Saturday, February 23, 2008

English Premier League Preview: LiverpooL vs. Middlesbrough

Liverpool will hope to convert their European form to the Premier League when Middlesbrough visit Anfield on Saturday.

The Reds silenced the critics with a 2-0 victory over Internazionale in the UEFA Champions League last 16 on Tuesday to ease the pressure on under-fire manager Rafa Benitez.

Tuesday's impressive display against 10 men demonstrates Benitez, who has come under intense pressure this season as Liverpool limp along domestically, has the Midas touch when it comes to football on the continent.

But the Spaniard will be well aware that his fifth-placed side are running the risk of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League and any slip up against Boro will be followed by rapidly returning critical sniping.

However, Boro will be unlikely to want to aid any renaissance on Merseyside and Gareth Southgate's side will be keen to upset the odds as they remain apprehensive about being drawn into a relegation scrap.

Boro are on a fine run of form and last weekend's FA Cup draw with Sheffield United ensured the Teessiders have now lost only once in 10 games in all competitions.

And Benitez will be well aware that should he tinker too drastically with the starting line-up which overcame Inter, he will be leaving himself open to intense tactical questioning.

However, it is expected Liverpool will revert to a four-man midfield against Boro, which will see captain Steven Gerrard drop back into the centre after being given a free role against the Italians.

This is likely to mean Lucas Leiva will miss out, but Ryan Babel could keep hold of his place on the left of midfield after being handed a run of starts by Benitez.

Fernando Torres should also maintain his place in attack, while defender Martin Skrtel has returned to full training following a calf problem, but Andrei Voronin (knee) and defender Daniel Agger (metatarsal) remain out.

Jamie Carragher is ruled out due to a one-match suspension and so full-back Alvaro Arbeloa could partner Sami Hyypia in the centre of defence

Meanwhile, Southgate will make late checks on Robert Huth and Tuncay Sanli before naming his starting XI, but Afonso Alves could make his first start.

Huth missed the FA Cup fifth round trip to Bramall Lane with a foot problem but could return at Anfield, while Tuncay is back in training after a hamstring problem.

David Wheater is available before sitting out Wednesday night's cup replay through suspension, but Lee Cattermole (knee) and Chris Riggott (hamstring) remain on the sidelines.

Capello Warns Liverpool

England boss Fabio Capello has warned Liverpool not to be complacent in their return UEFA Champions League fixture at Internazionale.

The Reds head into the second leg with a 2-0 advantage following their first leg triumph against a 10-man Inter at Anfield on Wednesday.

But Capello warns that Liverpool must in no way think their lead means they have secured qualification to the quarter-finals as Inter will pose some tough opposition at the San Siro on 11th March.

"Liverpool must be very careful at the San Siro," he told Gazetta dello Sport.

"Inter are really strong at home. Even at Anfield they defended with order after (defender Marco) Materazzi's sending off, conceding only a couple of chances.

"They can reverse the result, although it shouldn't be forgotten that Liverpool haven't reached two finals in three years by chance."

The former Milan chief also issued a similar caution to his ex-club, who drew 0-0 with Arsenal on Wednesday at the Emirates Stadium.

"Milan must be just as careful as Liverpool," Capello said.

"Arsenal are capable of important feats, they find spaces and they strike at speed."

US Owner Showing Support For Rafa Benitez

Rafael Benitez has revealed that Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks is now ‘very supportive’ of him and contacts him several times each week with good luck messages.

Hicks incurred the wrath of many Liverpool supporters when he disclosed that he had entered into discussions with Jurgen Klinsmann in November with a view to offering him the Liverpool manager’s job despite Benitez still being in the position.

The talks occurred after the Spaniard fell out with the club’s American owners over his role in recruiting players and infamously declared “I’m concentrating on coaching and training my players” – a sentence he repeated at least 10 times in his pre-match Press conference for the Newcastle United away game.

Benitez, who usually wears a shirt and tie for matches subsequently donned at tracksuit for the trip to St James’ Park to seemingly emphasise his point and with the battle lines drawn between the owners and manager many fans sided with the Spaniard who brought the European Cup back to Anfield for the first time in 21 years in 2005.

Many fans remain unhappy that Hicks and George Gillett retain ownership of Liverpool and there have been demonstrations both inside and outside the stadium plus various supporter schemes to try and purchase the club but Benitez insists that his relationship with the Texan billionaire is now a positive one.

He said: “After the meeting we had, everything was clarified.

