Friday, August 08, 2008

Benitez: I'm A Victim Of My Own Success

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez says he is a victim of his Champions League success in 2005.

According to the Spaniard, the unexpected 'Miracle of Istanbul', coupled with a penalty shoot-out defeat of West Ham in the FA Cup final the following year, raised expectations to an unattainable level.

Looking back on that defeat of AC Milan, Benitez told The Times: "In some ways made things more difficult because the expectations became so high. Then we won the European Super Cup and FA Cup the following season and so suddenly everyone was saying, 'OK, the next step will be the Premier League title.'

"But then, when you don't win it, people say, 'Oh, you can't go to that next step,' when, maybe, we were operating at the next level up, but because the other teams around us were progressing as well, it didn't seem that way.

"In some respects, we were maybe our own worst enemies, but, of course, I'd prefer to have that problem, to be talking as a Champions League winner. People are talking now about us not having won the league for 18 years, but it was 21 years since this club had last won the European Cup."

Winning the league title has become Liverpool's Holy Grail and Benitez suggested that the time-honoured expectation that this 'will be Liverpool's year' was precisely one of the reasons why the club has failed to mount a sustained bid under his management.

"The key is not to say that we can win the title because it's clear that it's the most difficult league in the world to win. Look at the final of the Champions League last season, it was between Chelsea and United, who are at the top of the table in England," he explained.

"It's clear that we are going in the right direction and progressing. We have got good young players coming through who will be important, while those with experience are settling down now so it could be a very good season for us.

"Everybody can see that the team and squad is improving every year and that now we are much better, but will that be enough to win the title? That's the big question because it depends on the other teams as well."

Delio Rossi Relishing Liverpool Test

Lazio coach Delio Rossi is preparing his squad for their friendly against Liverpool, but he insists that the Biancocelesti cannot use these types of matches to gauge if the team is ready to return to European competition.

Lazio and Liverpool will face off at Anfield today in what many expect will be a physical match-up. Lazio coach Delio Rossi feels the same way and expects that his side will face a difficult test against the Reds. He is particularly concerned about the advanced preparation of their opponents, who began their season two weeks earlier, as well as the fiery atmosphere their passionate fans will generate.

Rossi voiced his concerns to SkySports but at the same time, he is interested to see how his players will react to an environment almost completely different from what they are used to in Italy.

"I want to go there tomorrow to see the character of my players and see who has the kind of spirit to play in this stadium," explained the coach, who risked being sacked this summer due to Lazio's 12th place finish last season, which meant that the team missed out on even the UEFA Cup this season, after competing in the group stages of the Champions League last year.

Lazio have arranged a majority of their pre-season games against high profile international club sides during the off-season including Slavia Prague, Liverpool and PAOK and while these matches will provide good experience for Lazio to get back into Europe in the future, Rossi is sceptical.

"The problem is that friendlies cannot return you on the path to Europe. I think we must go back to what we have done in the past three years, qualifying for Europe through the front door, not through friendlies," he stated.

Lazio's pedigree has fallen in recent times due to their poor results last season in both Serie A and Europe but they are hoping for a fresh start and to have a campaign similar to the 2006/2007 term when they qualified for the Champions League.

Premier League Preview

Everyone has one: a mate who spends ages in front of the mirror before heading out on Friday evening, dousing himself in deodorant and preening like a wannabe Casanova despite the fact that it's obvious to all that he's not going to pull. He'll return home later that night, alone as always, and, ahem, get a grip of himself. His whole sorry routine is an unwitting tribute to Liverpool in the Premier League.

But this time it will be different! It really will!

Well, it might be.

Certainly Liverpool seem intent on playing more attractively than at any other time under Rafa Benítez. Anyone who doesn't expect Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane to strike up a joyously fruitful partnership is a begrudger or a fool. They are both highly intelligent and hard-working performers whose different skills should prove perfectly complementary.

Of course, if they are to sustain a challenge for the title beyond Christmas, Liverpool will have to develop the offensive diversity and unpredictability to turn last season's costly draws against smaller teams into victories. It would have been useful to keep Peter Crouch as an extra option, but the club's finances forbade that and instead the cameo role of lanky frontman who's not very good in the air will have to be entrusted to David Ngog, who does have abundant potential (and speed), even if PSG primarily used him last season as a substitute or a right-midfielder. Liverpool, then, will still find themselves resorting to the sort of improvisation that is beneath Chelsea and Manchester United.

