Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gold Medal Then Premiership Crown - Mascherano

Javier Mascherano has confirmed that he'll go to the Olympics and, brimming with confidence, is targeting another gold medal and the Premier League title.

Midfield battler Javier Mascherano has come under fire over his imminent stint as a Beijing olympian, which will involve him missing the start of the season.

However, the 24-year-old - one of the over-age players in Argentina's squad for the Games - has now hit back.

He feels everything he'll touch this season will turn to gold and that his adventure in China will be long forgotten by the time the Reds hoist the Premier League trophy aloft.

Gunning for his second-straight Olympic triumph, Mascherano confirmed to the Liverpool Echo: "I will go to the Olympics - I'm leaving the team for a month.

"Hopefully, I will go to Beijing and win the gold medal for my country and come back and win the title with Liverpool."

Still, the midfielder, capped 36 times for the senior international side, is happy to have shaken off the inevitable summer sluggishness and seen some new faces by enjoying pre-season with Rafa Benitez's side.

He continued: "It was important for me to do the pre-season with the team so I can get to know my new team-mates before I go to the Olympics.

"We are all working hard and hopefully the work we are doing now will help us to have a good season and we will try to win some trophies.

"We are having more and more contact with the ball and, when the new season arrives, I think we will be ready for the Premier League."

Rush: Barry & Keane Can Help Reds To Glory

Liverpool legend Ian Rush believes the potential signings of Gareth Barry and Robbie Keane could see the club finally challenge for their first Premier League crown.

Despite being the most successful club in English football, the Reds have yet to open their account in the Premier League era. Their last title came in 1990, under the guidance of Rush’s former strike partner, Kenny Dalglish.

It has been a trying 18 years since, during which Manchester United have supplanted their North West rivals as England’s biggest and best, while London duo Chelsea and Arsenal have also leaped ahead when it comes to domestic affairs.

The catch-cry from Anfield in recent years has been that they are one or two great signings away from reclaiming the trophy they seemed to own during the 1970s and ‘80s. The arrival of Spanish superstar Fernando Torres has taken them one step closer, but gaps remain in certain departments.

Now Rafael Benitez is chasing Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry and Tottenham striker Robbie Keane, although the players’ respective price tags have prevented the deals from being completed as yet.

Rush is adamant that those two players could complete Liverpool’s puzzle, and has called on the club’s owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, to stump up the ₤40million or so required to secure the pair’s services.

“When you look at what’s happening at other clubs, why shouldn’t Liverpool go close?” Rush said in The Sun. “I just hope Rafa gets the money to sign Barry and Keane – then I could see them giving it a real go.

“The spine of the team is in place with Jose Reina, Jamie Carragher, Stevie Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

“If they get support, I can see them mounting a genuine push – and not before time.”

After a season that was riddled with boardroom controversy, it has been a relatively peaceful summer so far on Merseyside – certainly compared to the goings on at Old Trafford, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge, anyway.

And Rush believes the Reds should capitalise on their rivals’ unrest as they seek to add to their 18 titles – a record that is being threatened by the Red Devils, who clinched their 17th last term.

“It’s no good setting your sights on fourth at a club like this, where expectations are so high,” the Welshman continued.

“And maybe this is the right time. United have lost No 2 Carlos Queiroz and no-one knows what will happen with Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Chelsea have a new boss and new players but even great ones need time to gel.

“And Arsenal are losing players too, while nothing has happened at Liverpool, apart from selling Peter Crouch.”

Keane's arrival would effectively nullify Crouch's departure, at any rate, while Barry would replace Xabi Alonso, should the Basque playmaker also leave. But whether that will be enough for Liverpool to clinch their first Premier League crown remains to be seen.

Reina Rules Out Spain Return

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose ‘Pepe’ Reina has dismissed the possibility of returning to his native country, insisting he is completely satisfied on Merseyside.

Reina arrived at Anfield in 2005 and has since established himself among Europe’s elite ‘keepers, snaring three consecutive Golden Glove awards for most clean sheets in a Premier League season.

However, the 25-year-old has had to settle for a spot on the bench when it comes to international duty, as Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas – who was outstanding in Spain’s EURO 2008 triumph – effectively owns la Furia Roja’s No. 1 jersey.

