicks and Gillett suddenly realising that the new stadium will be a lot costlier than they first envisaged.

That is what has caught Hicks and Gillett by surprise and why they seem certain to cash in and allow the Dubai group to come in and play the real sugar daddy.

I still think Liverpool will finish fourth this season and take the Champions League spot. But almost as importantly, new owners again may give the club, manager and players the direction they need.

Liverpool Face Inter Team Ready For Battle

Thousands of Internazionale fans are in love with Liverpool. It is an exciting romance, barely 2½ years young, built purely on schadenfreude and one hot date. Liverpool did Inter loyalists such a favour in Istanbul that famous May 2005 night by beating Milan, their rivals, that few will ever rip up the “Grazie Liverpool” banners made to commemorate the most dramatic of Champions League finals.

Liverpool supporters can expect to be vividly reminded in the hours ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with Inter at Anfield of quite how cherished they are among Interisti of a certain age simply for that result. Hearing all this, they may in turn wonder how easily the city of Milan can sound like a caricature of their own football territory, the blue half defining itself obsessively against the red. Inter are the Italian champions, and on course to comfortably defend that title, but there sticks to some of them a sense that while they lord it in Serie A in the period Milan remain the reigning champions of Europe, it hurts.

“You can exaggerate the sense of Inter feeling in the shadows of Milan but, yes, there’s bound to be that jealousy,” acknowledges Roy Hodgson, twice head coach at Inter and, were it not for his December detour to Fulham, the man who would be sitting in an office at Inter’s headquarters designing the club’s strategy for the next few years.

Hodgson, the most international of English managers, had been offered a technical director’s role at the Italian champions before he chose Craven Cottage. He has been close to Inter for well over a decade and doubts he has known an Inter in such good health as the present version, no longer Europe’s most notoriously brittle, flaky and impatient overspenders, but champions who consolidate. “The second time I coached them, I was the fourth managerial appointment within a year,” he points out of Inter’s scatty reputation from the mid1990s and beyond.

“But what they have now is stability in the leadership, with no changes to the management in three years, Roberto Mancini as the coach, and now two scudetti in that time, albeit that the first was by default [Juventus having being stripped of the 2006 title, awarded after the event to Inter]. They should win the next one, too, which will make it a great centenary for the club.”

For an institution 100 years old, most of that time among the mightiest three in Italy, Inter’s European Cup record is no more than average. They have won it twice, back in the mid1960s. A more urgent longing developed over the past decade: the need for an Italian league title, which between 1989 and 2006 was mainly shared between the other two of Italy’s so-called Big Three – Juventus and Milan – but also found itself ending up anywhere else – Lazio, Roma, Sampdoria – but Inter. They seemed cursed.

“For a long time, the league was the big target because it had been so long in coming,” explains Hodgson, “and even when we reached a couple of Uefa Cup finals, they weren’t doing cartwheels about it. Now, I’m not sure, now that the title has been won, whether they would still think of that as the priority.

They’ve got the squad for both competitions. They’ve bought well and the players have gelled over the last couple of years. “It helps that they’ve got groups of players from the same countries, like a lot of Argentinians: Javier Zanetti, who came in around my time, and players like Esteban Cambiasso, Hernan Crespo, Julio Cruz.”

Hodgson would have liked to add the defender Walter Samuel to that list of Argentinians: he had hoped to call in a favour from Inter president Massimo Moratti and take Samuel on loan at Fulham until he fell injured.

Liverpool should watch out for Cruz, says Hodgson. “He’s vastly underrated. He’d been doing well at Bologna when Inter picked him up, and though they’ve got strikers like Crespo and David Suazo, Cruz has great value to them.’’ Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool manager, would not count among Cruz’s underraters. “People talk about Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cambiasso playing well,” says Benitez, “or Luis Figo or Marco Materazzi, but Julio Cruz is always there, always scoring.” The Argentinian striker has 15 goals this season, and that’s from less than 19 matches in terms of playing time going into last night’s league meeting with Livorno: he often starts as substitute.

But as Benitez says, people do talk about Ibrahimovic. So they should. The Swede has played probably the best football of a still young but eventful career at Inter, whom he joined from Juventus after Juve’s punitive relegation – some of their directors had been implicated in manipulating match officials – in 2006. He was then 24, had been among the elite for three years already, a prodigy who had got into the odd scrape while growing up in Sweden, making the big-time with Ajax in Holland and being captivating to watch without, often, finishing with the directness some of his managers wanted of a centre-for-ward.

Ibrahimovic is now the spearhead striker of the most potent attack in Italy. “I remember him when he was very young, still playing at Malmo in Sweden,” says Hodgson, “and I tried to sign him for FC Copenhagen, but even as a teenager he was beyond our means. He’s a strong character, and has developed a lot as a footballer. In the early part of his career he was maybe more interested in humiliating opponents than accumulating goals. He’s now much more ruthless going forward. I’ve been very impressed with him. He’s got every quality you want in a striker. There’s not many you say that about at the moment.”

