Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fulham 0 - 2 LiverpooL

Fulham's survival hopes were virtually finished off by goals from Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch as Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez again sent out a virtual reserve side at Craven Cottage.

Benitez risked the wrath of Fulham's relegation rivals by fielding another weakened Liverpool team in west London - a gift which Fulham snapped up almost a year ago with a 1-0 win that ultimately saved them from the drop.

This time the Spaniard made eight changes but once Liverpool had seen off Fulham's inevitable early flurry and taken a 16th-minute lead through a cracking finish by Pennant they always looked likely to justify their manager's decision.

Pennant, who broke a leg in October, scored his second goal in 16 starts this season from a smart pass by Steven Gerrard's replacement Lucas Leiva and Fulham, for all their commitment and sweat, could have done with a little of that power in front of goal.

With Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel, Sami Hyypia, Peter Crouch, Andriy Voronin and Pennant, who was jeered mercilessly by the Craven Cottage crowd after winning an early free kick against Clint Dempsey, it was still a Liverpool line-up that could equal the strength of many of their Premier League opponents.

Jamie Carragher and Fernando Torres were on the bench but Carragher replaced Sami Hyypia at half-time and Xabi Alonso also came on in midfield.

Skipper Brian McBride recovered quickly from an early knock before Dempsey's determined progress down the left was halted by a crude challenge by Mascherano.

Jimmy Bullard swung in a testing free kick that curled into the six-yard box but keeper Jose Reina collected impressively.

Hyypia and Skrtel had their work cut out with timely interceptions as Fulham found width and movement for Simon Davies and Dempsey to provide a stream of crosses into the box but Fulham were almost caught out by their former right back Steve Finnan's run and cross in the 14th minute.

Defender Paul Stalteri did just enough to put off the towering Crouch who put his header just wide of the mark.

And three minutes later they paid the price for not picking up Leiva in midfield when he ran on to Voronin's pass and provided the perfect lay-off for Pennant to drill a thundering right-foot shot high inside keeper Kasey Keller's left-hand post.

As Fulham's early fire faded, Crouch was close to a second Liverpool goal when he just failed to convert a Pennant cross and the closest Fulham came to equalising before the break was Brede Hangeland's off-target header from another Bullard free kick.

Liverpool looked composed and comfortable throughout the second half even though Reina was left grasping thin air by a Davies cross from the left and a Dempsey snap-shot which both finished wide of the mark.

Russian striker Voronin lifted an overhead kick just too high from a Pennant corner as Liverpool looked for the killer second goal and Yossi Benayoun, enduring a patchy personal performance, twice finished off target from Pennant's assists.

With 20 minutes to go Dempsey's header from a David Healy cross finished just wide but seconds later Crouch sealed the points for Liverpool with a low finish from a Pennant pass which veteran keeper Keller will kick himself for not keeping out.

The ball, well struck though it was, appeared to go clean through the goalkeeper's grasp.

Danny Murphy missed a chance to put Fulham back in for a late shout when he fired his shot at Reina's legs when presented with a clear opening by the classy Bullard's pass.

Grant Admires Gerrard

Avram Grant admits he would love to take Steven Gerrard to Chelsea after revealing his admiration for the Liverpool captain.

The Chelsea manager is preparing to face Gerrard and Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final at Anfield on Tuesday in what could be a key match for his future at Stamford Bridge.

However, the Israeli has turned the spotlight on Gerrard and claims the impact the 27-year-old has on the Merseyside team makes him the best player in England if not in Europe.

Grant said: "Gerrard is a great player and a great person.

"For me, he is the player of the year in England, and maybe in Europe, because of the influence he has on the team.

"I like him very much as a player and I know him.

"He is a nice guy and an example to others.

"He plays against me but he is still my favourite player."

Chelsea have previously tried to sign Gerrard and Grant added: "If you can bring him to me, I will be happy."

Torres Ready For Biggest Test Yet

Fernando Torres has admitted that reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League with Liverpool represents the pinnacle of his career.

The Reds are due to take on Chelsea in the first leg of their last four contest on Tuesday, and Torres feels that the games against the Blues are the biggest he has ever been involved in.