Some have speculated that the former Barcelona shot-stopper could return to La Liga in the hope of increasing his chances of supplanting Casillas, as it is a widely held belief that la Seleccion’s coaches prefer home-based players.

But Reina – one of four Spanish scousers in Austria and Switzerland last month – insisted he will not be leaving Liverpool any time soon, and is focused solely on helping the Reds claim silverware this season.

"I won't consider returning to Spain," said Reina. "I like Liverpool and it doesn't even enter my head to return already to Spanish football - and that goes for my family as well.

"I want to celebrate winning a big trophy with Liverpool this season and if we do I promise my team-mates I will cook them some excellent seafood in return!"

Pennant Backs Keane Pursuit

Jermaine Pennant believes a partnership of Robbie Keane and Fernando Torres could be the best in the Premier League.

Liverpool have confirmed an interest in signing Keane, although Rafa Benitez's comments about the Irishman have prompted a complaint from Tottenham Hotspur.

Keane has told Spurs that he wants to join Liverpool and Pennant would welcome the gifted forward at Anfield.

With Torres having enjoyed a sensational debut season with the Reds, Pennant believes the combination of the Spaniard and Keane would be a major hit.

"Robbie is a great player," said Pennant in the Daily Star. "He's sharp around the box and is a great finisher.

"With Torres up front as well, it will be a great partnership. They could be as good as anything in the Premier League."

Meanwhile, Pennant is planning to still be a member of the Liverpool squad in the coming season as he looks to cement a place in Benitez's side.

Pennant has been linked with a move to Blackburn, but insists he is not looking to quit the Reds.

He added: "I'm not thinking about leaving at all."

Friendly Can’t Fire The Imagination On Merits Of Anfield Squad

Ever the professional, it seems Rafael Benitez’s only concession to the notion of a pre-season friendly match is to prowl the technical area resplendent in a pair of jeans.

There is little chance of the Liverpool manager taking a similarly casual attitude to his team’s preparations for the coming campaign.

But while the latest stage of that warm-up programme saw the Anfield outfit further stretch their muscles with a testing workout against Wisla Krakow on Saturday, it has been impossible for Benitez to gauge any accurate assessment of the state of his squad.

Already without the Euro 2008-winning Spanish contingent of Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa and Pepe Reina, Benitez has missed Steven Gerrard for the last two friendlies with the skipper having flown home before the weekend 1-1 draw nursing a groin problem.

Those five will again be absent tomorrow for the clash with Hertha Berlin in Germany, Liverpool’s final fixture before they head back to Melwood for a further period of intensive training.

Pre-season is often notoriously deceiving, but particularly so this season with so many of his expected first-team regulars as yet unavailable.

“We’ve had a lot of players away and it has made a difference,” admits Benitez. “Hopefully we will have everybody available soon and with the big names back we can do better.”

There was once a time when the pre-season process of shaking the ring-rust from the players, building fitness, bedding in summer signings and experimenting with tactics was a mystical matter to all but the most loyal, hardy supporters.

Not any more.

Nowadays, almost every friendly is built up to be an ‘event’, when in reality they are very rarely anything of the sort.

Saturday’s game was a painful example of why pre-season encounters and live television coverage should not be mixed.

As a spectacle, it was woeful. Indeed, the most memorable moment was when a photographer, desperate for some entertainment, proceeded to knock over half of the advertising boards behind one goal.

With Fribourg’s intimate Stade-St Leonard slowly cooking under the heat of the Swiss summer sun, the game at times was reduced to walking pace, the raft of absentees making the evening close to a glorified training session for Liverpool.

Having undertaken intensive training sessions the previous day and on the morning of the game, it was hardly surprising Liverpool tired noticeably quicker than their opponents with no player lasting the full 90 minutes.

Polish champions Wisla, preparing for a Champions League qualifier next week, were noticeably the sharper and offered a far greater challenge than either Tranmere or FC Lucerne.

Philipp Degen, so unconvincing on debut last Wednesday, also missed out with a minor groin problem, and it is a touch alarming that youngster Stephen Darby seemed far more effective in a defensive role than his Swiss colleague.

Benitez’s other new full-back, Andrea Dossena, was given clearance to make his first appearance on the left side of defence.

And, as with Degen, the early signs weren’t particularly encouraging.

