Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Spanish Conquest

Gareth Barry may not have been in Oslo last night, but there was no getting away from him.

If it wasn’t an injury scare to Steven Gerrard which suggested a move for the Aston Villa man might need to be completed sooner rather than later, it was the imperious form of Xabi Alonso which begged the question of why Liverpool remain ready to spend around £18m on a central midfielder.

Should Tom Hicks and George Gillett get their act together and finally give their approval to the proposed deal, Barry could be a Liverpool player before the week is out.

What that would mean for Alonso is unclear, with a likely need to balance the books putting his Anfield future in doubt, but at least the stylish midfielder is making it hard for his manager to allow him to depart by showing Rafa Benitez exactly what he would be missing if he decided to let him go.

The debate about whether Barry is a better player than Alonso or would better complement the current Liverpool side is likely to go on for some time and, if letters pages and internet message boards are anything to go by, the fans are yet to be convinced that he is.

But what cannot be doubted is Alonso’s enduring professionalism and willingness to give his all for the team even when his own future at the club is shrouded in such severe doubt.

Against Valerenga, he swept the ball about with consummate ease, protected his back four and popped up on the edge of the box to score with the kind of precise finish only players with studious technique can even contemplate.

If there is a criticism of Alonso, it is that he hasn’t done this more often, particularly when he can hit the ball at least as sweetly as any other member of the current Liverpool squad.

It could be argued that the fact that his Anfield status is threatened has actually brought out the best in him because against Rangers at the weekend and the Norwegian outfit last night he adopted a shoot on sight policy which has brought him two goals and could easily have brought him even more.

Had it not been for a sloppy goal conceded just after half time when Liverpool’s defence totally lost its shape, the symmetry with Saturday’s game at Ibrox would have been complete.

As against the Scots, Liverpool scored once in the first half and three times in the second. Even the identity of the goalscorers was identical, with Alonso being joined on the score sheet by Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and David Ngog.

A similar gulf in class was evident also with the Reds having far too much for their willing, but limited, opponents in front of a crowd which could not have been more partisan in favour of Benitez’s side had it been played at Anfield.

The backing of the Norwegian fans is nothing short of a phenomenon, you only have to witness the huge numbers wearing newly-acquired Liverpool shirts on the streets of Oslo to realise that.

But they also have a commitment to the club which easily exceeds the stereotype of so many out of town supporters – they even sing Scouser Tommy in an almost Scouse accent.

Their vocal and vociferous backing meant Liverpool were not going to do anything other than put on a show and at times their football was excellent, underpinned by an eagerness to attack at every opportunity and a fluidity of movement which has allowed the team to express itself more and more as pre-season has worn on.

There is still no genuine width and the idea of having Robbie Keane stationed on the left wing is one which will take some getting used to, but, in the absence of players who get chalk on their boots, Liverpool are still managing to use the central areas of the pitch to good effect.

Such an approach relies on imaginative movement of course and Torres in particular is adept at finding space and creating it for others to often devastating effect.

But if there is one weakness which the current pre-season programme has thrown up it is that Liverpool still do not possess a player who is likely to get to the byline and get crosses in.

Modern football lacks such players, and Benitez would dearly love to have one at his disposal if he could find, and afford, one.

In the absence of a top-class winger, Andrea Dossena is being asked to get forward from left back at every opportunity and after a difficult start to his time in a red shirt the Italian is now settling in well and is undoubtedly a threat when he joins the attack.

Yossi Benayoun is certainly enjoying working with an overlapping full back as his second half strike illustrated as he moved inside from his station wide left and produced a jinking run and finish which brought the Ullevaal Stadium to its feet.

That goal was sandwiched between a brilliant strike by Torres and a calm and assured finish by French teenager Ngog, who has certainly impressed in his last two outings.

Besides the poor goal they conceded, the only other worry for Liverpool was their continued inability to deal with set pieces played into their own box.

Having plagued them for much of last season, this recurring problem is still to be eradicated and at times last night Valerenga caused chaos just by floating a high ball to the back stick.