The Spanish striker will once again carry the weight of expectation in front of goal for the Reds at Anfield, but having already notched on 30 occasions this season he insists that he does feel under any added pressure.

"The emotion I felt after the Arsenal game (in the quarter-finals) was very, very strong. I have never felt like that before," Torres told the News of the World. "I was almost in tears at the end of the match when they crowd were singing.

"If that was a quarter-final, I can't imagine what it will be like playing Chelsea.

"Without doubt, these are the biggest matches of my career.

"I know football means so much and can give everyone strong feelings but it's still a new experience for me.

"I scored my first important Liverpool goal against Chelsea, and I want to do it again on Tuesday.

"That goal gave me confidence to believe I could score in the big matches."

Much has been made of Rafael Benitez's early season rotation which saw Torres frequently left out of the side.

However, the Spaniard believes that the rest has allowed him to remain fresh until the end of the current campaign.

"People ask me if I am getting tired now because I am coming to the end of my first season in England," he said. "Of course it is a hard league but I do not feel tired at all.

"When you are scoring goals and the team is winning games, you have more energy.

"It is only when the team is struggling and you are not playing well or scoring goals, that you don't feel your best.

"My legs are in good shape and my heart is ready for the matches to come."

Reds Waiting On Gerrard Fitness

Rafa Benitez will know if Steven Gerrard is fit for Liverpool's battle with Chelsea if the player looks him in the eye and gives him the nod.

Gerrard, the English heartbeat of the Liverpool team, remains a doubt with a painful neck injury for the first leg of the "all-English" semi-final in which Liverpool attempt to knock out their bitter rivals for a third time in five years.

And Liverpool boss Benitez is trying hard to hide his concern beneath a smile and a few jokes - not the Spaniard's usual public style.

But this, apparently, is the Benitez mood at the moment - despite being caught in the crossfire of the damaging feud between the club's American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett which is rocking Anfield.

Dependent on how the feud works out, Benitez could still be on his way at the end of the season, especially after the much-publicised "secret" meeting between Hicks, Gillett, chief executive Rick Parry and former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann earlier this season.

But Benitez, who insists he loves being at Liverpool and wants to stay, must be comforted by the knowledge he could probably have the pick of Europe's top clubs should he be back on the jobs market in the summer.

He had talks with Liverpool officials last week and claims: "Things seem a little better now but really we have been talking too long about these matters and I want to concentrate on football if it is possible."

And after the little matter of sending out a shadow side to defeat relegation-haunted Fulham 2-0 at Craven Cottage to practically ensure a fourth place finish in the Premier League, Benitez's football focus shifted firmly to Tuesday night's dust-up with Chelsea.

He has declared that centre-back Sami Hyypia will be fit to play despite coming off at Fulham with a head injury at half-time. And so will dominating midfielder Javier Mascherano even though he "is feeling several injuries" after a bone-crunching series of confrontations at Craven Cottage.

But being without Gerrard for such an encounter with Chelsea is almost unthinkable and Benitez admitted: "With a neck injury you never really know. We've had problems like this with a few players before and they did not play.

"I'll talk to the doctor and we will decide if he can play. If you ask the player he will say yes, of course, but Steven wanted to play against Fulham and he couldn't because when I talked to him his neck wouldn't let him look me.

"He is a bit better now than when he did it in training. We were doing patterns of play and crossing - and every cross seemed to go to him. He was heading the ball so much and after a while he couldn't move his head any more."

Even without Gerrard and £25million striker Fernando Torres, Liverpool won at a canter and Benitez said: "It's clear that the the squad is stronger this year than before, I have been saying this for the whole season.

"But I won't say we've got any psychological edge on Chelsea going into Tuesday night's game.

"They are aware we are a good team and that I would rest some players (against Fulham) but they have had a few extra days to rest and have great qualities, too.

"Clearly, I think we go into it fairly even. Chelsea were in the final of the Carling Cup, they are in the semi-finals of the Champions League and they are still in the race for the (Premier League) title. We have a lot of respect for them.

