Friday, March 21, 2008

Benitez Irked By Fergie's Ref Tactics

Rafael Benitez has accused Sir Alex Ferguson of attempting to manipulate referee Steve Bennett ahead of Liverpool's trip to Manchester United on Sunday.

United boss Ferguson has repeatedly called for star player Cristiano Ronaldo to receive more protection from officials in the days leading up to this weekend's match.

The Scot insists he fears the Portugal winger will be driven out of the Barclays Premier League by the type of rough treatment Ferguson claims he witnessed in the recent FA Cup defeat to Portsmouth.

But Liverpool manager Benitez believes his opposite number is simply playing mind games.

"Ferguson is clever, that is clear," Benitez said. "After a difficult game, he was talking about referees and before an important game (against Liverpool) he is talking about protecting Ronaldo.

"The referees, though, have experience and they will know Ferguson. This kind of treatment must be the same for all the teams and all the players.

"I wasn't surprised last week to hear what he was saying. I just want to go into the game with the same situation as the other team."

Benitez is confident Bennett, who is due to officiate at Old Trafford on Sunday, will not be influenced by Ferguson.

"I think the referee has experience and is strong enough so I don't see it being a problem," said the Spaniard, who believes his own players deserve just as much protection as Ronaldo.

"Ferguson is very clever and has a lot of experience.

"I don't know what he was thinking about exactly, but if you need to protect Ronaldo, you also need to protect (Fernando) Torres and (Steven) Gerrard and all the skilful players in the league."

Meanwhile, Spanish defender Alvaro Arbeloa believes Liverpool's two Champions League victories over Inter Milan - in particular the triumph in the San Siro - gives them the confidence to produce a shock win at Manchester United.

Old Trafford is not a happy hunting ground for Benitez, who has never achieved a win there as manager.

His league record against United is six defeats and a draw, and his only success over the Red Devils was a 1-0 win in the FA Cup, two years ago.

But Arbeloa feels Liverpool's confidence is growing after seven successive victories.

He said: "We have won in the San Siro, so why not at Old Trafford? We are confident in ourselves and maybe things have improved in that respect for us.

"The two wins over Inter Milan have helped us, beforehand we were not playing consistently.

"And now we have Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard scoring in virtually every game, and that has given us all a boost."

The 25 year-old understands the importance of the game - the 150th top flight meeting between the two sides - to the fans.

He said: "Derby matches are the same the world over, in Spain and Italy, too. It is important for everyone, but more so for the fans.

"It seems more important for them than it is for us, but we know how important it is to win, no doubt.

"We have our big players happy and in form, that means we are all confident in such matches as derbies.

"We know we have to fight for every ball, these sort of games are that bit different."

Djibril Cisse Would Welcome Liverpool Return

Djibril Cisse has said he would welcome a return to English football and has not ruled out rejoining Liverpool.

The Marseille striker was sold by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez to the French side two seasons ago, but the 26-year-old does not bear grudges against his former manager.

"I'm not unhappy with Rafa," Cisse said in the Sun. "I just respect his choice and it was his decision and I have to respect that."

Cisse was linked with a move back to the Premier League during January's transfer window with Manchester City and West Ham noting an interest in the French striker.

Although the former Auxerre frontman is committed to Marseille, he could be tempted to a return to England and even possibly a switch back to Anfield.

"You never know," Cisse said. "Things happen so fast and football is so unpredictable.

"Of course I would like to come back to the Premier League. For the moment I play for Marseille and I have to give 100 per cent."

Cisse feels he has unfinished business in the English game having seen his time at Liverpool marred by injury having broken his leg 19 matches into his Anfield career.

"Unfortunately I broke my leg when I was there and did not have a chance to prove myself."

Cisse managed 13 goals in 48 appearances for Liverpool before completing a £6 million switch to Marseille two years ago.

Tommy Smith: Liverpool Can Have The Edge On United

It was something of a “scruffy” win against Reading – and I would be more than happy if it was a similar type of game against Manchester United.

If it is, I can see us getting a point, and possibly three.

Over the last few weeks United have not been their fluent selves, while the Reds, with Fernando Torres in terrific goal scoring form, have had far more consistency.

After the great result against Inter Milan it would have been easy to slip up against Reading. But Rafa Benitez has been playing the same team more or less recently and that has been a big plus.

United will be wary of Torres, but, likewise, we will have to keep a watch on Ronaldo and Rooney.

It has become something like a “derby” match, in which United have been better than us. But they have struggled lately – the game at Derby being an example – and the Reds have certainly improved.

That, to a large extent, has been down to Torres and his ability to score regularly. His 20-goal league mark so far is a tremendous boost and the team would be in a far better position today if he had played all the games he had been available for.