Liverpool hope to have Fernando Torres back for the tie, and Hodgson anticipates that it will be tight. “It’s a classic European Cup game. Liverpool are well organised in these situations and a top team at snuffing out opportunities. There’s not much to choose between them. It depends on what those top players do. Will Ibrahimovic be inspired on the night?

“It’s also about different styles. I enjoy watching this Inter team, and like the way they play, but Serie A is nowhere near as intense as the Premier League. In Italy, it is slower-paced and can be more technical, which is maybe why older players such as Figo can still perform at a high level there. It gets intense only around the penalty area, defences drop much deeper, and in midfield there’s not so much flying back and forth. In the Premier League you get very little time on the ball anywhere.”

A possible setback for Inter is that those players who best know Anfield, best know the habits of English football, are short of match fitness. Midfielder Olivier Dacourt, once of Everton and Leeds, has missed a large part of the season; ditto Patrick Vieira, late of Arsenal, whose comeback from injury was interrupted last weekend by a red card and subsequent suspension. Dejan Stankovic and Figo also nurse wounds, making the likely Inter midfield more mundane than it might have been. “Inter have actually had bad luck this season with injuries,” says Hodgson, “but people forget that because it’s such a big bench there.”

Liverpool 1 - 2 Barnsley

An injury-time goal by Barnsley's Brian Howard sent Liverpool crashing out of the FA Cup at Anfield and increased the pressure on manager Rafael Benitez.

The Reds led through Dirk Kuyt's first goal since December - but on-loan goalkeeper Luke Steele produced a string of oustanding saves on his debut to keep the Coca-Cola Championship side in the contest.

And, after Stephen Foster headed Barnsley level just before the hour mark, Howard stunned the home side with his late winner.

Liverpool left captain Steven Gerrard on the bench and rested Javier Mascherano, Jose Reina and the almost fit Fernando Torres for this tie, with Tuesday's visit of Inter Milan clearly figuring in Benitez's thoughts.

French goalkeeper Charles Itandje got another run-out, while Jamie Carragher captained the side.

Steele - on loan - was in goal for the visitors, while former Everton midfielder Anderson De Silva was included.

Simon Davey's team had tremendous support at Anfield, with 7,000 Tykes making themselves heard in the Anfield Road end.

In the second minute they were almost celebrating a goal when Istvan Ferenczi's header was blocked by Carragher.

But John Arne Riise and Lucas saw long-range efforts fly wide at the other end, Peter Crouch headed past a post from Steve Finnan's cross, before Kuyt failed to hit the target from Yossi Benayoun's cross.

In the 18th minute Crouch went close with an angled effort that Steele needed to be at full-stretch to touch wide.

Ryan Babel got into the box on the right to fire in a shot that Steele held - but Barnsley had a great chance to opening the scoring in the 28th minute when Daniel Nardiello robbed Sami Hyypia before racing into the box and forcing Itandje into a low save to his right.

Steele was in action again a minute later, clawing away an 18-yard effort from Xabi Alonso - and soon after the Kop let out a roar of relief when they took the lead with Kuyt's first goal since the Champions League win in Marseille in mid-December.

Alonso swept the ball out to Babel, who made ground into the box before pulling the ball back for the Dutch striker to sweep home from six yards.

Steele did well to keep out a Crouch header on the stroke of half-time - and the home side started the second period strongly with Benayoun and Babel going close.

Barnsley took off Nardiello and sent on Kayode Odejayi, giving Davey's team more of an aerial threat - and in the 56th minute it worked.

Martin Devaney launched an excellent cross on the run from the right, and defender Foster rose to power a header that Itandje got a hand to but could not stop crashing into the net.

Benayoun and Crouch had shots cleared off the line in quick succession, then Hyypia had two efforts blocked as Liverpool stormed forward.

Lucas saw a header turned onto the bar by Steele, who snaffled the rebound - then made another good save after Benayoun's run and shot.

Harry Kewell replaced Babel, before Gerrard was sent on for Lucas after 75 minutes.

The England midfielder's first surging run covered 60 yards and won his team a corner - but at the other end Itandje was looking anything but comfortable.

The Liverpool goalkeeper clattered into Odejayi outside the box, and then palmed away a Howard effort.

Kewell had two efforts blocked, then clipped the bar from 25 yards - but all the noise was coming from the Barnsley fans.

Steele then made a marvellous save to turn over a Kewell hook, and Crouch had the ball taken off his foot in the act of shooting.

The same thing happening to Kuyt seconds after - with Dennis Souza again the defender with the right timing.

Carragher was booked three minutes from time - a caution which will see him banned against Middlesbrough next weekend.

But worse was to follow in the second minute of injury-time when Howard found space on the edge of the box to drill home the winner.

The Yorkshire fans erupted, and they had just 30 seconds to wait for the final whistle and confirmation of a famous victory