If a side as limited as Valerenga is having this effect then you can bet your life that the Premiership big guns will be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of Liverpool’s Achilles heel still being on show when the Premiership season kicks off in less than two weeks time.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives at present and Liverpool’s commitment to attacking football looks greater now than it has at any stage in Benitez’s tenure.

He now wants Gareth Barry to add to what he’s already got and it is now down to Messrs Hicks and Gillett to decide if they are willing to back their manager’s judgement.

VALERENGA: Perkins, Storbaek, Reid, Muri, Jepsen, Berre, Haestad, Strand, Zajic, Holm, Shelton.

LIVERPOOL: Cavalieri (Reina, 46), Arbeloa (Darby, 67), Carragher (Hyypia, 46), Agger, Dossena (Insua, 67), Kuyt (El Zhar, 75), Gerrard (Spearing, 27), Alonso (Plessis, 53), Benayoun (Pacheco, 67), Keane (Ngog, 67), Torres (Nemeth, 67).

REFEREE: Tom Henning Ovrebo.


Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez's Delight At New Boy David Ngog's Big Impact

Rafa Benitez today hailed the instant impact made by David Ngog and backed the French youngster to get even better when he gets used to the Liverpool way of playing.

Ngog, a £1.5m summer signing from Paris Saint Germain, scored his second goal in three pre-season friendly matches in last night’s comfortable 4-1 win over Valerenga in Oslo.

The 19-year-old added to his first goal in a red shirt against Rangers at the weekend with a cool finish to score Liverpool’s fourth of the night against the Norwegians.

And his manager couldn’t hide his delight with the way Ngog is settling into the Reds’ first team squad.

“David is a young player but we knew when we signed him that he had a lot of ability and a lot of potential,” said Benitez.

“It can sometimes be difficult for young players when they move to a new club, but he has done well and it will be good for his confidence that he has already scored two goals.

“It is now important that he keeps on working hard and trying to get better because he still needs to improve. I think that he will do that.

“His goals are positive but equally important is his movement because this shows that he has game intelligence which was one of the main reasons why we brought him to Liverpool.”

Reina Wary Of Cavalieri Presence

Pepe Reina believes the promising early performances of recent signing and new rival for to be the number one glovesman, Diego Cavalieri, will provide stiffer competition that can only benefit the team.

Sao Paulo-born and Palmieiras educated, Cavelieri, 25, targetted a first team place on his arrival from Brazil. He hasn't arrived at Anfield to simply make up the numbers and collect his cheques, and his recent performances in pre-season have alerted last term's number one, Pepe Reina, to his presence.

Reina told Liverpool's official website: "Diego is a good keeper. Technically, he is almost perfect, and he is quite complete. It is important for him to come in and do well and because if he does that it can only be good for the squad."

"It is always positive to have competition for places and it is no different for me. Hopefully, Diego will continue to play well and that will make me play well also because that will be good for the team."

On the direction that Liverpool want to take this season, he said: "It's all about improving little by little and hopefully I will get some more time on the pitch in our next game. Results now are not significant but the way we play is."

"We are looking to get better in every game and the way we pressed and counter-attacked against Rangers showed we are going in the right direction, but we know there are things we will still need to improve."

Reds Ease To Victory

Liverpool's increasingly impressive unbeaten pre-season run was stretched to seven games against Valerenga in Oslo - but they suffered the worrying loss of skipper Steven Gerrard.

The midfielder limped off in the first half of this comfortable 4-1 victory with what looked like a recurrence of a groin problem that has dogged him in recent weeks.

Liverpool will hope they took Gerrard out of the action before any further serious damage could be done, but with a Champions League qualifier in a week's time against Standard Liege, this is a problem boss Rafael Benitez could do without.

Benitez also saw players he may have to sell soon - Xabi Alonso and Yossi Benayoun - score outstanding goals.

Walsall warmed up for their opening game of the new League One campaign with an impressive 2-0 victory over West Brom.

The Premier League side selected a mainly youthful team and were undone by their local rivals after goals in either half from Anthony Gerrard and Troy Deeney.

Wigan's new signing Amr Zaki scored the winning goal for the second game in a row as the Latics beat Hibernian 1-0 at Easter Road.