I thought Steve Coppell’s side have improved greatly and acquitted themselves well at Anfield, putting us under pressure at times.

I was quite happy with 2-1 because it turned scrappy towards the end. But in those situations you just have to get stuck in for the result and that’s what we did.

League results lately have given an air of confidence missing in mid season and this has helped the Reds string a run together. But United will prove a different proposition.

Martin Skrtel has settled in well. He’s a big lad and that’s what we have needed. He just needs to concentrate for the 90 minutes.

The Premier League is all about power and character, having to dig in and fight – and that’s what the Reds will have to do.

In Javier Mascherano we have the perfect player to help stop United. He will feel better now he has opened his account, but his role in front of the back four is vital and we will need another big performance from him.

Will Benitez play a Euro-style game against United? There is no doubt they are extremely effective in Champions League games and the manager is meticulous with his preparation.

Let’s hope he is spot on come Sunday. What a tremendous lift a positive performance at Old Trafford would do ahead of the Arsenal showdowns.

I fancy our chances against the Gunners in the Champions League.

Don’t get me wrong, they are a good, young side. But I don’t think they have the strength to last the pace this season.

Recent results have shown vulnerability about Arsenal, who knows no other way to play than attack. But if you hit them on the counter, or crowd out their midfield, they don’t necessarily have the answers.

The more goals Fernando Torres scores, the greater he enjoys himself, and he will be a key figure.

But the other vital ingredient is the way the Reds are brought up on Euro football and tactics.

The draw underlined how strong the Premier League is with half the teams from England. The incentives for progress are there.

Rafa Benitez Tells Capello To Give Steven Gerrard Captaincy

Rafael Benitez believes Steven Gerrard should be England’s permanent new skipper because he has matured on and off the pitch.

The Liverpool manager is aware that his own Anfield captain could well lose the England armband for next Wednesday’s friendly international in Paris against France.

New England coach Fabio Capello has talked of experimenting with various options before making a decision ahead of the start of the World Cup qualifiers in September.

Gerrard, who was skipper for Capello’s first match last month against Switzerland because John Terry was injured, may well find himself sidelined in Paris.

But Benitez is sure who he would want to see leading England.

He said: “I feel he should be given the armband for England permanently. On and off the pitch now he is a far more mature player, he knows what to do and how to behave.

“He would be a very good selection, a good option. He is a key player for us and for the national team.

“He has become a better player over the years. When he was 21, 22, he had plenty of energy but not as much now.

“Now he knows more how to play. Between 25 and 30, players are better. They know when to run, they know when to tackle. Now Gerrard is in this period of his career.”

Capello is considering Terry, Rio Ferdinand and even Gareth Barry and he says he will not make a decision until the day of the match.

Whoever he chooses, Capello must be impressed with Gerrard’s current form. The 27-year-old needs one goal to reach 20 for only the second time in a season.

The understanding between Fernando Torres and Gerrard has given Benitez confidence that he can at last manage a winning side in the league against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, after six previous defeats and one draw.

He said: “The understanding between players is always important, especially players up front. The partnership between Torres and Gerrard has made a massive difference, it is difficult for teams to stop them both. We are profiting from this.

“They have trained together for months, and now it is easier for them to work together.

“Both are scoring goals and things are easier because they are happy on the pitch.”

He added: “Steven is happy playing in this position, he is scoring goals and enjoying the way he is playing.

“We had some problems in which we could not control games we should have been controlling. So we decided on two holding players and Steven playing further forward with Torres, and it has worked really well.”

Liverpool must win to maintain their push for fourth spot in a straight fight now with Everton.

Benitez says: “This is one of the biggest games of the season, although we do have some other very important matches coming along. But because of the rivalry between the two clubs, this makes it special.

“This is a crucial time, and if we do (win) it takes us closer. If we keep winning we get closer and closer. But if we lose it will be very difficult to move closer to them in any way.

“If we win, and then beat Everton the following week, it will make things interesting.

“I know I have not won a league game against United, but we have been very close at times and only lost to last-minute goals.”

Rafa Benitez: ‘Ronaldo Is Not Getting Any Special Treatment’

Rafa Benitez today insisted he will not be making any special plans to deal with the threat posed by Cristiano Ronaldo when Liverpool meet Man United on Sunday.

The Portuguese winger has been imperious form this season and currently tops the scoring charts with 33 goals to his name.

Though he is a confirmed admirer of Ronaldo's talents and is well aware of his ability to win games almost single handed, Benitez does not want to distract his players from the capabilities of United as a team by focusing too much on a single individual.

He said: "We have no special plans because if you start thinking too much about Ronaldo you will forget about Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs.

