Thursday, April 24, 2008

Steve Bruce Fears Over Liverpool Rotation Policy

Steve Bruce, the Wigan manager, has voiced fears that Rafael Benitez could distort the battle for Premier League survival this weekend by resting several key Liverpool players against third-bottom Birmingham at St Andrews on Saturday.

With Liverpool facing a decisive Champions League semi-final second-leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday, Bruce expects Anfield manager Benitez to leave a raft of leading players out of his plans at Birmingham in preparation for the return fixture against Chelsea.

Bruce, whose Wigan team can confirm their own Premier League future with victory at home to Reading on Saturday, said: "Whichever team Liverpool put out, they will be an outstanding team, but it would be nice if they put their big hitters out against Birmingham. I doubt it will happen, but we will have to wait and see."

Benitez was widely condemned last season for fielding a virtual second-team against Fulham in the build-up to last May's Champions League Final against AC Milan.

Fulham's 1-0 victory in that game proved enough for the Londoners to secure their Premier League future at the expense of Sheffield United, who occupied the final relegation spot, just one point below Fulham.

And despite Bolton manager Gary Megson raising his own concerns about the make-up of Benitez's team for last Saturday's league game at Fulham, which Liverpool won 2-0, the Merseysiders once again lined up at Craven Cottage without a number of first-choice players.

Bruce, whose Wigan team can confirm their own Premier League future with victory at home to Reading on Saturday, said: "Whichever team Liverpool put out, they will be an outstanding team, but it would be nice if they put their big hitters out against Birmingham. I doubt it will happen, but we will have to wait and see."

Benitez was widely condemned last season for fielding a virtual second-team against Fulham in the build-up to last May's Champions League Final against AC Milan.

Fulham's 1-0 victory in that game proved enough for the Londoners to secure their Premier League future at the expense of Sheffield United, who occupied the final relegation spot, just one point below Fulham.

And despite Bolton manager Gary Megson raising his own concerns about the make-up of Benitez's team for last Saturday's league game at Fulham, which Liverpool won 2-0, the Merseysiders once again lined up at Craven Cottage without a number of first-choice players.

Team-mates Rally Aound John Arne Riise

Ever since John Arne Riise announced himself on the Anfield scene with a blockbuster of a free kick against Manchester United in November 2001, Liverpool supporters have serenaded the Norwegian to the tune of the old Bruce Channel hit Hey Baby, altering the lyrics to ask him not whether he will be their girl but how he scored “that goal”.

That goal, though, has been replaced in Liverpudlian minds by the fateful moment on Tuesday night when, in the fifth minute of stoppage time in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, Riise sent a header past José Manuel Reina in front of an incredulous Kop. In the genre of tragicomic own goals, it was a classic and his humiliation can only have been heightened by the significance of an act that handed Chelsea the initiative in the tie.

Trudging out of Anfield afterwards, his spirits unlikely to have been lifted by being chosen at random to undergo doping tests, he said little. “What can I say?” he said. “I'm devastated.”

He remained so yesterday. His younger brother, Björn Helge, who plays for Lilleström, was quoted in the Norwegian media as saying that he had tried to get in contact with Riise, only to receive a text message saying that he was not in the mood to talk and would not be for some time. Given that he was said to be struggling with fears that he will be sold in the summer, it is not surprising that the 27-year-old's spirits are low.

Riise will need to be pulled out of his melancholy, though, with the likelihood that he will be needed against Chelsea on Wednesday because Fábio Aurélio, whom he replaced as a substitute early in the second half on Tuesday, has a groin injury. “We have got to get John's head right because he will have an important job to play next week,” Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, said. “John has been here a long time and done great things for this club. As captain, I cannot point any fingers.”

Sports psychologists said that Riise's attempt to head away Salomon Kalou's dipping cross, rather than risk using his weaker right foot, was born out of an instantaneous mental evaluation of his relative strengths.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Lancaster University, said: “Hindsight is always 20/20 vision and he could have stuck out his foot, but it's an instantaneous thing. It's a very stressful situation, an automatic response. He just would not have time to think.”