The Egyptian netted on his debut against Sheffield Wednesday and repeated the feat after 69 minutes with a neat outside-of-the-foot finish from Antonio Valencia's cross.

Dave Kitson grabbed his first goal for Stoke in the Potters' 3-2 victory over Southampton at St Mary's.

On-loan Chelsea striker Ben Sahar scored two first-half goals as Portsmouth beat Havant & Waterlooville 4-0.

Adam Johnson scored twice as a youthful Middlesbrough side defeated League Two promotion hopefuls Darlington 5-0.

Inter Milan left Bayern Munich coach Jurgen Klinsmann lots to ponder after winning the Franz Beckenbauer Trophy with a 1-0 win at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday evening.

A goal from Mancini in the 52nd minute was enough to decide the game for Jose Mourinho's side.

Andrea Orlandi scored the only goal as Championship new boys Swansea defeated Dutch Eredivisie side ADO Den Haag 1-0.

Orlandi seized on Leon Britton's pass after 37 minutes, before unleashing a drive into the bottom corner.

Denes Rosa and Daniel Jones scored cracking first-half goals to give Wolves a 2-0 victory at Stafford, who are managed by former Molineux hero Steve Bull.

Lewis Young grabbed a 1-1 draw for a young Watford XI against St Albans City, who opened the scoring through Simon Martin.

Goals from Michael Paton (17) and Sammy Stewart (79) earned Aberdeen a 2-0 away victory against Inverurie Loco Works.

Roma Step Up Benayoun Chase

Roma coach Luciano Spalletti has reiterated his desire to sign Liverpool’s Yossi Benayoun, despite the Israeli pledging his future to the club earlier this week.

Speculation surrounding Benayoun’s future has been rife for most of the summer with Roma, Manchester City and former club West Ham all rumoured to be interested in the midfielder.

Benayoun reportedly told the press earlier this week that he wanted to stay at Anfield, despite the speculation, and he was in the starting line up for this evening’s 4-1 win over Valerenga, scoring a great third goal for his side.

However, speaking to the Gazzetta dello Sport Roma coach Luciano Spalletti has insisted that his club will be bringing in two new players, and that Benayoun will be one of them

“There will be two new signings,” he said before adding, “The names? They're the names you've heard. Menez and Benayoun are both top class players.”

Despite Benayoun’s earlier insistence that he wants to stay at Anfield, Liverpool’s financial situation has been well-documented and it may be the case that he could be sacrificed in order to fund further transfers.

Benayoun joined Liverpool from West Ham in a deal thought to be worth £5 million. He managed 15 league starts for the club last season and scored 4 league goals as Liverpool finished the season in fourth place.

Rafa Praises Reds Scouts

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has hailed his scouting staff after new signing David N'Gog found the net again in Norway last night.

N'Gog opened his Liverpool account with an impressive solo effort against Rangers recently - one among four unanswered goals the Reds scored at Ibrox.

The score-sheet looked eerily similar after the Merseyside giants' clash with Valerenga, as the French striker - along with Xabi Alonso, Yossi Benayoun and Fernando Torres - netted again with a composed finish late in the game.

The 19-year-old has made a positive impact since his move from Paris Saint-Germain and could feature more than expected this season, especially if Torres should suffer any prolonged absence.

And Benitez praised his scouts, led by Eduardo Macia, for singling out N'Gog - not to mention the likes of Lucas Leiva, Emiliano Insua, Damien Plessis and Krisztian Nemeth.

The Liverpool manager said: "They are finding players like N'Gog, players with quality who are not a high price."

Steven Gerrard In Race To Be Fit For Euro Tie

Liverpool are sweating on the fitness of captain Steven Gerrard for their Champions League qualifier in Belgium next week as their skipper faces a race against time to be fit against Standard Liege.

Gerrard’s injury was the only low spot of an otherwise successful evening for Rafael Benitez’s side last night as they cruised to a 4-1 friendly victory over Norwegian club Valerenga in Oslo .

It was the second time in four days that Liverpool netted four goals in a game and the scorers were the same quartet that netted in the 4-0 demolition of Rangers on Saturday.

