Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Daniel Agger Returns To Bolster Liverpool’s Defence

Daniel Agger is ready to bolster Liverpool’s defence after ending more than five months of injury torment with a run-out for the reserves.

The Denmark international, whose season has been ruined by a metatarsal injury, played 45 minutes for the second string in their 2-0 win against Manchester United at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium last night.

It was the 23-year-old’s first competitive action of any sort since the goalless draw at Portsmouth on September 15.

Under the watchful gaze of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, Agger – wearing a pair of specially-modified boots – came through unscathed and could now be in the frame for Sunday’s visit to Bolton Wanderers.

Agger was replaced at half-time by fellow centre-back Martin Skrtel, who was stepping his own recovery after suffering a calf problem in training a fortnight ago.

Harry Kewell and Xabi Alonso were also given 90 minutes against United, for whom a surprisingly portly Gary Neville returned from a lengthy injury absence with a 60-minute appearance.

In front of 10,546 fans, Alonso scored the opening goal from the spot in the 12th minute after Krisztian Nemeth was fouled by Gerard Pique.

Richard Eckersley was dismissed late on for United before Kewell sealed the 2-0 win with a breakaway goal in the final minute.

Meanwhile, Sami Hyypia is hopeful of earning a new contract to take him to 10 years at Anfield.

A number of clubs, including Fulham and Newcastle United, are thought to be monitoring Hyypia’s situation with his current contract due to expire in the summer.

But the 34-year-old admits clinching a new contract at Liverpool is his priority.

“My priority would be to stay at Liverpool, but it’s not only up to me,” said Hyypia.

“I haven’t got any offers yet from here or any other clubs, so I’m just trying to focus on the matches.

“I’m enjoying playing. I’ve played more games than I maybe thought I would this season because of all the injuries.

“The only thing I can do is try to play well, and when it’s time to sit down see what happens.

“It would be very nice to get to 10 years at the club but I’m just concentrating on playing well.”

Hyypia has made 33 appearances for Liverpool this season, although he faces competition for his place with Jamie Carragher now free from suspension and Skrtel and Agger both fit.

But the defender added: “Whether I stay wouldn’t depend on how many games I play. I’m not like that. I’m not interested in someone promising me anything. If we have four centre-backs, then everyone fights for their place and performances should determine who plays. If I keep playing well then it’ll be very difficult for the manager to change things.”

Future Remains Unclear Despite Hicks’ Sale Denial

The future of Liverpool FC last night remained dogged by uncertainty despite co-owner Tom Hicks insisting he was not planning to sell his stake in the club.

Hicks moved quickly to dismiss reports he had invited Dubai International Capital (DIC) to inspect the club’s accounts in preparation for a takeover.

A source last night told the Daily Post the reports were “wide of the mark”.

It is understood Hicks has had talks with DIC even after a £350million refinancing package was announced on January 25.

The Daily Post also understands there has been a breakdown in relations between Hicks and co-owner George Gillett.

The pair are thought to have fallen out over Hicks insistence to make the details of the £350m refinancing package public – Gillett refused to put his name to it.

DIC are understood to be considering making an offer for Gillett’s 50% stake, but also want a slice of Hicks’ holding to gain a controlling interest.

The latest speculation follows Hicks’s son being chased out a the Sandon pub after Saturday’s match against Middlesborough.

Yesterday Hicks released a statement. It read: “Reports that I am about to sell my stake in the Liverpool Football Club, or to invite DIC to examine the club’s books in preparation for such a sale – like other such reports planted in the UK press in recent weeks by parties with their own self-interested agenda – are absolutely and categorically false.

“The reality is that I am personally, professionally and financially committed to the club and its supporters and that I will continue to honour that commitment to the best of my ability now and in the future.”

It appears no takeover by DIC is imminent but that the Dubai company, the investment arm of the Maktoum royal family, are keeping their options open.

The main problem preventing a takeover remains the price DIC are willing to pay.

It has been nowhere near the amount of money Hicks has been asking for – he would want to make a substantial sum out of selling the club.

Another hurdle to overcome is that the refinancing package announced on January 25 has loaded £105m of debt on to the club.

Of that, £60m is earmarked to kick-start the new stadium development plus £45m for future player transfers and to meet the club’s working capital needs.

Even if Gillett is willing to sell his 50% to DIC, they would still not have a controlling share so would want to buy some or all of Hicks’ stake to ensure they had a majority holding.

The takeover talk is being driven by the fact that the refinancing deal only lasts for 18 months and so Hicks and Gillett are soon going to have to start renegotiating the debts.

Furthermore, they are shortly going to have to go back to the banks to ask for a further £300m in loans to finance the rest of the new stadium at Stanley Park.

Tom Hicks In Denial But Liverpool Are Braced For Dubai Takeover

Discussions will continue between Tom Hicks and Dubai International Capital (DIC) over the coming weeks, despite the Liverpool co-chairman’s vehement insistence last night that he is not about to sell his stake in the club. The Arab investment group is expected to become a co-owner of the Merseyside club next month by purchasing the 50 per cent stake held by George Gillett Jr. in the first phase of a takeover process that will test the strength of Hicks’s latest denials.

The Times reported yesterday that, although Hicks intends to retain some of his shares and influence at the club for the immediate future, he and Gillett, his co-owner, are willing to grant DIC permission to examine Liverpool’s accounts with a view to launching a takeover bid next month. Hicks denied those reports yesterday, claiming that they had been “planted . . . by parties with their own self- interested agenda” and that he is “personally, professionally and financially committed to the club and its supporters”, but numerous sources insist that his partnership with Gillett is finished and that DIC will start the first phase of its takeover within weeks.

