Monday, April 21, 2008

Grant In Line For Kop Abuse

Liverpool are unlikely to report Avram Grant to the Premier League over the Chelsea coach's alleged attempt to tap up Steven Gerrard. Liverpool are known to be irritated by Grant's remarks about their captain, including the phrase "if you can bring him to me, I will be happy", but are likely to rise above a controversy of Grant's making.

The Israeli will receive some reaction from Anfield. Gerrard's manager, Rafa Benitez, will respond to Grant's covetous comments at lunch-time today when he looks forward to tomorrow's Champions League semi-final first leg with Chelsea. Grant can expect an even more ribald response from the Kop, who will also be busy directing their venom at co-owner Tom Hicks. The American is expected to make a rare visit to Anfield.

Liverpool have been down this road with Chelsea before. Gerrard was linked with move to the Bridge in 2004 and in 2005. Jose Mourinho was a huge admirer of Gerrard, and so is his successor as Chelsea manager.

"Gerrard is a great player and a great person," said Grant. "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. If you can bring him to me, I will be happy."

Even with so much chaos in the Anfield boardroom, and Liverpool again failing to bring home the leauge title, Gerrard is unlikely to crave a move to Chelsea as he is settled on his native Merseyside.

Liverpool's captain is expected to start against Chelsea despite missing Saturday's win at Fulham with a neck problem sustained heading balls in training. "The player will say he wants to play, but there's an easy way of finding out whether he's fit," said Benitez. "I will come up and tap him on the left shoulder and if he turns to face me without any pain, we will know he can play. Hopefully he will score with another header on Tuesday."

Sami Hyypia and Javier Mascherano have shaken off knocks, and Liverpool are expected to line up: Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel; Torres.

Rafael Benitez Has Liverpool Ready To Roll

Avram Grant has every right to look worried. Of all the unnerving prospects the Chelsea manager is facing ahead of tomorrow night's Champions League semi-final at Anfield, the sight of a relaxed Rafael Benitez laughing and joking must be the scariest of all. Liverpool's serial worrier suddenly has the air of a man who knows he has the measure of his opponent.

Europe is his chosen specialist subject, and the question of how to beat Chelsea in the Champions League is one he has got right every time so far. Brushing aside Fulham with their shadow squad on Saturday all but guaranteed Liverpool's participation in next season's competition, and Benitez responded with a disarming stand-up routine of wisecracks that contrasted sharply with Grant's recent morose mumblings.

Asked if he saw any differences from the Chelsea team that Liverpool knocked out at the same stage of last season's Champions League, Benitez replied: "Only in the press conferences. You miss Jose Mourinho, but not me. At the end of the day the players will be the key more than the managers. We are just important to say something. But the best thing for a manager to do is not create any mess, so the players can just play."

Liverpool's owners have created enough mess for one club already, but whatever the risk of his alliance with Tom Hicks, Benitez appears to be relishing the prospect of another strategic summit with Chelsea. "We want this game to be a Champions League game, not a Premier League game. We want that in our minds, playing the Champions League style," he added. In other words, he wants to face Chelsea on his own terms.

Resting seven of tomorrow's likely line-up while easing eight points clear of fifth-placed Everton in the race for the fourth enabled Benitez to beat Fulham on his terms. The huge Liverpool following greeted the occasional touch-line warm-up routines of substitute Fernando Torres as loudly as the two goals that Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch fired past a hapless Kasey Keller. The fans, like the manager, had their minds on other things. It was soon clear that Liverpool's second string would have too much punch and power for a fading Fulham.

Maybe the minds of many home supporters were more concerned with the credit crunch and falling house prices. Friendly suburban Fulham have looked a little too friendly for the Premier League this season. There were no passionate protests or tears at the end of a game that left them staring relegation in the face. The big worry is that a team who try to play attractive passing football could lack the muscle for a quick return to the top-flight.

After the match, manager Roy Hodgson admitted: "People regard a sign of fighting spirit as players flying round the field smashing into others and knocking them over. We are not that kind of team."

Two of Fulham's three remaining games are away from home, and they need to win them all. A better goalkeeper might have stopped both of the Liverpool goals, and Brede Hangeland and Danny Murphy wasted good chances at pivotal moments, but the core of the team in front of Keller lacked the necessary pace and power to hurt Liverpool. Benitez was barely out of the seat in his dug-out.

