Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rafa To Rivals: Continuity Counts

Rafael Benitez is convinced that Liverpool will hold a vital edge over their Premiership rivals going into next season despite them not being in the same spending bracket.

There are strong indications that Liverpool will be the only top four side that will still have their core starting XI in place next season, as Chelsea and Arsenal again are going through a period of transition, while United look set to lose the jewel in their crown to Real Madrid.

So far, all the major transfer news surrounding the Reds has either seen them as the aggressor (i.e. Barry, Keane, Villa) or the tone-setting sellers (i.e. Crouch, Alonso).

Thus, unless something completely unexpected happens between now and mid-August, the Anfield side should be going into next season having succesfully built on an already very solid core.

"The players who played the majority of the games last season, the big names, the important players are still with us and that's important," Benitez was quoted as saying in The Mirror.

"It can give us an advantage. For us, keeping our key players and bringing in others with passion and hunger is important.

"You have to be realistic. Every year you need to change players. For example, Crouch wanted to play and you need to accept his situation, understand it and move on.

"But you want to keep the players who are your key components. That gives us stability and a base to work from, and then, hopefully, the new players can give us the things we were looking for."

While espousing the perceived virtues of his own team, Benitez did admit that shaking things up - whether by design or not - can have its own benefits.

"When you talk about these players like Ronaldo, Adebayor, Lampard, they are very good players and their prices will be high," the Spaniard added.

"If they leave, the clubs will have more money and could bring in better players. But we will have all our big names still in place, and that could be more important. They will have confidence, too.

"When you have players winning trophies, that's important for their mentality.

"Sometimes you can see a good player who isn't winning trophies, and you have doubts about his mentality.

"But the Spanish players have shown they have it by winning a trophy, and we have others here who have shown it as well."

Benitez then turned his attention to young players at the club whom he is expecting big things from this season, with specific focus on Dutch star Ryan Babel.

"Babel will now be more settled now and more experienced, and maybe we can see the best from him this season," he added.

"I can see Babel emerging this season, we know his potential, and he is a player that can change a game.

"We know Ryan prefers to play as a striker, but it's important to have experience in other positions, and we can use his versatility.

"With him improving, Daniel Agger coming back, and the younger players coming through to add to those with experience, we have a good balance."

Benitez Determined To Complete Signings

Rafael Benitez insists he will successfully complete some major Liverpool signings in the coming weeks.

The Anfield boss had seen the supporting cast of youth and fringe players from his squad complete the club's first pre-season friendly with a 1-0 win at Tranmere on Saturday, thanks to a fine first-half winner from Yossi Benayoun.

But it was the players Benitez is trying to bring to the club - Gareth Barry and Robbie Keane - who occupied minds of the manager and many of the big Liverpool following in the 15,000 sell-out Prenton Park crowd.

Benitez would not be drawn on specific names, but as he prepares to take his squad to Switzerland on Sunday for a fortnight-long training camp, he said: "We are still working hard to bring in two more players.

"I would hope that there would be some progress next week or very soon."

Benitez added: "I was delighted with the fitness levels of the players, Benayoun scored a fantastic goal and there were plenty of things that were really positive.

"I was happy with Daniel Agger's comeback, he will be a welcome addition to our defence in the coming season.

"Philipp Degen also did well on his debut, he was very impressive attacking down the right side."

Liverpool also brought new £3million goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri on for his debut in the second half.

He embarrassingly delayed the restart because he was not ready for action, with Agger having to tie the Brazilian's bootlaces for him on the pitch.

But Benitez said: "He did not have too much to do, but he is a keeper who will fight for his place and put pressure on others around him."

Gunners To Shoot Down Reds' Barry Bid?

As negotiations between Liverpool and Aston Villa continue to drag, Arsenal are reportedly set to make a sensational last-minute swoop for Gareth Barry.

The Sun reports that the Gunners have made contact with Villa this week and are willing to offer a player-plus-cash deal to steal Barry from under the Reds’ noses.

Liverpool have been hunting the England midfielder for months now, and it seemed only a matter time before they would land their man when he publicly announced his desire to make the switch to Anfield.

But Rafael Benitez is yet to meet Villa’s demands of ₤18million – and looks increasingly unlikely to given Xabi Alonso may now stay on Merseyside – and has refused their compromise of ₤17million plus Steve Finnan.

The Midlands club are desperately in need of a right-back following Olof Mellberg’s departure, meaning Arsenal may include Justin Hoyte – or, at a stretch, perhaps even Emmanuel Eboue – as part of their offer.

Villa boss Martin O’Neill would no doubt be very tempted by the prospect of selling to the Londoners, as he was heavily critical of the manner in which Benitez approached Barry.

Benitez Looks At Positives

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez looks focuses on the good things he witnessed during their opening pre-season friendly against neighbours Tranmere Rovers.

Liverpool put in a solid display in their one-nil victory over Tranmere with Rafa Benitez looking at the first-half display of 17-year old Daniel Pacheco, the debuts of new signings Phillip Degen, and Diego Cavalieri, and Daniel Agger's return from injury.

