Sunday, March 02, 2008

Crouch On His Humble Beginnings

Although he has played in World Cups and Champions League finals, Peter Crouch insists his feet shall always remain on the ground.

Remembering his humble upbringing, the lanky Liverpool FC striker spoke on the club website about his roots from Dulwich Hamlet to little known Swedish part-time side IFK Hasselholm, all the way to the mighty Reds.

The 27-year-old said: "Don't get me wrong, I feel I belong where I am, I feel at home playing for England and playing the biggest games in the Champions League.

"When I am training with all these top players for Liverpool and England, I don't feel out of place. I feel part of it and worthy of being there. But at the same time I know it's been a long road for me to get to where I am and I'll never, ever forget that.

"Players like Steve Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, they were always going to make it from the youngest age. Their careers were almost mapped out for them as soon as they started playing.

"Their talent was obvious and it must come as second nature for them to play in the biggest games. But for me it has never been quite so easy.

"I loved it out there against Inter, I really did, every single second. I love those nights, that emotion of European football. But I remember too that when I was younger I was playing a different kind of European football."

The ‘different kind of football’ Crouch refers to is a widely unknown fact about the 6ft 7in striker’s past. Playing for Swedish part-time side IFK Hasselholm, whom he joined on loan from first club Tottenham Hotspur, Crouch’s outlook on life and football broadened as he mixed playing time with squalid living quarters nicknamed ‘The Ghetto’.

He explained: "Being Sweden, it wasn't too bad. I don't suppose it was the same notion of a ghetto that we had in south-west London. But when I went to Hasselholm the players asked me where I was staying and when I told them they were shocked.

"It was pretty rough and it was a pretty tough standard of football too, very physical for a young lad who was still trying to catch up with myself and my growing rate. But I loved it, I had a fantastic time out there.

"I was at Dulwich Hamlet too around that time in the Isthmian League and it was a million miles away from the lifestyle Premier League footballers have these days. In Sweden, a bunch of us used to live in digs in the 'ghetto', go out together, learn together, laugh together and I reckon it taught me a lot."

After Spurs, the 6ft 7in striker enjoyed spells at QPR, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Southampton before a dream move to Merseyside at the age of 24. He reflected: "I think where I came from helped me. I'm not knocking those players who were always going to be big stars but I think I can keep my feet on the ground and appreciate what I have because of those days in Sweden and Dulwich.

"There's no doubt it helped me so much to develop my career, both physically and emotionally. I am a better person and a better player for it. It toughened me up mentally, but also gave me a good perspective.

"It makes me appreciate what I have. I had a long, hard road to get where I am. But I want to keep going, I want to win the Champions League this year, I want to break England scoring records. I want to continue that journey and I know I will."

Hicks' Sell-off Move Delays Dubai Takeover

Dubai International Capital's proposed takeover of Liverpool is being delayed by the attempts of one of the club's American owners to sell off a percentage of his sport businesses.

Tom Hicks is seeking an off-market placement of existing shares in Hicks Sports Group, which includes investments in Liverpool, the Texas Rangers baseball team and the Dallas Stars ice hockey franchise. Investment bankers JP Morgan have been advising on the 144A listing, which was first attempted in January but failed because of challenging financial market conditions. JP Morgan representatives are understood to have visited Liverpool in the last fortnight to work on the placement.

Hicks' current 50 per cent share of Liverpool is thought to be fundamental to the exercise. DIC's interest has helped the football club's value to rise during a period in which American companies with sporting assets have declined sharply in worth. While DIC would prefer to buy Liverpool in full, the Arabian investment group is currently concentrating its efforts on purchasing George Gillett's half share and establishing an agreement with Hicks that would allow it full control of Liverpool's day-to-day operations. Hicks has engaged in talks with DIC over a proposed management structure after the purchase.

Though it has been suggested that Hicks is attempting to raise funds to buy out Gillett and take total control of Liverpool, such a move would cost around £300million (£151m) in equity and loan guarantees. Hicks is not thought to have the resources to cover such a transaction, while his moves to place shares in Hicks Sport Group would effectively reduce his stake in Liverpool, making him a seller rather than a buyer.

Rafa Benitez: I'll Stay On At Liverpool

Rafael Benitez insists that, far from emptying his locker at Anfield this summer, he will extend his stay at Liverpool beyond the term of his current contract that expires in two years' time.