Dr Richard Cox, who has the task of building up the confidence of the Scotland rugby union team, said that Riise would need to be carefully managed to get his confidence back. “He can't turn back time,” he said. “But if I was dealing with him I would have him rehearse the moment again, to come to terms with what he wanted to do and how he made the mistake.”

Steven Gerrard Believes Fernando Torres Can Make The Difference In Return Leg Against Chelsea

It is four years and eight visits since Liverpool last scored at Stamford Bridge, which is the very least they will need to do against Chelsea next Wednesday if they are to reach another Champions League final, but Steven Gerrard is adamant not only that it can be done but that it will be done. The difference, he says, is that this time they will have Fernando Torres in their team.

Torres has scored 30 goals in a remarkable debut season for Liverpool and while he may have been frustrated twice on Tuesday night by Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal, Gerrard is confident that the Spain forward will end the Merseyside club's miserable record in West London when it matters. Torres was missing with a hamstring injury when Liverpool managed a 0-0 draw away to Chelsea earlier in the Barclays Premier League campaign and, with the forward now firing on all cylinders, Gerrard believes that the 24-year-old could prove the difference in the second leg.

“Chelsea might have a slight advantage, but there is another 90 minutes to go and we have got to have the belief and confidence that we can go through, otherwise it would be pointless going there,” Gerrard said. “We haven't been to Stamford Bridge yet with Fernando Torres in the team - and that could make a difference. I could see on his face how disappointed he was at not scoring, but that's how he is. He expects to score in every game and, to be fair, he has done more often than not. It was still apparent how he causes real problems for defences and it will be the same down there. You wouldn't put it past him to get that all-important away goal that could end up taking us through.

“We can take encouragement from that and from the way we played in the first game. This team just never knows when it's beaten - and that particularly applies in Europe. Some teams might have come away from something like this with their chins on the floor, but not us. We will pick ourselves up and be ready for the return game. We have been to places like Inter Milan and Arsenal and scored, so I don't see why we can't do the same at Stamford Bridge.”

The problem for Liverpool is that Chelsea possess such a formidable home record - unbeaten in 100 domestic matches, unless one includes the Carling Cup defeat by Charlton Athletic in a penalty shoot-out (which José Mourinho certainly did not). The only visiting team to have beaten Chelsea on their own turf since February 2004, in the final months of Claudio Ranieri's reign, was when Mourinho's team succumbed to Barcelona in the Champions League in February 2006. Manchester United will try to end their unbeaten record in the Premier League on Saturday lunchtime, but Liverpool's record in that particular part of London is awful. Since December 1989, they have won there only once - and that in January 2004, thanks to a goal from the forgotten Bruno Cheyrou.

José Manuel Reina, the goalkeeper, admitted to a profound sense of disappointment, but he stated that Liverpool could reach the final and he, too, suggested that Torres could be the key. “It was bitterly disappointing, but we still have another 90 minutes to try and reach another Champions League final,” Reina said. “We are the underdogs now - that is clear enough - but we have scored in every game in this competition this season, so why not again at Stamford Bridge? They are a great team and it is a tough stadium to go to, but we are Liverpool. That means something.

“A clean sheet is my aim, because I know there is every chance we will score. It has to be a team effort, but Fernando can be the key for us. It wasn't his best game [on Tuesday], but you only have to look at the statistics to see what he can do to defences. He has been outstanding, absolutely fantastic, and hopefully there will be more of the same next Wednesday.”

The myth of Anfield

Liverpool fans should not despair that their best chance of reaching the final has gone — the so-called Anfield factor is a myth. Home advantage in Europe for Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal has been far more marked than for Liverpool recently.

European games over past four seasons (assuming 3pts for win and 1pt for draw in knockout rounds and qualifiers):

United Home: 2.65pts per game. Away: 1.4. Home advantage: 1.25.

Chelsea Home: 2.29. Away: 1.27. Home advantage: 1.02.

Arsenal Home: 2.33. Away: 1.62. Home advantage: 0.71.

Liverpool Home: 2.18. Away: 1.81. Home advantage: 0.37.

Rafa Benitez Confident Liverpool Can Still Make It To Moscow

Rafael Benitez left Anfield with his confidence undiminished last night despite Liverpool’s late surrender of an away goal to Chelsea.