The Italian was caught out of position on a number of occasions and Wisla’s 12th-minute goal came down the Liverpool left, Marek Ziencuk cutting the ball back to Tomas Jirsak to sweep a first-time finish past Diego Cavalieri.

Both Dossena and Degen can hardly be expected to slot in straight away, but both will surely now be aware of the expectations and demands of Benitez and supporters. Must do better.

Liverpool had already forged ahead in the sixth minute when Ukrainian international striker and pre-season specialist Andriy Voronin netted his second goal in as many games.

A flowing move involving the again impressive Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel ended with Yossi Benayoun threading a brilliant ball into the path of Voronin who, having seen his initial effort saved by Wisla goalkeeper Mariusz Pawelek, made no mistake in dispatching the rebound.

Voronin later spurned a good chance to regain the lead when a mistake by Marcin Baszczynski put the Ukrainian in the clear, but his shot was too close to Pawelek.

Benayoun had an effort cleared off the line by Arkadiusz Glowacki after the interval but the Israeli was an often infuriating figure, continually coughing up possession to the Poles.

He wasn’t alone, though, as Liverpool made life particularly difficult for themselves during the first half by struggling to hold on to the ball.

Wisla should have taken advantage of some sloppy defending, with Benitez’s side showing few signs of having yet addressed last season’s inability to consistently handle set-pieces.

After one such malaise, Liverpool had to rely on a harsh flag from the referee’s assistant to prevent them falling behind before a Marek Ziencuk free-kick evaded a clutch of defenders and struck the outside of Cavalieri’s right-hand post.

Sebastian Leto again fleetingly caught the eye with some fancy footwork only to be let down by a poor choice of final pass, while fellow Argentine Javier Mascherano announced his return to the first-team squad with a couple of crunching tackles. The midfielder clearly does not do ‘friendly’.

Voronin, Benayoun and late substitute Jermaine Pennant have all been linked with moves away from Anfield so far during this transfer window, serving to only further underline that this Liverpool team is virtually unrecognisable to the one that will step out for the first leg of the Champions League qualifier next month.

And until the cavalry arrives, Benitez is unlikely to contemplate a wardrobe change just yet.

Gerrard To Be Fit For Villarreal Friendly

Liverpool expect skipper Steven Gerrard to be fit for their friendly against Villarreal in Spain next week.

By that time they should have another striker on board – whether it is Tottenham’s Irish hitman Robbie Keane or Paris Saint Germain striker David N’Gog.

Anfield captain Gerrard is back at the club’s Melwood training camp receiving treatment on a groin injury as boss Rafael Benitez’s prepares his squad for tonight’s away friendly with Hertha Berlin.

The England player missed Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Wisla Krakow in Switzerland on Saturday, having been sent home for treatment on an injury sustained by the midfielder in training.

Reds manager Benitez accepted that Gerrard would not be fit for the trip to Berlin, but has every hope that he will be on the plane to Spain next week for the August 30 clash with goalkeeper Jose Reina’s former club.

Liverpool do not have a match this weekend, but Gerrard will be occupied with a trip to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on Friday.

That is the venue for the 28-year-old to have an honorary fellowship conferred on him by Liverpool John Moores University, in recognition of his services to sport.

Professor Michael Brown, who is vice-chancellor at LJMU, said: “Steven epitomises the university philosophy of ’Dream, Plan, Achieve’.

“As a young boy he excelled in the sport he loves and ensured his talent was recognised, looking upon challenges as opportunities and pursuing each available avenue.

“As a result he has become one of the best sportsmen in the country, if not the world, with a reputation for integrity both on and off the pitch.”

Professor Brown added: “As a prominent sporting figure and a son of the city, it is fitting that LJMU, an international leader in sports and exercise science and a major contributor to Liverpool’s success and growth, should award Steven with this honorary fellowship.”

Gerrard, who was awarded an MBE earlier in the year, added: “I am very proud to become a fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.

“Not only has LJMU done so much for this city and the people of Liverpool but it has given the science of football international credibility. It is an honour to be recognised with this award.”

On Gerrard’s fitness, Benitez made it clear immediately after the Krakow game that the player’s absence is only short-term.

Benitez said: “Steven’s groin problem is not serious but he cannot train and he wouldn’t be available for the game in Berlin, so we decided to send him back to Melwood.

“He should be okay in about a week. It’s not serious but there’s no sense to keep him with us while he is unable to train or play.”