"The players will be the key to the result, more so than the managers. I don't often feel under pressure - and if I do have problems then I think about people who, in general life, are in worse positions than us."

Benitez claims his team's task will be made no easier against Chelsea's much-maligned new boss Avram Grant.

He said: "I don't think Chelsea under Grant are much different than Chelsea with (Jose) Mourinho - except maybe at a press conference.

"I saw them play Everton on Thursday night and they looked pretty much the same as always."

He added: "When you talk about Champions League or cup competitions it is just one-off games and perhaps the manager can do something with tactics or the style of football to make a difference.

"But when you talk about a competition that lasts nine months you need a big squad and maybe Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are a little bit better than us there.

"Grant is doing his job well if you look at their results, but for me Roman Abramovich has always been the key for Chelsea.

"At the end of the day the key players can be a massive difference in games like Tuesday's game but also the whole team has to work very hard."

Unwanted Pennant To Sign For Newcastle

Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant is set to leave the Anfield club and move to Newcastle United where manager Kevin Keegan is said to be keen to sign the 25 year old.

Pennant, who scored and set up a goal in yesterday’s 2-0 victory for Liverpool over Fulham at Craven Cottage has become a bit-part player at Anfield, starting only 13 league games this season. His goal yesterday was his first in the league this season and only his third league goal for the club.

The former Birmingham City and Arsenal player has had a turbulent career both on and off the field but was looking to put that behind him when he signed for Liverpool in July 2006 for a fee close to £7million.

The extracurricular problems seem to have disappeard for good, but his Anfield career has never really taken off due to a combination of injuries, poor form and a raft of other midfielders being brought into the club.

More recently Pennant has found his place in the team taken by striker Dirk Kuyt who manager Rafael Benitez now appears to favour in that role and it seems that his future now lies away from Liverpool.

This has alerted Newcastle to his situation and Kevin Keegan would be keen to sign a wide player with pace and an attacking mindset to add some goals to his midfield for next season.

It is understood that the player himself is keen on the move, and will willingly put pen to paper if the Tynesiide club can reach an agreement with Liverpool.

Rafa Could Sue Warnock

Rafa Benitez is considering legal action after Crystal Palace manager Neil Warnock publicly questioned the Liverpool manager's integrity.

The Eagles boss was unhappy at Benitez at the back end of last season after he fielded a weakened Reds team that lost 1-0 at Fulham.

The result helped the Cottagers stay up at the expense of Sheffield United, who Warnock was in charge of last season.

Benitez made a host of changes for Saturday's game at Craven Cottage, prompting the Eagles manager to claim he gets off-field benefits from Harrods for his team selections.

However, the comments failed to amuse the former Valencia boss, who is now planning on having a word with his lawyer.

"Somebody told me [about Warnock's comments]," he said.

"We knew he was bad as a manager and prehistoric, but we didn't know he was a person like this.

"I will speak to my lawyer. We don't need to waste time with him."

Rafa Benitez Says One Summer Signing Has Already Been Completed

Rafa Benitez has confirmed that he has started Liverpool's recruitment drive for next season as he seeks the calibre of players necessary to mount a title challenge.

The 48-year-old revealed that a deal had been completed for one player for next season but only gave a few hints as to identity of the signing.

“We are working on trying to improve the squad for next season,” Benitez added.

“We have some movements for next season, so we will continue trying to do the same.

“We have some signings for the next season done. They are senior players for the first team and young players for the first team and reserve team.

“Two of them are really close, young players, and one senior player is done. He talks good English, but is not English.”

Benitez has also been linked with England stars Gareth Barry and David Bentley.

Rafael Benitez Thriving In Anfield Tug-Of-War

Rafael Benitez wore a training top to his press conference on Friday, supped from a bottle of water and beamed through the difficult questions. He succeeded in giving the two impressions he wanted to. Here was a humble employee, fresh from his practice-ground work, happy with his lot. It was a good week for Benitez. He celebrated his 48th birthday on Wednesday by taking some Spanish journalists for a bite in West Kirby. Liverpool supporters kept approaching the table. “They were coming up and saying, ‘Come on, Rafa’,” the manager smiled.