But are they really forced to? Could Benítez really not make better use of the money available to him? The case of Gareth Barry suggests he could. Liverpool's pursuit of the wannabe former Villan is puzzling. Presumably the manager doesn't intend to buy him just so he can boast to United and Chelsea that he can afford £18m squad players (when he clearly can't); similarly it seems improbable that he envisages using him as a left-back (that'll be Andrea Dossena's role, surely). Which means Barry will be deployed in midfield alongside Javier Mascherano, with Steven Gerrard edging closer to the right in a 4-2-3-1. The thing is, that will aggravate Liverpool's biggest problem: they will have even less width.

Granted, the gifted Ryan Babel can be expected to progress even farther this season (once he returns from the Olympics) and carry a growing threat from the left – even though he seems more suited to a central role – but the right will be rendered even more inadequate. Jermaine Pennant and, in particular, Dirk Kuyt have hitherto offered a partially effective sort of nuisance value but, obviously, not enough to win the Premier League; neither is likely to start regularly if Barry comes (indeed, Pennant may be about be sold) but putting Keane there would be to restrict his interaction with Torres. Gerrard can be very effective out there but lacks the discipline or inclination to actually stay there.

The full-backs won't compensate. Alvaro Arbeloa is a tidy defender but he's no raider in the style of Bacary Sagna, Jose Bosingwa or even Wes Brown; Philippe Degen, as you might expect from a freebie, is not up to their class either, though he would offer more going forward than Arbeloa does, albeit at the cost of slack defending. On the left, Dossena is an improvement on John-Arne Riise but, again, inferior to Patrice Evra, Gaël Clichy and Ashley Cole.

In short, Barry's arrival, while introducing greater thrust and variety through the middle, would spell even more limitations out wide. It's not easy trying to overtake United and Chelsea when you have to sell to buy, but if Liverpool do manage to flog Xabi Alonso for the inflated fee they seek, or if the owners manage to piece together £18m despite the credit crunch and uncertainty over the club's new stadium, wouldn't Benítez be better off buying at least one top class wide man, particularly for the right? Instead of bringing in Barry, who, accomplished though he is, isn't really that much of an upgrade on Alonso anyway.

Defensively, at least, Liverpool will again be sound. As hinted above, suggestions that Barry's arrival would mean a switch to 3-5-2 are probably misguided, though that would at least have the merit of showcasing the club's three solid centre-backs. More likely, Benítez will deploy a back four safe in the knowledge that he can't go far wrong regardless of which two he picks from Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. Behind them, of course, is Pepe Reina, a quality keeper who has the concentration level required for the least busy custodian in the division: last season Liverpool restricted opponents to just 90 shots on target in the entire league campaign, the meanest rate in the country. They also allowed less crosses than any other team (go on, guess how many – and go out and get some fresh air if you knew it was 653). But this season must be all about attack for Liverpool.

If taking a respectable tilt at the title means squashing all the small fry, then actually winning it entails doing something else Liverpool failed to do last season (albeit because of obscene refereeing when Chelsea came to Anfield): namely, beat at least one of the big boys in the league.

They'll have a prime early opportunity to do just that in Game 4, when Manchester United will travel to Anfield without Cristiano Ronaldo (and possibly also Wayne Rooney). Victory for the visitors, even another fluky one, would intensify suspicions that this is going to be another fruitless domestic season for Liverpool.

IN: Philipp Degen (Borussia Dortmund - free), Andrea Dossena (Udinese - undisclosed), Vincent Lucas Weijl (AZ Alkmaar - undisclosed) Diego Cavalieri (Palmeiras - undisclosed), David Ngog (PSG - £1.4m), Robbie Keane (Tottenham – up to £20.3m)

OUT: Peter Crouch (Portsmouth - £11m), Harry Kewell (Galatasary - free), John Arne Riise (Roma - £4m), Anthony Le Tallec (Le Mans - free), Scott Carson (West Brom - £3.25m)

Exclusive Rafa Benitez Interview: This Is Best Liverpool Squad Ever

It is almost a cliche, but as the season approaches the question must once again be asked of Liverpool: is this finally their year?

Kop boss Rafa Benitez greets the inquiry with a grin. It is the same question he has fielded every year in what is now his fifth at Anfield.

He replied: "A big year for me, no? Another 'big year'!".

Yet he answers with a more relaxed air than in previous seasons.

That is because after four years of wheeling and dealing, he has a squad he believes is ready to challenge for the Prem crown.

The title has eluded Liverpool for two decades, and during that time they have barely made a challenge to the elite of Manchester United, Arsenal and latterly Chelsea.

For all his talk in previous seasons, Benitez knew that he did not have the personnel to make a sustained challenge. Now he feels he does.

And yet he is at pains to stop well short of any predictions about winning the Premier League.

He said: "I am confident about my squad, and I am happy that we have the best squad since I arrived at Anfield. But the key is not to say we will win the title, because the Premier League is now the best - and most difficult - in Europe.