Liverpool, who hope to complete the transfer of Robbie Keane from Tottenham shortly – but not before the weekend as had been previously predicted – also want to have 19-year-old French striker David N’Gog signed this week after a £1.5m bid was accepted by Paris St Germain.

The youngster would become Liverpool’s fourth signing of the summer, after deals for Philipp Degen, Andrea Dossena and Diego Cavalieri.

Degen is also out of the Berlin game with a groin problem.

Liverpool also snapped up teenagers Vincent Lucas Weijl and Nikola Saric recently, but while they are for Gary Ablett’s reserve squad, N’Gog has been earmarked for the first team.

N’Gog’s arrival could hasten the departure of Ukrainian striker Andriy Voronin.

Voronin has scored twice in three unbeaten pre-season friendlies but is interesting Hamburg and could go for £3m, to add further to Benitez’s transfer kitty and the prospect of signing Gareth Barry to the squad before the season starts.

Albert Riera Admits He’d Love Liverpool Move

Albert Riera has revealed his desire to return to English football with Liverpool.

The Spanish left-winger has fallen out with his club Espanyol and wants to return to the Premier League following a previous spell on loan with Manchester City

Manager Rafael Benitez has pondered a move for the 26-year-old this summer to strengthen his attacking options – but wouldn’t consider paying anything above £8million.

Even then he would only be likely to pursue his interest if he was unable to seal his top two targets of Robbie Keane and Gareth Barry.

“I know English football and it is an attractive option for players,” Riera said.

“If Espanyol do finally receive an offer I do not want to miss the opportunity to go to Liverpool. The option to join a super-club doesn’t come every day.

“I am a realistic person but this has given me something to look forward to.

“To reject the possibility of a move would be madness.”

Liverpool remain confident of sealing Keane’s signature, but are considering their response to complaints made by his club to the FA, before it is decided whether they will face a charge.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has reported both the Anfield club and Manchester United for what he calls “disgraceful” conduct during the current transfer sagas.

Rafa Benitez And Kenny Dalglish Give Support To AFC Liverpool

The new amateur football club AFC Liverpool has been backed by Liverpool FC managers past and present Rafael Benitez and Kenny Dalglish.

Kop favourite Dalglish sent a personal email to AFC Liverpool Chairman Alun Parry to support the venture, which is aimed at keeping those priced out of Premier League football within the Liverpool family.

The legend said: "I would just like to congratulate you and everyone involved with AFC Liverpool.

"It is a brilliant idea and I hope it is a success for you all.

"You can't always judge your success with results on the pitch. Your greatest success could be bringing a part of Liverpool FC to many people's lives. All the very best."

Current Liverpool manager Benitez gave AFC Liverpool his approval in an interview with LFC TV.

Commenting on the new non- league club for Liverpool fans, he said: "I'm pleased with the idea.

"I think that, with more people closer to our club, it's good.

"My message is just to wish them all the best, to score lots of goals and progress to another level. It will be fantastic for us."

Club founder and chairman Alun Parry said: "I am delighted that Kenny and Rafa are so supportive of AFC Liverpool. We really appreciate their backing and hope that their support encourages Liverpool fans to get behind both clubs.

"We are currently seeking shirt sponsorship, so having Kenny and Rafa on board will be a big help."

AFC Liverpool have already opened their trophy account by beating Nelson FC at the weekend in a game honouring the 50th anniversary of Joe Fagan's arrival as a coach at Anfield.

Their next game is away against leading non-league outfit Marine at the Arriva Stadium in Crosby tonight, followed by a visit to Formby FC on Saturday.

The new club will be playing all home games at Prescot Cables' Valerie Park ground, starting on August 9 with a league game against Darwen FC.

Reds To Land Striker

Liverpool are reported to be close to finalising the signing of Paris Saint Germain striker David Ngog.

Reports in France suggest Liverpool have agreed a fee in the region of £1.5million with PSG for the 19-year-old.

The youngster turned down a new deal at the Parc Des Princes and the club are now willing to let him move on.

Ngog, who is a cousin of former Newcastle defender Jean-Alain Boumsong, is believed to have impressed Liverpool scouts after making his PSG debut last season.

Liverpool are believed to have offered Ngog a four-year deal to move to Anfield and the highly-rated forward is expected to tie up his switch before the end of the week.