Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pennant Out, Bentley In - Report

Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant has been added to the casualty list at Anfield this summer, as Rafa Benitez prepares a summer overhaul of his squad.

The 25-year-old was told yesterday that he is free to leave and can start talking to other clubs, joining the likes of Andriy Voronin, Peter Crouch and Scott Carson on Rafa’s scrapheap.

The former Arsenal man is a long-term target of both Newcastle and West Ham, and they may have to fork out in the region of ₤7 million as Benitez seeks to recoup what he paid Birmingham City for the player in 2006.

Pennant has impressed in spurts during his time on Merseyside, an excellent run of form during the second half of the 2006-07 season culminating in a brilliant showing during the Champions League in Athens, where the Reds lost 2-1 to AC Milan.

But injuries have ravaged Pennant’s season, as he suffered dual stress-fractures in his shins earlier in the term and has struggled to regain his place since due to the all-action efforts of Dirk Kuyt on the right side of attack.

The former Notts County youth did impress recently in Liverpool’s lame-duck league fixtures, putting in a match-winning performance against Fulham and a match-saving turn against his old club at St Andrew’s.

But he was absent from the squad for the final two games of the season against Manchester City and Tottenham, signalling the almost-certain demise of his Anfield career.

Pennant has been offered as a makeweight in Benitez's bid to bring Gareth Barry to Anfield, but his exit could also facilitate a move for fellow Arsenal product David Bentley, who has long been linked with Liverpool.

Blackburn Rovers boss Mark Hughes remains steadfast in his desire to keep hold of his star winger, and Benitez may have to devote a hefty portion of his transfer budget to secure the England international, ₤15 million being touted as the going rate.

Reports: Dossena Set For Reds

With Rafa Benítez having already lined-up one new full-back in Swiss right-back Philipp Degen, the Liverpool boss is now linked with another in Italian left-back Andrea Dossena.

26-year-old Dossena made his one-and-only international appearance for the World Champions in a friendly against South Africa last October, getting the assist for Lucarelli’s only goal of the game. Italy coach Roberto Donadoni still hasn’t named his squad for the Euro 2008 finals and is giving little away as to who might be in it, but the Udinese number 8 will consider himself a possibility.

Tottenham have been linked with the Udinese defender too, but are no longer believed to be interested. The fee quoted in reports linking him with Spurs was £8m. Reports in the Italian press claim a deal with Liverpool is close, saying Liverpool have already agreed personal terms with the player’s agent, Federico Pastorello, and are now talking to Udinese about the fee.

Udinese director general Pietro Leonardi played down the links yesterday: “We have always said that we will not change the team. For Dossena to Liverpool there is nothing concrete, he has a contract with us until 2012 and the rest is speculation.”

Dossena has been with Udinese since 2006, and has had two red cards so far in this Italian season, which ends tomorrow. Udinese visit AC Milan who are hoping for three points and favours elsewhere to get them a Champions League qualifying spot. Udinese will finish in at least seventh place and have already qualified for the UEFA Cup.

With Liverpool set to release John Arne Riise and Fabio Aurelio’s Anfield career so far suffering numerous injury-related interruptions the need for a quality left-back isn’t in doubt. Emiliano Insua is still considered one for the future, but can expect more involvement next season than this.

John Aldridge: Time For Liverpool To Make The Also-rans Pay

Liverpool may not have won any trophies in the season just ended but they can take great consolation in the fact that they made plenty of progress this season.

Everyone picks out statistics to prove their point of view but for me the one that stands out is that Liverpool lost fewer games in the league than Manchester United.

It's a long time since that happened and you have to go back many years to the last time Liverpool only lost four games in an entire season, and that suggests to me that they are not all that far away.

The only thing that prevented a genuine title challenge was that they had too many draws.

When you play teams from lower down the division, the likes of Wigan and Birmingham, you have to make the most of your superiority by making sure you beat them.

If you manage to do that then you give yourselves a platform to build from and it also helps create a momentum which can carry you all the way to the top.

That's what United are so good at. If they play an inferior side at Old Trafford they invariably beat them and that gives them an advantage in the race for the title.

The big problem for Liverpool was that they had a sticky spell just after Christmas where they drew far too many games which they should have won.

If Rafa Benitez and his players think back to this run they will know in their hearts that they should have picked up more than just four points from away games at Manchester City and Middlesbrough and home games against Aston Villa and Wigan.

Had Liverpool turned their dominance of these fixtures into points it would have made a major difference to their season.

That's how small the gap is between success and failure at the top level and if you don't make your superiority pay you can be sure that someone else will make you suffer for it.

But the progress has been there for all to see and the spine of this Liverpool side is among the best around.

Now the challenge for the manager is to build on what he has accomplished so far and do whatever it takes to ensure Liverpool are in the shake up for the title at the absolute least next season.

It is easy to identify the parts of the team that Rafa Benitez must strengthen this summer - the wide areas.

That has been the main weakness of this Liverpool side for some time and if Benitez can address this problem I believe it will make a massive difference.

In the last 12 months HeBenitez has recruited really well with the likes of Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Martin Skrtel coming into the side and making a real difference.

Lucas and Ryan Babel may not have done quite as well, but they are young players who will hopefully fulfil their potential in the years to come and the only really disappointing signing has been Andriy Voronin, who just hasn't got going.

Benitez knows that if he has another good summer in the transfer market it could make all the difference to his team and I've got no doubt he'll pull out all the stops to bring in the players he has identified.

It will be another interesting close season at Anfield and I'm sure there will be a few going as well as coming in, but if Benitez gets the balance right it could set things up nicely for next season.