The manager's claim that he will be at the club for the long haul marks a significant shift after another turbulent week on Merseyside. There was renewed pressure on Benitez after Steven Gerrard voiced his frustration at another disappointing league campaign and another twist in the increasingly bitter boardroom power struggle.

Less than two weeks ago Benitez was forced to defend his record at the club against the backdrop of growing belief that only success in the Champions League this season would save the Spaniard's job.

Now, however, the former Valencia coach has spoken more bullishly about his long-term prospects. It reflects a shift in his relationship with co-owner Tom Hicks, who last week insisted he had no intention of selling up and vowed to block any attempt by his estranged business partner George Gillett to offload his 50 per cent share of the club to Dubai International Capital.

Benitez and Hicks became entangled in a public spat towards the end of last year over transfer funds. This related to the owners' delay in sanctioning the £18 million signing of Javier Mascherano, the Argentina midfielder who finally converted his loan stay into a permanent move when he agreed a four-year contract on Friday, and the revelation that the US owners had sounded out Jurgen Klinsmann as a possible replacement for Benitez.

Relations between the pair appear to have improved in recent weeks to the extent that the manager felt able to assert his belief that he was going nowhere.

"I have confidence I will be here for a long time, not just the two years, but for a long time," Benitez said.

The admission by Benitez that, with Mascherano on board, he was now attempting to secure new contracts for Sami Hyypia, the veteran centre-back, and England forward Peter Crouch, reinforces the view that manager and boardroom appear to have at last established a more effective working relationship.

"We are progressing," Benitez insisted. "This year we can only try to improve in the league to be in the top four."

Premier League Preview: Bolton Wanderers vs. Liverpool

After losing their previous league fixture 4-1, the last team one would think that Premiership strugglers Bolton Wanderers would have wanted to face would be a member of the ‘Big Four.’

However, even though Gary Megson’s Bolton team were beaten by a convincing margin last time out against Blackburn Rovers, it is fair to say that the overall performance of his team was not one of a side asking to be thumped by a Premiership rival.

Indeed, had it not been for some terrible refereeing and wasteful finishing, then an important victory could have been claimed by The Trotters in their fight for Premiership survival.

With Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side now making their way to the Reebok Stadium, the Bolton fans will be hoping that their side will be able to build on the positive elements of the Blackburn game and inflict yet another body blow to Liverpool’s stuttering Premiership campaign.

For this to happen, Megson will need to bring out the type of performance from his players that has seen them come out on top in their recent UEFA Cup tie against Liga big boys Atlético Madrid, and beat Premiership champions Manchester United in his first fixture in charge of the club.

The Bolton manager will, however, be perfectly aware that the damage inflicted on his Bolton side last week by Benni McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz has every chance of being replicated by Liverpool’s exquisite number 9, Fernando Torres.

Quite simply, Bolton must keep the Spanish international striker quiet to stand any chance of further derailing Liverpool’s Champions League qualification hopes, as they cannot rely on their own strikers to convert enough opportunities at the other end of the pitch.

If this does occur, then there is a chance that an unlikely few points could be gained in Bolton’s fight to beat the dreaded Premiership drop.

What a strange few weeks this has been for everyone associated with Liverpool Football Club. From the lows caused by a shock defeat to Championship team Barnsley in the F.A. Cup, to then beating reigning Serie A champions Inter Milan in their next fixture, consistency has not been a byword for Liverpool’s performance so far this year.

Another high point was seen last weekend in the Reds' 3-2 victory over Middlesbrough, when the Kop’s new idol Fernando Torres managed to score his first Premiership hat trick for the club.

However, this fixture can be seen to be a microcosm of Liverpool’s season so far, as from the highs of Torres’ headline grabbing performance, the actual nature of the Reds display left more than enough to be desired.

It is not often that Gareth Southgate’s men will be able to walk away from Anfield feeling aggrieved at the result, but this was the kind of display that such feelings can come from.

Rafa Benitez will though be more than aware of the threat that Bolton can cause to the Premiership elite at their Reebok home, and with Fernando Torres in his team, he will feel he has the weaponry to overcome this obstacle.

With no mid-week Champions League fixture to distract Benitez from selecting his strongest starting XI, it is imperative that Liverpool get back on the trail of usurping local rivals Everton in the race for 4th place, and the final Champions League qualifying position.