Xabi Alonso opened the scoring in the first half and despite the hosts equalising through Serb Bojan Zajic just after the break, second-half strikes from Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and David Ngog sealed a comfortable win in front of a large contingent of Norwegian-based Liverpool supporters.

Gerrard was withdrawn 27 minutes into the game and Benitez, who is already without Olympic-bound midfielders Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva for the tie against the Belgian champions, admitted that he faces an agonising wait.

He said: “It is a thigh strain. We need to wait but it could be one week.”

Benitez recalled Alonso in midfield and although he is also expected to bring back Pepe Reina in goal in time for the Liege game, his first choice side is gradually being reassembled with the help of some impressive-looking youngsters along the way.

He said: “It is close to the team for next week. We have some players at the Olympic Games, so we used some young players and they showed quality.

“But maybe we will see the majority of the players we used in the first half.

“It was another good work-out. It was a good game, with four goals for us and good play. But the players aren’t 100% yet – that would be difficult right now. The other team were fitter than us but you could see we were passing, pressing and the understanding between the players was better. I am really pleased with the result. Normally when you have quality, when you are playing well and creating chances, you will score goals.”

Liverpool were cheered on by an enormous contingent of Norwegian-based supporters at the game and Benitez was shocked by how large the club’s Scandinavian fan base really is. He said: “It was amazing and it was a surprise for us to see so many people in a red shirt. The support for the team here is really good.”

One player absent last night who should be fit for the trip to Belgium is Martin Skrtel.

The Slovakian defender picked up a groin strain in Saturday’s win over Rangers and although he will not be risked for Friday’s friendly against Italian club Lazio at Anfield, he is expected to be given the all clear the Standard Liege game.

Meanwhile, Liverpool midfielder Sebastian Leto has agreed a two-year loan deal with Olympiakos after being denied a work permit to play in England next season.

The 21-year-old Argentinian, who arrived at Anfield from Lanus last summer as granted an Italian passport but it was later revoked.

Leto arrived in Athens late on Monday night to complete a medical and put pen to paper on a two-season deal with the Greek champions. He said: “Olympiakos is a challenge for me. I know I will be here for two years.

“I’ve had two weeks of pre-season training with Liverpool and I believe I will be ready to do whatever I have to. Olympiakos are a great team who challenge for every honour in Greece and in the Champions League. The team has some good players, a well known coach and fanatical supporters which always inspires them.”

Playmaker Xabi Alonso Nails His Colours To The Mast

A FIRST half injury to Steven Gerrard means that Liverpool’s captain has to be a doubt for the Champions League qualifier against Standard Liege a week from now but if Rafael Benitez is looking for leaders in midfield he need look no further than a galvanised Xabi Alonso.

A dip in form last season, the disagreement with his manager when he attended the birth of his first child when the team were playing at Internazionale and losing his place in the first XI all pointed to Alonso heading for the Anfield exit door this summer.

Liverpool’s very public pursuit of Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry seemed to be hastening the Spanish international’s departure, particularly as it was suggested that they would need to sell him to fund a deal for the England midfielder.

But despite interest from the likes of Juventus and even Arsenal – who tested Liverpool’s resolve with a cheeky enquiry way below the player’s valuation, nobody has yet come in with a satisfactory offer for the former Real Sociedad man.

So seven days before the start of Liverpool’s competitive season with Barry still at Villa Park having missed the registration deadline for Champions League qualifiers and Gerrard possibly on the sidelines, Alonso is standing up to be counted.

Rather than waiting for an offer to come in like a man resigned to his fate, Alonso has metaphorically rolled up his sleeves to try and convince Benitez around to the thinking of so many Liverpool fans that he still justifies his place in a red jersey.

Although Valerenga were technically the home side last night, there didn’t seem to be much home advantage for them at an Ullevaal Stadion which seemed to have more red-shirted spectators than those sporting the hosts’ blue and white colours.

Many of Liverpool’s enormous Norwegian fanbase were making their presence felt at the stadium and those travelling among the visiting contingent from closer to home were vastly outnumbered by their Nordic counterparts.