He voices a diplomatic public respect for Grant but that perhaps masks a hunch that he can outwit his opposite number in the coming week and record a third semi-final success over Chelsea in four years.

"I watched them at Everton on Thursday and they were playing more or less the same," Benitez said. "Avram is doing his job. I respect him because he is being correct. But, as I've said before, the key to them is Abramovich." Are you listening, Mr. Hicks?

Liverpool Chase £8m Swiss Star

Liverpool face a fierce battle with Manchester City to sign Swiss ace Gokhan Inler.

The Udinese midfielder, 23, has been a revelation in Serie A this season and has been watched by a host of Premier League clubs, most notably Liverpool and Manchester City.

And club president Giampaolo Pozzo said: "Many clubs have asked about him but a couple from England are particularly keen. But we would want at least £8million for him because he has been brilliant this season."

City boss Sven Goran Eriksson is desperate to bolster his squad but faces competition from the Kop.

Rafael Benitez Is Wary Of Home Tie

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has admitted that the loss of the "Anfield effect" could dent his side's chances of defeating Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final.

For the third time in four seasons Liverpool, who have doubts over the fitness of captain Steven Gerrard, must beat Chelsea to reach the European Cup final. But whereas Liverpool played at home in the second leg of the two previous encounters, this time they know they must make the most of home advantage tomorrow night ahead of next week's second leg at Stamford Bridge.

"It could be different to last year," Benitez said. "The key has been Anfield in the last year. Against Arsenal you could see a big difference. But we will try and do something important in the first game and the second will be easier.

"With Chelsea you need to score some goals and don't concede. Not conceding is important because they'll have chances.

"Chelsea have a better balance and are stronger in defence. They are not as offensive as Arsenal but stronger in defence. The challenge for us is hard. The difference now is we are in the semi-finals so it will be difficult."

Benitez added that Chelsea were just as formidable under Avram Grant as they were under Jose Mourinho.

"I haven't seen much difference to the team we beat last year," he said. "I have said, Avram is doing a good job."

According to Mourinho, Liverpool face the greater pressure going into the match. "Liverpool have to win at least a cup. If they don't, their season will be a failure."

Reds Banking On Hicks And Parry

Liverpool officials are hoping the feud between the club's co-owner Tom Hicks and chief executive Rick Parry will not affect the women's team.

The female Reds get backing of about £100,000 a year thanks in no small part to Parry, who has also sanctioned an Anfield match on May 10 when Northern Ireland ladies play Liverpool with proceeds going to the Women Against Lung Cancer campaign.

"We are just getting on with our own thing and, at the moment, it's planned to increase our budget next year," said the secretary Jane Campbell.

The manager, David Bradley, whose team lost 4-1 at Watford yesterday, said: "The extra funding we are due next season will mean we'll be able to put players on contracts for the first time and that will help us to compete more with the likes of Arsenal and Everton."

Arsenal's 2-0 win against Bristol Academy and Everton's 2-2 draw with Birmingham City means the Gunners can clinch the league title for a record fifth consecutive season when they entertain Chelsea on Thursday.

Nottingham Forest will be promoted following their 5-1 win against Sheffield Wednesday, a result that saw them complete the Northern Division season undefeated.

Kuyt Happy With Wide Role

Dirk Kuyt says he is happy to play in any position for Liverpool so long as he is able to help the team win trophies.

The Dutchman arrived in England with a reputation as an old fashioned centre-forward, but Rafael Benitez has been using him on the right recently as he settles on a winning formation that uses Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard as the central attacking threat.

But while many had felt it was a makeshift position for Kuyt, he insists he has plenty of experience playing out wide.

"I don't really like to be put in any specific bracket - a right midfielder, right winger, striker or second striker," he told the club's official website.

"I've probably got a bit of all these positions within my game. I can play as a striker, a second striker or on the right or on the left.

"Whatever that may be, I just like to do it my own way.

"But playing on the right is not exactly new to me. I've played there for two years in the Dutch national team and also for a year and a half when I started out at Utrecht.

"I know what to do out there, so it's not like I'm just learning the job."

Kuyt insists he is happy with the way he has played since his role was changed, but he knows it is the overall performance of the team that wins competitions.

"I'm quite happy with my performances since I've been out there. I've scored a few goals as well as provided assists and so I feel it's going well.

"No matter where I play, I like to work really hard for the team with the same main target of helping us win as many games as possible. That is what it is all about.

"It's a team sport and you win things together. That's what I like about football."