Hicks’s latest statement did not deny that discussions are taking place. DIC’s interest never went away after it was gazumped by Hicks and Gillett a little more than 12 months ago and, although DIC turned down the Americans’ invitation to buy a 15 per cent stake in the club after a meeting in October, discussions have taken place behind the scenes since the start of this year, particularly since January 25, when Hicks announced a £350 million refinancing deal that brought them stability in the immediate future but left their regime looking all but unsustainable in the longer term.

Gillett, who was the catalyst behind the initial takeover, with Hicks arriving on the scene late in the process, conceded some time ago that the joint partnership was not working. Gillett, the owner of the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team, has subsequently “all but disappeared”, according to sources, declining to put his name to Hicks’s frequent statements and making clear to DIC his willingness to sell his 50 per cent stake.

His son, Foster, who was initially dispatched to Merseyside as a “link man” between the owners and Rafael Benítez, the manager, has spent the past month in Montreal, apparently with no plans to return to Britain.

Hicks, who was originally seen as the silent partner, has proved to be anything but. Even if he and Benítez have tried to build bridges since their infamous falling-out in November — when Hicks declared that it was “time for Rafa to quit talking and concentrate on coaching the players we have” — the Texan has made himself deeply unpopular at Anfield.

Tom Hicks Jr, his son, has at least shown willing to ingratiate himself with the locals, but his attempts to do so backfired on Saturday, when he was confronted by supporters in a pub near Anfield after the 3-2 victory over Middlesbrough.

While Gillett is expected to sell up within weeks, Hicks is determined to retain the majority of his stake for the immediate future, but DIC is looking for guarantees that he will sell out completely at a later date. Hicks spoke to DIC officials on a trip to Dubai last week and talked to their financial advisers on Thursday and Friday. The two parties remain some way apart on various issues, not least on Hicks’s wish to be seen as the senior partner in any coalition, but a variety of sources — by no means all of them with self-interested agendas — indicate that the Anfield investment saga is about to enter a new chapter.

Dubai International Capital To Oown Half Of LFC Within A Month'

Dubai International Capital may own at least half of Liverpool Football Club within the next three weeks.

After months of negotiations George Gillett has reportedly indicated a willingness to sell his 50% stake in the club and a fee is believed to have been agreed.

A specialist team of bankers and solicitors have been put in place by the investment arm of the Dubai government as it awaits permission to study the club's books.

That permission is expected to be granted in the next couple of days and should everything be found to be in order, DIC could complete the deal with Gillett, who is ready to relinquish his stake having had a massive fall-out with Reds co-owner Tom Hicks.

The relationship between the two Americans has reached an all-time low and Gillett believes it is now beyond repair.

Hicks, though, is not prepared to give up his stake in Liverpool and DIC are prepared to enter into shared ownership with the Texan, in the short term at least.

Hicks has expressed a desire to retain control of the club but DIC are not interested in being a silent partner and want to start making decisions regarding the club's future as and when they complete the proposed deal with Gillett.

Hicks had tried to secure the funding to buy Gillett but with the credit crunch biting hard has been unable to do so and is now resigned to the fact he is likely to have a new partner shortly.

DIC are also looking to buy part of Hicks' stake as they look to secure a majority shareholding in the club, which they tried to buy outright last year.

Despite losing out to the Americans in February 2007, their interest has never faded and they have now successfully negotiated themselves a position which could see them take part-ownership by mid-March.

Should that happen, it would, in all likelihood, be greeted with enthusiasm by Liverpool's fans after a series of protests against Hicks and Gillett.

Atletico Want Liverpool Coach Benitez On Board

Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez will be offered an escape route from Anfield this summer by Atletico Madrid.

The Spanish outfit have indentified the under-fire Liverpool coach as their No 1 target to replace Javier Aguirre, who is expected to be sacked at the end of the season in wake of their Uefa Cup exit to Bolton last week.

Benitez's own future hangs in the balance following Liverpool's cup failings which saw them crash out of the FA Cup to a last-gasp winner at home to Barnsley earlier this month.

The Spaniard would go a long way of preserving his position with a successful Champions League campaign and fourth-place league finish, but even that would not safeguard his job with Dubai International Capital holding out hopes of completing a takeover of the club.

Although Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks dismissed speculation that he is ready to sell his stake in the club to the investment arm of the Dubai royal family, his comments yesterday are unlikely to draw a line under the episode.

The turmoil has already affected Liverpool's season on the pitch and while Benitez might be given one-last chance to turn things around in the summer, he could be tempted by a fresh challenge back in his homeland.

Officials from Atletico, including club president Enrique Cerezo and sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch, are thought to have discussed the possibility of luring Benitez to the Vicente Calderon earlier this week with a view of making a move for the former Valencia coach at the end of the season.

"We know it might be difficult but we will fight for the chance," a club source says in the Star.

As Benitez maintains his focus to on-the-field matters at Anfield, he will have been pleased to see Daniel Agger continue his comeback from injury in Liverpool reserves' 2-0 win over Manchester United last night.

The Denmark international lasted 45 minutes before being replaced by Martin Skrtel having been sidelined with a broken metatarsal since September.

A Xabi Alonso penalty and Harry Kewell strike sealed the win which saw Liverpool extend their lead at the top of the Premier Reserve League North to nine points.