John Arne Riise scored an own goal with virtually the last touch of the first leg of the semi-final tie to cancel out Dirk Kuyt’s first-half strike and leave Avram Grant’s side in the ascendancy going into next Wednesday’s return.

Benitez has never sent out a Liverpool side that has even scored a goal at Stamford Bridge during his four seasons in charge but he now needs at least two to take the tie in the 90 minutes.

However, after seeing Liverpool denied extending their lead on the night by a series of fine Petr Cech saves, the Spaniard believes his players can now take their opportunities to get to a second Champions League final.

“It will be difficult but we have confidence,” said Benitez. “We had three clear chances and in these games it’s not easy to create anything.

“So I am really disappointed because you need to take good chances.

“Now we need two goals at Stamford Bridge to win it in 90 minutes so we if we have chances again we have to take them.

He added: “We are very disappointed to concede at the end, especially an own goal, but we need to change our change our minds now and start thinking positively.

“We need to change the statistics right now, that’s the only thing we can do.

“Watching the team today, especially in the first 30 minutes of the second half, we were on top of them. And we will need some luck.”

Benitez was critical of the Austrian officials, as Riise’s calamitous late header seemed to come after the allotted four minutes of stoppage time had been played.

There also appeared to be good claims for a penalty in the first half when Kuyt appeared to be pushed by Ashley Cole – but the appeals were ignored by referee Konrad Plautz, who also took charge of Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat to Marseille at Anfield in the group stages.

“It’s not the first time we’ve had decisions against us,”

said Benitez. “It was the same in the Marseille game.

I’ve seen too many things and I’d prefer not to say too much now.

“But it’s hard to understand. We had 94, 95 minutes and that’s difficult to explain. One minute in the first half, four in the second.

“But we can’t blame the referee for the own goal. The player can put it in the stand or out to the side so everybody is really disappointed in this situation.

“Now we need to go there and win.”

Under-fire co-owner Tom Hicks attended last night’s game after meeting with Benitez earlier in the day at Melwood.

Benitez, who has been given the verbal support of Hicks should he remain in control of the club at the end of the ongoing power struggle with fellow American George Gillett, said: “We had a meeting just to say hello and we will maybe have a meeting with both owners and everyone else. It will be more positive when we are all together.

“But if we have anything important to say we will say it.”

Meanwhile, Avram Grant believes Chelsea took a “big step” towards the Champions League final after their injury-time draw.

He said: “I know that 1-1 away from home in Europe is good result. It is a big step now towards our goal.

“I felt we deserved it. There could have been a couple of penalties for us and we controlled the game until Liverpool scored.

“Both goals came from mistakes, but I must also praise Petr Cech.

“It is always difficult for teams to play at Anfield with the support Liverpool’s fans create, but it can also be intimidating for teams who visit Stamford Bridge.

“We know this is a big step towards the Champions League final now, and we believe we can complete the task in the second leg.”

Drama in Anfield Directors' Box Rivals Action On Pitch

Reds fans have accused American owners of not singing from the same hymn sheet . . . and it seemed Tom Hicks might not have known the words.

The American made a show of belting out You’ll Never Walk Alone before the game.

Although it was difficult to pick out his Texan twang among the din, observers said he was falling behind with the words.

His sons waved scarves above their heads as the party tried to get into the swing.

It was all part of the biggest sideshow in football.

The warring factions in the battle for control of Anfield took their seats in the directors’ box last night.

It was no surprise they did not sit together.

The Hicks party took the front seats, with members from the Dubai International Capital team in the rows behind.

Rick Parry and David Moores sat together at the back of the box.

But for more than 90 minutes the different groups seemed united. It was smiles all round as Liverpool seemed to be heading towards victory before the last-minute heartbreak.

Merseyside police had advised Hicks to stay away, but that if he was determined to come, to turn up early.

He duly obliged by arriving at the ground well before kick-off. He took his seat moments before the first whistle, arriving to some muted boos and jeers.

His sons were also animated during the game, waving scarves and gesturing during exciting moments.