The misunderstanding was clarified and after the meeting I have had the support of Tom Hicks.

“Almost every week, not every day but before or after a game, he contacts me. He sends me e-mails saying ‘come on’, ‘well done’ and ‘you can do it’ – very positive. I e-mail him back saying ‘thank you’.

“He does it for different games. Before this game against Middlesbrough he e-mailed me saying ‘come on.’

“Before and after the Inter game he e-mailed me.

“After Barnsley he said ‘come on, keep focused on the Champions League’ – he’s very supportive.”

Benitez insists that he has had no such contact from the club’s other co-owner George Gillett in recent weeks or his son Foster, who is believed to be back in the USA, but would not comment on whether he thinks Liverpool fans should stop their protests against the Americans.

He said: “No. (I do not have any contact with Foster Gillett or George Gillett).”

“I haven’t seen Foster Gillett (for a long time). I was not doing anything different (before the fall out in November).

“I was just trying to keep in contact with them through Rick (Parry).

“After the meeting, communication has been much better.

“I cannot say anything to our supporters in terms of what they must do or not.

“My relationship with Tom Hicks is good and I don’t have any problems because I’m professional.

“It was a misunderstanding and I think he understands now all the things I was telling him before.”

Benitez insists that it is his will to do well in his role as Liverpool manager that has spurred him on in this difficult period and he prefers to concentrate on football matters rather than the off-the-field issues at Anfield.

He said: “I am a fighter, I have always been a fighter so when we had the problems I was fighting. When everything was much better I was really focused.

“I like to do my job, I am a professional and I try to do my best – always. I don’t have any concerns (that he will approach another manager in the future).”

Benitez added: “I don’t know the situation (over ownership/possible sale of the club) so I am trying to concentrate on football. The communication with Tom is through e-mail, it’s just talking about games or business for the future with players but nothing really serious because we go through Rick to do the other things – it’s just to support me and the team.”

With Jamie Carragher suspended today, Benitez must decide who to pair Sami Hyypia with in central defence.

New boy Martin Skrtel has been declared fit but while Daniel Agger is also finally back in contention, the Dane is not believed to be ready to play 90 minutes yet.

Alonso Key To Future Plans, Insists ‘Confident’ Rafa Benitez

As Liverpool continue their push for Champions League glory and regaining a top four spot to ensure qualification to next season’s competition, now is not the time for Rafael Benitez to consider cashing in on one of his most prized assets.

Benitez’s side can regain their place in the Premier League’s top four this evening – for 48 hours at least – with a victory over Middlesbrough at Anfield and a win would cap an excellent week after Tuesday’s Champions League success over Italian champions Internazionale.

It’s all so different than just seven days ago when Barnsley shattered Liverpool’s FA Cup dreams.

But in maintaining his team’s push home and abroad, Benitez insists he needs at least two quality options in each position and that’s exactly why he refuses to entertain any talk that Xabi Alonso’s days are numbered at Anfield.

For all Benitez’s rotations, the Basque playmaker used to be as close to what could be called a permanent fixture in the Liverpool line-up.

However, the emergence of South American stars Javier Mascherano and Lucas has ensured competition for places is now fierce in the midfield engine room and Alonso, returning from injury has found it difficult to get back into the side.

Although several leading clubs from across Europe are believed to be monitoring the ex-Real Sociedad man’s situation, Benitez says that they’re wasting their time. He said: “Xabi’s agent (Inaki Ibanez) was coming over this week to watch both games as he also has a player at Everton (Mikel Arteta) and I was talking to him because we have a good relationship.

“We were just talking about football but because there had been stories about Xabi I was telling him that he is a player in my mind should be here for the future.

“I like to have four midfielders because each one is different.

“Lucas is different to (Javier) Mascherano and (Steven) Gerrard and Xabi so it’s very positive to the team for me.

“He’s not going anywhere. The agent wasn’t asking, we were just talking about football. We don’t think about selling him.”

Benitez added: “All players who don’t play must be a little bit frustrated but they must compete and Xabi knows my idea.

“He’s been injured for a long time so he needs to improve his physical condition and his tempo and match fitness.

“It is always difficult when you can’t play so you must train and try to be ready.”

Alonso, who cost £10.5million in 2004, was one of Benitez’s first signings at Anfield and the manager is adamant that there has been no fall-out.

He said: “Xabi has been here a long time and if you want to win trophies and you want to compete for all the trophies you need top-class players.

“It’s important to have two good players for each position. He’s a holding midfielder with quality so he’s a key player for us.

