Saturday, March 01, 2008

Benitez Primed For Pivotal Week

Rafael Benitez insists Liverpool must take full advantage of three key games in a week ahead of the distraction of a Champions League showdown with Inter Milan.

The Anfield boss, flush from completing the permanent signing of Javier Mascherano on Friday on a four-year contract, also believes he has ended doubts about Steven Gerrard's commitment to the club.

Those doubts surfaced after the frustrated club skipper's angry condemnation in midweek of Liverpool's flop in the Barclays Premier League title race.

With Gerrard "100% committed to the club", in Benitez's words, and the Mascherano deal finally tied up, the Spanish coach turns his attention to Sunday's trip to struggling Bolton.

After the Bolton match, Liverpool play their long-awaited game in hand at home to West Ham on Wednesday, followed by next weekend's visit of Newcastle.

That is nine points on offer that could dramatically change the club's chase for fourth spot before they head off to Italy the following week.

Benitez said: "We have three games in a week now before we play Inter Milan, and with such a chase on for fourth spot we know that every game now is crucial.

"Aston Villa and Everton both want to play Champions League football, but so do we. It is crucial for us too so we will keep going and try to win every game.

"Now we have to be ready for our next game and try to win at Bolton.

"Then we have our game in hand, when West Ham are here on Wednesday, before we play Newcastle at Anfield next weekend. All these games are now very important to our objectives, we must keep going.

"We cannot afford to drop points, every game is important and we must reduce the gap on teams above us. We keep talking about our game in hand, so now it is here we must win it. That will put us in a better position."

Benitez has confidence in his squad, despite only winning two of their last eight league matches.

He said: "The players have experience of winning several games in a row. We have the squad to do it so now we need to start doing it.

"We also have experience now of playing at Bolton, where we have always had trouble. But we have confidence after our last two wins, and we can go there believing we can win.

"Bolton are strong and physical, they do the same things they were doing under previous managers.

"But we need to keep the ball, move it quickly and make use of our possession. They will try to stop us doing that, but that is nothing new.

"But we know we must keep going. Every game is crucial for us, and we must win from now until the last game."

Babel Can Become A Dutch Master In Time

Following in the footsteps of Dennis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben would have been uppermost in the mind of Ryan Babel on his arrival at Liverpool last summer.

But the Holland international would not have wanted to stick so faithfully to the career path of his three compatriots.

Bergkamp, van Persie and Robben all had to overcome initial teething problems when acclimatising to the Premier League before their undoubted talents could shine through.

It’s a situation of which Babel is continually reminded by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez as the winger negotiates his own tricky first season in English football.

Expectations were high when Babel, who was the star for European Under-21 Championship winners Holland last summer, became the then third most expensive player in the club’s history when he signed for £11.5million from Ajax in July.

The 21-year-old, however, has found it a struggle to come to terms with the physical demands in England and has yet to complete the full 90 minutes of a league game.

Indeed, Babel’s main impact this season has been as a substitute, with five of his seven goals coming from the bench.

One of those came in the 4-0 home win against Bolton Wanderers in December, with the forward hopeful of a fifth successive start – his best sequence of the season – when Liverpool visit the Reebok Stadium for the return game tomorrow afternoon.

Benitez admits it is far too soon to judge Babel on the evidence of his debut campaign.

“When I talk with Ryan, I always mention the likes of van Persie, Bergkamp and Robben, players that came from Holland, about how much time they needed to be successful here, maybe one or two years,” says the Anfield manager.

He was playing at Ajax in a specific role and now he is in a top side in England and everything is different for him. I’m really pleased with is commitment. He is practising everything, learning and trying to improve. I think he will be a very good player for us.

“It’s too soon to judge him. It’s the same with Lucas Leiva. He’s another young player and will need time. We have a reserve team with young players of quality, because we want to give them time.”

Benitez adds: “Sometimes, with some players they are so good they can’t be kept in the reserves and must go straight to the first team. We know that they will need time, but I’m really pleased with Ryan.

“I think Ryan will be really good. He has all the qualities, he has pace and ability. He’ll need to play some games in a row and show good things, which will give him more confidence.

“When you have a young player with quality, if you don’t get them into the club as soon as possible you know they’ll sign for another top side.

“You must bring them here and then give them time. We signed Daniel Agger as a young player and after his first six months people were saying they weren’t sure about him, then a year later he was one of the best players in our team.”

Babel was employed as a striker during his country’s successful under-21 run last summer, and was on the left side of a three-pronged Ajax attack before arriving at Anfield.

The Dutchman has been used primarily as an orthodox left winger by Benitez, but the Liverpool manager reckons Babel will ultimately forge his reputation further up the field.

“When Ryan was with the Dutch under-21s, he was playing as a striker,” he says. “But with Ajax he was playing a 4-3-3 on the left side. He is learning other positions, and here he is learning about 4-4-2 as that is different.

“We are always working with him and watching videos, and for him as a player it is a good experience for him.

“We know he likes to play as a second striker and is an option, but if he can learn this position it will be good for him and the future.

“Maybe in the future Ryan can be a striker for us, but now we need to use his pace and ability in wide areas.”