"The most important thing for us is to keep our own team working as a team and if we do that maybe United will have to worry about us.

"If you are just watching Ronaldo there is a danger you will lose the others.

"They are a good team with a lot of good players so we need to think about controlling all of them.

"And maybe they are already thinking about Fernando Torres or Steven Gerrard or some of our other players."

The showdown at Old Trafford brings together Torres and Ronaldo, arguably the two best performing players in Britain and beyond this season.

Benitez believes there is very little between the pair but insists he would not swop record signing Torres for anyone.

"They are both really good players and it is very good for the supporters to see them play because they must enjoy watching them," he said.

"But Torres is our player so I would not want to change him."

Meanwhile, Javier Mascherano says he cannot wait for Sunday's game which will be his first visit to Old Trafford as a Liverpool player.

He said: "I did not play in the away game for Liverpool last season because I was still at West Ham.

"I played against them at Anfield this season and I really enjoyed the game even though the result did not go our way.

"I am sure the game on Sunday will be just as tough because United are a good team, but hopefully we will get a better result this time."

Dirk Kuyt: ’We Will Show How Much We Have Improved’

Just over a month ago, the prospect of Liverpool going to Old Trafford with any great confidence of getting a positive result was only marginally more likely than the chances of the Stretford End singing Poor Scouser Tommy.

Having crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of Barnsley, Liverpool were at a low ebb, having already found themselves pushed to the margins of the title race thanks to a poor run of form after New Year.

But on Sunday, they will turn up to face Alex Ferguson's men as the country's form team, having followed up their cup exit with a string of seven successive victories, including the vanquishing of Italian champions Inter Milan, home and away.

It is this dramatic upturn in fortunes which makes Dirk Kuyt believes there is every chance of Liverpool getting a result at Old Trafford in a game in which the Dutchman believes the reigning English champions will see just how much their North West rivals have improved.

"It's a game we are all looking forward to," he said. "We are on a good run, having won our last seven games in a row, so it's nice to have Man United at this moment.

"It is a big game so hopefully we will show how much we have improved over the last couple of months.

"Everybody, apart from Daniel Agger, is fit so that is very good for us.

"We feel very strong at the moment. Even when we played Reading last week we did not play at our best but you could still see there was quality in the team.

"It can only be a good sign when you are even winning the games you haven’t played well in and that give us great confidence for the weekend."

United have already beaten Liverpool once this season when Carlos Tevez scored the only goal of a disappointing game at Anfield.

On that occasion, United reinforced their title credentials by securing a vital victory, even though their level of performance was not at its highest.

Kuyt is in no doubt that the challenge will be just as difficult when the two sides meet again on Sunday, particularly with Cristiano Ronaldo in such outstanding form.

But he also believes United will face a different Liverpool to the one they came up against last December.

"United are obviously one of the toughest teams to play in the league," he said.

"They have got quality players in attack but they also have good players in defence and a great goalkeeper, so it will be a tough game. But we will be ready for it.

"Everybody knows that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players in the league and he will be really tough, but they also have Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, who are great players.

"But I think everyone at Liverpool is looking forward to it.

"We know we will have to work really hard but we have individual quality ourselves.

"We have players who can make and score goals and we have the confidence that we can do that."

While Liverpool have been unable to keep pace with United in the race for the title, Fernando Torres has been keeping up with Ronaldo in the race to be the country's top scorer.

As things currently stand, Ronaldo has 22 goals to his name, with Torres just two goals behind.

And Kuyt is backing his Anfield team-mate to grab another one on Sunday at one of the toughest venues in the Premier League to show that Liverpool are now a different proposition to the one which succumbed to Barnsley just five weeks ago.

He said: "It looks like Fernando is scoring a goal every game now so at least we will score on Sunday at the very least. That would be nice.

"We know that we can score in every game now and we have had quite a few clean sheets in the last few weeks as well, so we know that we are better than we were a month or so ago."

Liverpool took the advantage in the battle for that all important fourth spot last weekend when they recorded a vital 2-1 win over Reading the day before rivals Everton lost to Fulham.

Kuyt knows the only way Liverpool can guarantee that they hold off the challenge from their Mersey neighbours is if they win every game from now until the end of the season – and because of this he is adamant that they will be looking for nothing but a victory at Old Trafford.

He said: "It will be difficult but we know that we can beat them.

"We have to look for the win because we are trying to get fourth place in the league, so that means trying to win every game we play between now and the end of the season.

"So we will be going for the win and then we will see what happens."

Liverpool have come a long way in a very short space of time. Now they face the ultimate test of their renewed confidence and much improved form.

But at least they are going to Old Trafford with a genuine belief they can get a result – and that is progress in itself.