Then disaster struck in the cruellest way possible with John Arne Riise’s own goal.

The American faces in Liverpool's director's box looked aghast at Chelsea's last-gasp equaliser.

Hicks, seen earlier hugging his sons after Dirk Kuyt's opener, stared blankly straight ahead as he contemplated a game they should have won.

Chief executive Parry sat a few rows behind, days after the Texan publicly called on him to step down from his position.

Also present were DIC’s chief negotiator Amanda Staveley and chief executive Sameer Al-Ansari, who attended as guests of George Gillett, who missed the match through illness.

It was the first time Al Ansari and Hicks Snr had met since talks with the investment company broke down last month.

With other famous faces including Fabio Capello, Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve Mclaren, Football Association chief executive and Liverpool fan Brian Barwick, and Steven Gerrard's wife Alex Curran, the action in the director's box was almost as intriguing as what was happening on the pitch.

On the Kop, there were little protests to be heard against the club's American owners and the usual “Yanks Out, DIC SOS” banners were missing for the big match.

Liverpool fan Neil Roberts, 30, from Aigburth, said: “Watching what was happening in the directors’ box was almost as interesting as the match itself.

“Obviously Hicks wanted to be seen singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, after he drank from his LFC mug the other day, but he made a bit of a mess of it.

“There was plenty of smiles as the main protagonists sat just yards from each other, but we all know it was just for the cameras.”

Tom Hicks Ready To Fund Liverpool Transfer Spree

Tom Hicks, the controversial Liverpool co-owner, has held talks with Rafael Benítez about a possible summer transfer strategy as he battles to ride the storm that continues to rage around the club. The two met on Tuesday morning and again yesterday, with Hicks promising to support Benítez in his pursuit of potential reinforcements such as Gareth Barry, the Aston Villa captain.

Whether Hicks will continue to call the shots at Anfield beyond the end of the season remains unclear, with Dubai International Capital (DIC) still confident that it will effectively take control by buying George Gillett Jr's 50 per cent stake at the end of May. But Hicks, who maintains that DIC's ambitions will not be realised, continues to talk and act like a man who believes that he will be running the club for both the short and the long term.

Hicks made a rare appearance at Anfield on Tuesday night as Liverpool were held to a 1-1 draw by Chelsea in their Champions League semi-final, first leg, having spoken to Benítez at Melwood, the training ground, earlier. The Texan and his son, Tom Jr, a fellow director, returned to Melwood yesterday morning, when they held further conversations with Benítez, listening to his well-documented frustrations and discussing potential transfer targets and how any such moves would be financed.

“We had a great meeting,” Hicks said before yesterday's second discussion. “We talked about a lot of things and it was very positive and encouraging. We have agreed to meet again and it is a very healthy situation. Rafa is happy and wants to talk about where he is taking the club.”

There were claims from some sources that Benítez had told Hicks that he was unwilling to discuss anything of significance unless Gillett, the Texan's estranged co-owner, and Rick Parry, the chief executive, were in attendance. But Hicks said: “I am surprised if anyone else is saying different. We plan to all get together and discuss the future and Rafa is happy with that.”

Those words hinted at a breakthrough of sorts, but there are no other signs that a peace summit is in prospect. Gillett remains determined to sell his 50 per cent stake to DIC in the belief that, despite Hicks's fierce objections, it will be able to buy at the end of May, at the expiry of a 90-day exclusivity period offering Hicks first option on his partner's shares. Hicks, who has also caused consternation by demanding the resignation of Parry, maintains that no such clause exists in the share document and that DIC - which sent Sameer al-Ansari, its chief executive, and Amanda Staveley, the chief negotiator, to Anfield on Tuesday - will not get a single share in the club.

Benítez, meanwhile, has a list of potential summer targets, including Barry, the England midfield player, whose arrival would cast serious doubts about the future of Xabi Alonso at Anfield. Other targets include a right back, at least one winger and several promising young players.

Villa are determined not to lose Barry, their most influential player, and are preparing to offer a significant improvement on his £42,000-a-week contract. “If players are doing really well and deserving of new contracts or renegotiated deals, I have not got a problem with that,” Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, said yesterday.