As such, a Bolton team devoid of the attacking talents of Nicolas Anelka should be easily brushed aside by a Liverpool team possessing far too much talent to be tripped up by their lowly North Western neighbours. However, as with all things to do with the Reds so far this season, nothing can be considered entirely predictable.


Bolton Wanderers:

February 24th vs. Blackburn Rovers (A) lost 4-1 (PREM)

February 21st vs. Atlético Madrid (A) drew 0-0 (UEFA CUP)

February 14th vs. Atlético Madrid (H) won 1-0 (UEFA CUP)

February 9th vs. Portsmouth (H) lost 1-0 (PREM)

February 2nd vs. Reading (A) won 2-0 (PREM)


February 23rd vs. Middlesbrough (H) won 3-2 (PREM)

February 19th vs. Inter Milan (H) won 2-0 (CHAMPS LG)

February 16th vs. Barnsley (H) lost 2-1 (FA CUP)

February 10th vs. Chelsea (A) drew 0-0 (PREM)

February 2nd vs. Sunderland (H) won 3-0 (PREM)


Bolton Wanderers:

Gary Megson should be able to call on the vast majority of his Bolton squad for this fixture, with the only players unavailable for selection being the injured Heidar Helguson and midfielder Danny Guthrie, who is ineligible to play due to the fact he is on loan to the club from Sunday’s rivals, Liverpool.

Squad: Jaaskelainen, Hunt, A O'Brien, Cahill, Meite, J O'Brien, Steinsson, Gardner, Stelios, Nolan, Campo, Cohen, Taylor, Diouf, Davies, Samuel, McCann, Al Habsi, Alonso, Teymourian.


Much to the delight of the Liverpool fans, Danish centre back Danny Agger may be involved in this game after a successful run out for the Liverpool reserves in mid-week. January signing Martin Skrtel should also be available for selection again after overcoming a short term injury. Indeed, the only guaranteed absentee for Rafa Benitez’s side is Andrei Voronin, who is making a steady recovery from an ankle ligament injury sustained in January.

Squad: Reina, Finnan, Arbeloa, Agger, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio, Riise, Babel, Kewell, Gerrard, Mascherano, Alonso, Benayoun, Torres, Kuyt, Crouch, Lucas, Itandje.


Bolton Wanderers: In a team that has been short of goals since the sale of Nicolas Anelka, January signing Gary Cahill will have to play a major role in stopping the Liverpool attack if Bolton are to take anything from this game. Gary Megson will be looking to the assured displays Cahill has exhibited since his £5 million pound move from Aston Villa, and will be hoping that the reckless challenge that led to the second of Blackburn’s penalty’s at the weekend was just a momentary aberration. As such, Cahill should be under no illusions that a repeat of this kind of defending will be punished severely by Spanish hot shot Fernando Torres.

Liverpool: After his hat trick against Middlesbrough, it is hard to look to anyone else other than Fernando Torres when naming Liverpool’s key player. The ex-Atlético man has been nothing short of a revelation since his big money summer transfer, and has often been the source of Rafa Benitez’s salvation in a disappointing campaign so far. Interestingly, the suspect Bolton defence could provide plenty of opportunities for Torres to close in on Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record for the most goals scored in a player’ first season in the Premiership, with El Nino currently sitting nine goals short of the Dutchman’s 24 goal mark.

McManaman: New Owners Can Cure Liverpool

When Steven Gerrard attacked Liverpool for their under-achievement in the Premier League it was seen as a slight against his manager, Rafael Benitez, but if he had said anything different, he would have lost the respect of the club's fans.

The fact remains that Liverpool invested more than £40 million in their squad during the summer and are in a worse position than they were this time last year. Talk to Jamie Carragher, another local lad, and you would hear the same criticisms that came from Gerrard - this season's form is nowhere near good enough.

The problems start at the top. While Gerrard attracts unconditional affection from the Anfield fans, Liverpool's American owners have frittered away what respect they had. The day Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jnr. bought into the club, I was delighted. They seemed shrewd businessmen, highly professional in their sports interests and committed to sustaining the club's traditions. One of those traditions is that Liverpool had always conducted its in-house affairs in a very open fashion, but that has been eroded of late - by the speculation over the manager's future and the rumours of a sale to investors from Dubai.