Speaking of the Danish centre back, Reds boss Benitez told the clubs offical website: "The main thing for us was to see if he could come through a match - he had no problems so he will be a good plus for the team. This is the type of game you want so you can see if the players are match-fit."

The eye-catching display of youngster Pacheco also impressed Benitez: "He had two or three chances and was a threat in attack. We saw how good he was for the reserves last season and today everyone could see he has the talent and the quality."

The head coach also offered words of encouragement for new boys Degen and Cavalieri: "Cavalieri did not have too much to do but we know he will be a keeper who will fight for his place along with Pepe [Reina]. We also saw what Degen can offer on the right hand side. It is a game that we can take positives from and a lot of the lads tried to impress. Degen had four or five good openings in attack, put some crosses and I think we saw the potential that he has."

Benitez also mentioned that he expects to bolster his squad further before the window closes: "We are working hard trying to bring in good players and I think we can progress over the next week."

Rafa will now take his squad for a training camp in Switzerland.

Liverpool Winger Babel Set To Defy Rafa And Play In The Olympic Games

Holland's Olympic football coach Foppe de Haan insists Liverpool winger Ryan Babel remains keen on playing in Beijing despite the concerns of his club manager Rafael Benitez.

Benitez is worried the 21-year-old's recovery from the ankle injury sustained on international duty in the build-up to Euro 2008 could be disrupted by his participation in China.

But De Haan believes Babel, who resumed training with his club on Wednesday, is well on course to be fit for the Olympics and should be allowed to make up his own mind.

He told De Telegraaf: 'Other Liverpool players are also going to Beijing, so why not him?

'In the past couple of days, Ryan has been doing warm-ups at Liverpool with the rest of the group.

'For the rest of the time he worked on an individual programme. He did a lot of walking, but he also worked with the ball. That all went well.

'Ryan is very optimistic about his recovery and he very much wants to go with us to the Olympic Games.'

Liverpool Edge Out Tranmere In First Pre-Season Friendly

Rafael Benitez ran the rule over Liverpool's supporting cast while his mind was no doubt buzzing with ways of raising the money to complete deals for Gareth Barry and Robbie Keane.

The Liverpool manager admits he has to wheel and deal to do that - but he has raised almost £14million by moving on Peter Crouch and Danny Guthrie this week.

Steve Finnan and Scott Carson were, significantly, absent from Liverpool's 21-man squad for their first pre-season friendly against Tranmere at Prenton Park today with further moves likely soon.

And Benitez is not understood to be over-concerned about suggestions Arsenal are trying to snatch Barry at the last moment.

All business is now likely to be conducted while Benitez's squad are at a training camp in Switzerland for the next fortnight, during which time they will also play four matches.

It took a fine angled drive from Yossi Benayoun - who has made a point of committing his future to Anfield - to clinch a comfortable victory as Benitez's young brigade impressed.

Liverpool welcomed back defender Daniel Agger for his first game in nine months following a metatarsal injury and had Spanish teenager Danny Pacheco, the former Barcelona junior, up front.

Youngsters Stephen Darby, Jack Hobbs, Damien Plessis, goalkeeper David Martin and Emiliano Insua all had run-outs.

New signings Diego Cavalieri and Philipp Degen were introduced at the break.

Tranmere had their new names - John Curtis, George O'Callaghan, Bas Savage and Edrissa Sonko on show - but it was the expected better passing, movement and control of the Liverpool outfit that had them very much in control.

Martin had to save well from Chris Greenacre, but former Wales international Danny Coyne kept the score down until Benayoun's 20-yarder saw Liverpool ahead.

Jermaine Pennant, a target for Blackburn, hit the bar with Andy Taylor's free-kick clipping the foot of Martin's left-hand post before the break.

But this was little more than a gentle exercise in the sun to entertain a 15,000 full house.

Liverpool made seven changes at the break, with Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel, Sami Hyypia and another couple of youngsters - Jay Spearing and Ryan Flynn - coming on, Academy product Martin Kelly also making a late appearance.

But the crowd had been waiting for Steven Gerrard, who arrived just after the hour-mark along with Andriy Voronin.

Gerrard had a strolling involvement, containing himself for sterner battles over the coming months.

O'Neill - Barry Deal Uncertain

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill has revealed the transfer of Gareth Barry to Liverpool remains uncertain.

Liverpool have seen a number of offers turned down for the Villa captain, who O'Neill values at £18million.

O'Neill insists that no deal has been reached between the clubs but is confident that the saga will be resolved soon.

"We're entering a new season at the moment and the future is still uncertain," O'Neill told Sky Sports News.

"Nothing much has changed, but I'm sure like most situations in football it will resolve itself at some stage.

"We don't want to lose players, we're not really in a position to do so but we have the ambition and the determination to drive forward this season and get the squad that we feel the club deserves."

The Villa boss is also keen to strengthen his squad to improve on their sixth place league finish last season.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and Steve Sidwell are O'Neill's latest signings but he reveals he is hoping to bring in more players to Villa Park.

"We are in the market for players, we do want to try and improve the squad," added O'Neill.

"We did very well last season, touch wood, with injuries but I wouldn't want to rely on all of those things for another season.

"And if we do pick up injuries and suspensions I like to think we can cope with it. Last year we may have felt that difficult."