Liverpool have won only once at the Reebok – a 3-2 triumph in September 2002 – and never during Benitez’s tenure.

Liverpool’s game in hand will be played on Wednesday at home to West Ham United, with Newcastle United visiting three days later before the Champions League trip to Italy to face Inter Milan next Tuesday.

And Benitez admits: “We have four games in 10 days, four really important games, so we have to keep progressing.

“We have to start showing we can win games in a row and, looking at the fixtures we have and our quality, I think we can do that. We have experience in doing so and we will have to. Everton and Aston Villa are both fighting really hard for fourth.”

A Fernando Torres hat-trick earned Liverpool a 3-2 win against Middlesbrough last week, only their second Premier League triumph since Boxing Day.

And strike partner Dirk Kuyt admits: “It was very important to get the win against Middlesbrough because we still want to do something in the league and we definitely want to play in the Champions League next season.

“I was happy with the two wins we had against Inter Milan and Middlesbrough and now we have to look to get another one on Sunday against Bolton.

“We are in the middle of a run of four league games before we play Inter again and we have to try and do everything we can to make the most of those games and get ourselves into fourth position.”

Holland Cools Reds Contact Reports

Crewe first-team coach Steve Holland insists they have received "no official contact" from Liverpool over highly-rated prospect Max Clayton.

The 14-year-old midfielder, who has been with Crewe's youth programme for eight years, is reported to be interesting the Reds.

The Railwaymen would be entitled to compensation for the youngster, but Holland admits that would be "totally inadequate" compared to what they could fetch for him further down the line.

"There has been no official contact," Holland told the Sentinel. "There has been a trend in academies of aggressive recruitment by the bigger clubs.

"If you lose these players there is a compensation system in place, but it is totally inadequate compared to the figures we have received when the players have gone at the right time."

Reds Confirm Four-Year Mascherano Deal

Liverpool FC and Javier Mascherano have confirmed that the Argentine midfielder has penned a four year deal with the Anfield giants, with his transfer fee said to be in the region of £18.6m.

Mascherano and his club put to bed no small amount of speculation by securing the contract late on Friday afternoon.

The 23-year-old told, "This is the best moment in my career.

"I am very, very happy and now I can concentrate just on playing football.

"I said all along that I wanted to stay at Liverpool and now that I have signed I can say this is the best and the biggest moment in my career so far."

The Argentine World Cup ace continued, "From the first day I arrived at Liverpool the feeling was good and I knew this was where I wanted to play my football.

"It's good news for me and my family that everything is sorted and I know where my future is going to be. I just want to do my best for the fans and the people of the club.

"I am at a top side and I know I can win titles here. That's the big thing for me. I want to be at a club where we can win trophies and have success."

Manager Rafael Benitez chimed in, "We must be really pleased with the situation now. He has been a key player for us since he has been here and now we know he can be a key player in our future.

"From the start we knew Javier was a player with quality and a fantastic mentality. We knew the player when he was in the reserves at River Plate but was playing for the senior national team and we had been monitoring his career since then.

"He is young but he has great experience having played for his country. We knew he would be a good signing for us.

"It's clear that he is one of the best midfielders in the world but he can get better with us. We now have a lot of good options in the centre of midfield and that's good news for the club."

Mascherano arrived at Anfield in at the very end of the January 2007 transfer window, signing up from West Ham United and player agency Media Sports Investments (MSI).

It has taken no small amount of legal wrangling for the player to complete his official switch to Liverpool - which is said to be worth £18.6m - but the deal now seems signed and sealed by all concerned parties.

Prior to arriving in London, Mascherano played for Corinthians in Brazil and River Plate back in Argentina.

Gillett May Thwart Fans Bid

The Liverpool fans' group established to turn the club into a Barcelona-style establishment run by supporters has received firm pledges totalling £47.5m with expressions of interest which could double that.

The initial take-up of the Share Liverpool FC group provides a 10th of £500m needed to see its vision of the club realised and a credible base for the organisation, which has engaged Cobbetts solicitors and has Phil Thompson and John Aldridge among voluble supporters.

But the organisation, which has established a steering group with finance, law and marketing expertise, may quickly find itself over taken by events. There may be no major developments for several weeks in Dubai International Capital's (DIC) pursuit of the club but further evidence that George Gillett has made his decision has been provided by one of Tom Hicks' more improbable friends – the former Brighton manager and Liverpool player Jimmy Melia.

Melia, who has got to know Hicks while coaching youth sides in Texas for the past 18 years, accompanied the Amercian's son on his ill-fated trip to Anfield on Saturday and said yesterday: "Gillett looks like he's going to sell his share but I know Tom Hicks is going to hang in there and make it work."

The pre-emption rights which Gillett and Hicks would have signed up to when buying Liverpool mean that Gillett must discuss any sale with Hicks, and could be forced to sell to him. But if Hicks does not buy, as seems almost certain, Gillett is free to sell to DIC. The club's manager Rafael Benitez, meanwhile, said he will decide on the future of defender Sami Hyypia – outstanding in the continued absence through injury of Daniel Agger – later in the season.

"I am really pleased with him," Benitez said. "The question now is to see how he progresses, but he knows my thoughts. He doesn't have to prove anything."