So, I can understand it when pockets of Liverpool fans stay behind, as they did after the defeat to Barnsley in the FA Cup, to chant messages like "Yanks out". It seems to me that the only way the club can move forward is through a change of ownership. Hicks and Gillett have already made a major mistake in raising the name of an alternative manager, in Jurgen Klinsmann, destabilising Benitez when what the club needed were firm and frank guarantees.

The situation is not unprecedented. You only have to look at Manchester United, who finished 21 points ahead of Liverpool last season; there, the Glazers are still not accepted.

But the fact that, despite a handover in ownership and a huge injection of money, Liverpool are now worse off reveals a breakdown of trust.

Gerrard is only speaking the obvious when he expresses his disappointment that the squad, managed by a man who has already won the Spanish title, cannot appear to challenge for the Premier League. Benitez would, no doubt, agree that a league campaign in which Liverpool are struggling to stay in touch with fourth place falls a long way short.

There is a real danger that the club could fail to qualify for the Champions League next season, scuppering another opportunity for revival. Achievements at European level represent one of the major reasons players of the quality of Fernando Torres were brought in.

The concept of a crisis at Liverpool can be exaggerated, though. Benitez should be given more time. You only have to see the outcry against Avram Grant after losing the Carling Cup - just one game, when a fortnight earlier he was preparing to set a record of successive wins at Chelsea - to know that pressure can pass.

Next week's game against Inter Milan has assumed huge importance for Liverpool, but it is best to keep perspective. The win in the first leg gave all the supporters an unexpected lift, and Gerrard's comments can only strengthen Liverpool's resolve not to go quietly.

Torres Takes Hits In His Stride

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres insists he has stood up to batterings from English defenders he would never face in Spain.

The Reds forward has reached 21 goals in 31 games for his new club, and boss Rafael Benitez concedes one of the main reasons the club splashed out a record fee on the Spain international was because of his bravery.

Torres underlined that with a hat-trick against Middlesbrough last weekend despite a bruising clash with defenders Emanuel Pogatetz and David Wheater.

Now Torres will be out to add to his tally at Bolton on Sunday against a team known for their no-nonsense defending.

Another Spanish striker at Liverpool, Fernando Morientes, never got to grips with the physical aspects of the Premier League, but Torres certainly has.

He has scored nine goals in his last nine league games, and is closing in on 20 league goals for the club.

Benitez expects the former Atletico Madrid man to become the first Liverpool striker to score 20 league goals in a season since Robbie Fowler in the 1995-96 campaign.

Torres said: "There are so many strong defenders here. But I have settled, I have scored goals and I have coped with the physical side.

"But it is true that I would not be getting hit in the back all the time in Spain like I am here.

"I am happy with the way I have learned to cope with the physical side of the English game."

Benitez added: "Fernando has done so well in his first season. Now if he keeps going, does not have any injuries, he will score plenty more.

"We signed him because we believed he had the quality, pace and strength for the Premier League. Also, because he is young, he can grow and improve at this level even more.

"He has adapted to the physical side of the English game very well. He is strong and can handle big defenders.

"In Spain he would not continually be hit from the back, but that is the way it is here and he has learned to cope.

"We signed him because we knew he would not be afraid of the centre-backs, he would be brave and be able to cope with that style of defending."

The Spanish superstar has so far netted 21 in all competitions - 15 of which have come in the Premier League. And with 12 league games remaining, Benitez is confident his record signing can reach other milestones.

Benitez said: "Hopefully he will score more than 20 in the league that would be really good for us. That would be amazing.

"He is a young player, a foreign player and a striker and we know how difficult it can be for these types of players. But I don't really set targets, I just talk to him about scoring a lot of goals."

Torres is currently in line to become the most prolific 'debut season' striker in Liverpool's post-war history.

His average of a goal every 1.48 games is more than John Aldridge (a goal every 1.55 games), Ian Rush (1.63), Roger Hunt (1.65), Robbie Fowler (1.83), Michael Owen (1.91) and Kenny Dalglish (2) managed in their first full seasons.

Benitez predicts that a player he already regards as one of Europe's finest could get even better.

He said: "He wants to learn, he wants to improve. That is the key. He is a young player and wants to learn everything.

"He knows he can improve, and that is one of the reasons he decided to come here. He wanted to win trophies but he also knew he could improve here, that is important for the future and for him.

"He is one of the best in Europe but he will get better because his mentality is good. He can improve two or three things and they will make him much better. He knows what they are but it's better not to say because then the opponents will know."