Followers of football in these parts have long had a soft spot for English club football where many of their leading players go to play.

But Liverpool’s Scandinavian support existed many years before John Arne Riise’s arrival at Anfield and given this showing will no doubt continue for long after his departure from the club.

It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and with their replica kits and scarves, your typical Norwegian Liverpool fan looks as much the part as the average Kopite.

Yet for all their enthusiasm, they still lack a certain degree of sportsmanship that Anfield regulars have been educated with as their booing of the home side’s players before the kick-off suggested.

However, such lessons could undoubtedly be learned with frequent trips to their heroes’ ground and given the sky high cost of living in Norway and the generous wages that go hand in hand, it comes as little surprise that so many of their fans embark on a modern day Norse invasion across the North Sea to English stadia each weekend – given the rising price of Premier League tickets and credit crunch back home, they could soon be the only supporters who can afford to get in.

Those present in Oslo last night saw a Liverpool starting line-up showing just one change to the side that began Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Rangers at Ibrox.

As manager Rafael Benitez looks to draft in more of his regulars ahead of the competitive season, Alonso, a second-half scorer from the penalty spot against the UEFA Cup finalists, replaced youngster Damian Plessis in central midfield.

Showing a determination to fight for his Anfield future with no suitors yet to meet the £16million price tag placed on his head, the Spanish playmaker who Benitez insists he wants to keep, has spent the summer with the spectre of Barry looming over him.

An ability to place shots, even from the longest of range, has always been a major weapon in Alonso’s armoury but with a need to impress it seems that he is now becoming more single-minded than ever when attempting to find the net from distance.

But the policy could well prove to be beneficial for both the player and his club and after a couple of off-target efforts as he found his range, Alonso opened the scoring in Oslo in spectacular fashion 19 minutes into the contest.

A neat exchange of passing from the right hand side involving Alvaro Arbeloa, Dirk Kuyt and Robbie Keane culminated with the Irishman back-heeling the ball into Alonso’s path and he curled the ball around Valerenga’s American goalkeeper Troy Perkins with perfect precision from 25 yards out.

Eight minutes later, Liverpool skipper Gerrard gingerly made his way to the sidelines to be replaced by youngster Jay Spearing but the visitors continued to have the upper hand and almost doubled their lead in bizarre circumstances just before the interval when home defender Adrian Reid headed against his own right-hand post from a Yossi Benayoun left wing cross.

Valerenga, who currently lie seventh in the 14-team Tippeligaen – Norway’s top division – rarely threatened the Liverpool goal all night but they levelled proceedings just three minutes into the second half when Pepe Reina, who had replaced Diego Cavalieri at the break, was beaten from the edge of the area by a shot by Serbian left winger Bojan Zajic who was played in by Jamaican Luton Shelton’s lay-off.

The home side’s joy was short-lived though as Liverpool re-took the lead less than two minutes later while the PA system was still announcing the equaliser.

Fernando Torres shrugged off the attentions of Reid in the box to slip a low effort past substitute keeper Oyvind Bolthof, who had replaced Perkins at the interval.

From then on Liverpool took control but one player who didn’t enjoy the most successful of evenings by his own high standards was Keane.

The £20million striker, obviously so eager to break his scoring duck for his new club, seemed almost twitchy when in front of goal but his nerves will undoubtedly ease when he does get off the mark.

A moment of Benayoun magic brought Liverpool’s third goal on 61 minutes when Torres threaded the ball through to the Israeli, who dribbled wide to the left-hand side of the area before dispatching a glorious left-foot effort into the top corner.

A series of mass substitutions midway through the second half didn’t stop the visitors’ progress though and as he had done in Scotland just three days earlier, the precocious 19-year-old David Ngog produced a sparkling cameo off the bench.

With six minutes remaining, the French youngster was played through by fellow teenager Danny Pacheco and coolly struck a low effort beyond Bolthof’s reach.

It was an excellent finish to Liverpool’s pre-season travels on the continent this season and on this form there should be few worries for Benitez when his troops begin their competitive European campaign in just a week – whether their skipper makes the game in Belgium or not.