A good week for Benitez? Those unfamiliar with Anfield politics might have imagined not. After all, Liverpool’s boardroom has brought to mind TV writer Phil Redmond’s description of the City of Culture steering company, wracked by infighting before he arrived to clean things up. “It was like a scouse wedding,” Redmond said. It had been supposed that Benitez would despair about the off-field manoeuvring which saw one owner, Tom Hicks, call for the resignation of Rick Parry, the chief executive, and the other owner, George Gillett, purport to be above all the “washing of dirty linen in public” – while, very publicly, telling Hicks to shut up. Far from it. Issues such as transfer policy and his own future are now being aired which Benitez has wanted dealt with for some time – and the answers all sides are giving appear to favour the Spaniard.

Put simply, the battle for Anfield has become a popularity contest where only Benitez can hand out the prize. Hicks needs to boost his standing, in order to counter what he sees as a campaign of spin against him, and meet parallel objectives. He is trying to raise money to buy out Gillett and wants to show investors that he knows what he accuses Parry of being ignorant of – what Liverpool FC needs. If he succeeds, the club’s new sole owner will at the very least have to reduce fans’ disdain to the point he can actually visit Merseyside, something he feels unsafe doing right now. The key to both is demonstrating backing for Benitez. If the status quo remains (Gillett has stopped even pretending he will try and buy out Hicks) and the Americans, with their 50%-50% shares continue to cancel each other out, somebody is going to have to run Liverpool. That might have been Parry but, now, sullied by Hicks’s revelation that he took part in the approach to Jurgen Klinsmann, and wounded by Hicks’s arguments about the shortcomings of his commercial strategy – backed by business experts and one of the few issues fans agree with Hicks on – the chief executive is compromised. So who else would emerge as the dominant figure but Benitez?

If Hicks is forced to sell to Dubai International Capital (DIC), who already have an agreement to buy from Gillett, the Arab investors would need to start on the right footing with supporters and would require Benitez’s patronage. Why should he give it unless DIC support him as much as Hicks? If Hicks says he would extend Benitez’s contract by a year, DIC must offer the same. If Hicks would allow Benitez to make a further round of big signings, so must DIC. It is understood, incidentally, that DIC would have little problem with either of these. The final scenario is that Benitez gets offered another of the best managerial jobs in Europe this summer. He now knows he could walk away from Anfield with nobody blaming him.

Benitez has fought political battles at most clubs he has managed and always won. He is not only good at plotting football tactics. Explaining his good mood, he mentioned having just tied up deals to bring three players – one senior, two youth – to Liverpool next season. He had complained to Hicks and Gillett that his poor relationship with Parry was fouling up transfers. “Since Sunday, we (the club) have progressed,” Benitez smiled, suggesting he is now in total control of signings.

Let the others fight and damage each other, and build your empire in the meantime. The strategy seems sound as long as the team keeps winning – and there is evident confidence they will against Chelsea in the Champions League. Has Klinsmann been in touch, in the spirit of solidarity as a fellow manager? “For preparing the game against Fulham or Chelsea?” Benitez cackled. “No.”

Rafa sure to come out smiling . . .

Whichever way the Anfield power struggle is to settle, it seems manager Rafa Benitez, inset, will be happy

Scenario One: Tom Hicks buys out George Gillett and assumes total control. ‘I would give Rafa a contract extension. It’s time for Liverpool to have one strong owner that can give Rafa the support he needs to win trophies.’

Scenario Two: DIC take over the club. The Arab investors want to show they care about Liverpool FC more than Tom Hicks and know what Koppites want. That means keeping Benitez.

Scenario Three: Stalemate between Hicks and Gillett remains, no DIC buy-out. With nobody above him able to wield power and take Liverpool forward, it falls to Benitez. Rick Parry, with whom he has a flawed working relationship, no longer has the authority to challenge him.

Scenario Four: Real Madrid/Inter Milan/ Barcelona/Juventus offer Benitez a job. Rafa could walk away from Anfield with his head held high. Who would now blame him after all this season’s infighting?