“Now he has Mascherano playing with Gerrard or Lucas but he played against Barnsley because he can pass the ball long with accuracy.”

Benitez added: “All the players want to play. I’m sure if I said to (Daniel) Agger ‘you’re not playing because Sami (Hyypia) is playing well’ then he won’t be happy.

“If I say to Mascherano ‘you won’t play because Lucas is progressing’ then he won’t be happy – it’s part of the relationship between a manager and a competitive player.

“I didn’t have any problem with Xabi – he was injured. Now everyone is talking about how good Mascherano and Gerrard are plus Lucas is playing well.”

The Spaniard continued: “Xabi is training really hard. The other day when I was talking to him, he said ‘you told me that I had to train harder’.

“I replied ‘Xabi I know that you train hard but match fitness depends on games – if you cannot play you cannot reach this level.

“You must train harder if you want to stay at this level – all the players who are not playing.”

With Liverpool’s second leg in the San Siro coming a week after the rest of the Champions League matches because of Milan’s return match against Arsenal, Benitez’s side have four Premier League fixtures in which to try and regain a foothold in the push for qualification into next season’s competition.

Three of the games are at home with West Ham United and Newcastle United both coming to Anfield after Middlesbrough’s visit today. Benitez said: “We have two competitions now but we have four games to play before Inter again.

“Our priority now is to win all of these games and get into the top four again.

“Clearly we must think about the Premier League because to be in the top four is really important and we know this. We know that we need to improve in the Premier League and be more consistent, it’s something everyone has been talking about in the last few months and we agree with everyone.

“We need to improve, especially at home and it will be easier for us to approach every game with more confidence.”

He added: “I have confidence. My idea is to finish in the top four because I know we can do it.

“But to win the Champions League is really difficult against top sides – you can play really well and lose.

“It’s important to finish in the top four and try to progress as much as you can in the Champions League.”

Earlier this week, Benitez suggested that he found it easier to influence European matches than Premier League games as they depended more on tactics but he does not feel that the Teessiders’ visit will be a case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s show’ following the high-profile win over Roberto Mancini’s super stars.

He said: “It’s different. In Europe you can do a lot of things tactically that you can’t do in the Premier League because it’s a different style of football.

“The kind of player that you need and the way you approach the games is different.

“Some people forget that in the Premier League we have finished with 82 points, a record in the history of the club, so we can do it. We can win a lot of games – we won 11 games in a row so we know how to do it but to do it every year and be consistent is the key now.”

Benitez added: “If we start well against Middlesbrough we can maybe see a good game.

“If we get an early goal it can change the tempo of the game.

“It is always important to see the table and see if you’re in a good position so for us it is an opportunity (to go fourth) and we must take it.”

Lucas On A Learning Curve

Liverpool’s Brazilian ace Lucas Leiva is happy to continue to learn from the “best midfield in the world”.

The youngster arrived full in the knowledge that he would have to bide his time to share the field with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard, however, since Momo Sissoko’s departure to Juventus, Lucas has seen a lot more first team action than he expected, and the all-action midfielder is loving every minute of it.

"We have a lot of good midfielders at Liverpool and I am learning a lot from them," said Lucas.

"I think Steven is one of the best players in the world, so I watch him a lot to see the way he plays and the movements he makes.

"Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso are different kinds of players to Steven but they are also very, very good players and it is good to be able to work alongside them.”I have to keep working hard if I want to stay in the team," added the 21-year-old.

"There are so many good players at Liverpool, particularly in the position that I play, that if I was to stop working and doing the right things to improve, I'm sure I would lose my place.

"I think the manager trusts me and has confidence in me though and I am just trying to keep on working hard and learning."

Lucas unexpectedly started in the win against Inter Milan, and although he was subbed off on the hour mark, the fact he started ahead of Alonso reflects manager Rafael Benitez’s faith in him.

He said: "I enjoyed it because it was a good result and we played very well. We'd had a difficult week after being knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley and we knew we had to deliver a big performance - and we did.

"The atmosphere the supporters created was beautiful. The crowd was fantastic and it was great for me to play in such an atmosphere.

"But now we must concentrate on finishing the job in Milan because we know that it will be tough when we play Inter in the San Siro.

"For me, the Champions League is the most important competition in the world and it would be fantastic if we could do well in it again, because Liverpool have a wonderful history in it.

"Liverpool is one of the top five clubs in the world, so we should always be looking to do well in every competition we are in at home and abroad."