When it comes to naming Liverpool's player of the season there is one man who stands head and shoulders above all others - Fernando Torres.

And what a tribute that is when you consider Torres features in a team with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Javier Mascherano.

He has been showered with tributes all season long and quite rightly so because you have to be something special to achieve as much as he has in his first season in English football.

And the best thing is I'm convinced Torres will only get better.

What a terrifying thought that is for Premiership defences and what a brilliant thought it is for Liverpool fans.

Holidays On Hold As Rafa Benitez Eyes Liverpool Transfer Targets

Rafael Benitez will put his summer holidays temporarily on hold as he oversees Liverpool’s squad rebuilding plans.

With his team’s season having finished at the weekend, the Anfield manager is hopeful of securing at least two new signings during the next fortnight.

Swiss international right-back Philipp Degen is already set to join Liverpool on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund when his contract expires in the close season.

And the move for Gareth Barry could come closer to fruition in the next day, with Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill and owner Randy Lerner set for discussions with the player.

Barry, who is desperate to play Champions League football, is expected to tell Villa that he cannot pass up the opportunity of a move to Anfield.

Villa would then be left with no option but to consider Liverpool’s offer of a cash-plus-player deal worth £10m, with the Midlanders given a choice of Jermaine Pennant, Scott Carson or John Arne Riise.

When Benitez finally drags himself away from his desk, he admits it will be rather more difficult to part him from his mobile phone.

However, the Spaniard reckons he could be left retrieving it from deep waters if his wife Montse finds him conducting deals while on holiday.

“I don’t tend to have too much time away from football, but I will try to switch off for a bit,” said Benitez. “I will have to try to hide my mobile phone, and if my wife can’t find out about it I’ll try and keep it on me.

“But if she finds it, I’m sure she will throw it in the swimming pool!

“I don’t like the beach too much, but I don’t mind being around a swimming pool or maybe going up in the mountains.”

Even when Benitez manages to find a quiet place to relax, it has previously proven impossible to totally escape the attention of Liverpool fans.

“When you are at such a big club as Liverpool, everybody knows who you are and it’s not easy to get away from people on holiday,” said the Spaniard.

“Last summer, I was by the swimming pool and a kid was playing football wearing a Liverpool cap. He passed the ball and it came to me, so I tried to dribble it past him, and we were playing for five minutes.

“After we’d finished, his father spoke to him and said ‘do you know who that is?’ The kid says ‘is it a Liverpool player?’ and his dad replies ‘no, it’s the manager!’.

“So after that he was with me playing football the whole week! He was the only one who hadn’t recognised me, and he was wearing a Liverpool cap!”

Meanwhile, Fernando Torres has paid tribute to the Liverpool fans at the end of his record-breaking debut season at Anfield.

The Spain international capped a brilliant first campaign at the club with his 24th league goal of the season at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday to make him the country’s most successful ever foreign debutant.

And Torres said: “The supporters back the players, regardless of who is out on the pitch. They enjoy watching their key players play, because Liverpool has great players, but Liverpool will always be a team.

“The fans get behind the side even when things are not working out, and they are always there until the death.

“That is the major difference with football back in Spain. If a team is not doing well, then it is because the players do not deserve to be wearing the club’s colours.

“At Liverpool, if a player is wearing their shirt, it is because he deserves it. The fans ask for effort and dedication, and their support is something special, something that stays with you.

“Luckily, everything has worked out well from day one, and my team-mates have helped out, and I owe them all an awful lot.”

Rafa Benitez Insists That New Assistant Lee Has More To Offer Than Just Anfield Connections

Rafael Benitez insisted it was more than just the Scouse connection that secured Sammy Lee the job as his assistant manager.

The Liverpool manager said that Lee, who was unveiled as his number two yesterday, was his first choice regardless of the fact that he became an Anfield legend both as a player and as a coach.

“He is a very experienced and very well respected coach in his own right and his reputation in football made him the outstanding candidate when we knew we were looking for a new member of our coaching staff,” Benitez said.

“We are very pleased because he is someone who knows the club really well.

“He also knows about the passion of the club and about the standards that we set here so that will make it much easier for him to settle into his new role.

“But we have not brought Sammy back simply because he used to play for the club and used to work here as a coach.

“He will add something different to what we already have and it will be good to work with him.

“I already have a good relationship with him and I will be looking to build on that in the weeks and months to come.”

Lee had been out of football since Bolton Wanderers sacked him as their manager in October.

He returned to work as Liverpool held their final training session of the season at Melwood yesterday and said: “When a club the size of Liverpool comes in for you, and when a manager of the magnitude of Rafael Benitez wants you, then you cannot say no.

“When I found out they were interested in me I was really thrilled.

“After the sabbatical I have had I just wish the season was starting tomorrow, but the players have had a long, difficult and demanding season and they need to get away and get their batteries recharged.

“I have been around the Melwood training ground this morning and seen a lot of old faces but a lot of new faces as well.

“I have shaken hands with everyone and introduced myself. There are some great people here and I cannot wait to get working with them. It is so nice to be back.”

Lee also insists he has no regrets about his ill-fated first foray into management after being promoted to take over from Sam Allardyce at Bolton last season.

He added: “I was very honoured and privileged to be given the position as Bolton manager.

“The pride and the honour I felt to be their manager was only outweighed by the sheer disappointment that it did not go well. I have to say the Bolton fans were fantastic towards me. I have not had the chance to say that before but I want to thank them.

“Even when results were not going well they were very supportive towards me and, most importantly, to the players.”