"The standard has gone up so much since I arrived here.

"Back then, there were good players in the league, but Spain, Italy and Germany all signed some of the best players in the world.

"Now, everybody wants to come here, and that quality is amazing.

"Just look at the Champions League. Three of the last four were from England, and Arsenal played really well in the competition too.

"So you have to get past the three best teams in Europe to win the Premier League.

"That will not be easy, but it makes for an incredible league. We have improved and progressed every year since I arrived, but look at the history of the league.

"We got 82 points which was a record for Liverpool, and that has allowed us only to finish third. The standard has risen massively, and we have had to work to keep up."

Benitez was faced with a similar situation at Valencia, when he took on the financial might of Real Madrid and Barcelona and won, despite never matching them in the transfer market.

This challenge though, he argues, is even harder, because United, Chelsea and Arsenal are even better.

He said: "They are the best in Europe. They can spend £20million on players just for the bench. But my belief is unshakeable that we can compete with them.

"We are not the richest club, and we have had a lot of work to do, but I have kept my desire and my confidence that it is possible to win."

Despite European success, the Spanish coach is loathe raising expectations, but has lost none of his drive for the title.

Every season he has crept closer to the sort of squad he wants in a masterplan that has taken five years. But despite his caution, Rafa is happy and quietly confident.

"When I arrived maybe I didn't realise exactly how big a job it would be, but once inside you learn little by little the things about your club that nobody knows.

"It has been slower than we like because the others are so strong, but last season was the best squad we have had, and this year could be better.

"It has not been ideal, because we have had to bring in maybe seven or eight players a year, and that can't help you win things.

"The squad we had at the start did not have a very high value, and this squad is the equal in value of the other top teams. We have been spending big, but selling big, and the net is less than the other big clubs.

"They were spending to add to very strong squads already, where we have created a totally new squad.

"There are only three or four players now from when we arrived, but they are very, very good players, and we have a very, very good squad. Maybe our European success hasn't helped us, because it made people believe we were ready to challenge for the league when we were not.

"Now though, we are in the position we always wanted to be. You can say it's the starting point in a way, but we have the benefit of learning from the mistakes of recent seasons, and we are at another level now."

Benitez also wants to repay the faith of the supporters who stuck with him through his darkest hour last season, when it looked like he would be forced out of Anfield.

He said: "I always had confidence I would be here, because I went through a similar thing in Spain.

"The only thing you can do is work harder, and keep confidence in yourself.

"I had fantastic support from the staff, and I think we learned a lot from it.

"The fans were amazing too, and I feel a responsibility to them, because they give so much. It would be nice to give them something back."

Benitez laughs about his side that won the Champions League in this season. Biscan, Baros, Nunez, Josemi, Smicer, Hamann and Morientes were also regulars, but Alonso arrived.

Reina was key, along with Crouch, as a procession of players were bought and sold, heralding the brief Anfield careers of Kromkamp, Gonzalez, Paletta and Zenden.

More recognizable as Benitez's team, Mascherano was the key signing, along with Agger, to give more quality to the team that reached the Champions League final.

The record signing of Torres transformed Liverpool and suggested they could go further, but Babel, Lucas and Skrtel were also key signings.

Keane is already secured, and if Barry follows Liverpool will have a completely new look again. With Babel, Kuyt, Alonso, Degen in reserve, this may be Rafa's strongest squad yet.

Gareth Barry Transfer Hits New Snag As Liverpool Run Out Of Money

Gareth Barry's move to Liverpool is in fresh doubt as the club's owners have failed to put the money in place to complete the deal.

American tycoons George Gillett and Tom Hicks had confirmed they would underwrite the £18million transfer for the Aston Villa skipper, allowing manager Rafael Benitez to sign Barry by the end of this week without first selling players.

But the money has not arrived, prompting fresh speculation about their commitment to the club.

Benitez is still keen to do the deal because he wants Barry at Anfield in time for the start of the season, and will not give up hope of securing the money needed.

He is hoping Villa will agree a deal to take Steve Finnan in part-exchange for Barry, meaning he will need to raise around £6.5m from the sale of players.

Hamburg Not To Match Liverpool's Valuation Of Dirk Kuyt - Report

Bundesliga outfit Hamburg are reportedly unwilling to match £16m valuation of Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt.

With captain Steven Gerrard injured, the Reds, who have earlier failed in four separate bids for Aston Villa’s £18m-rated experienced centre-midfielder Gareth Barry, are looking keen to raise funds to make a successful move for the England international, but their effort to sell the Holland international, Kuyt has reportedly come to naught.

Hamburg boss Martin Jol is looking to fill in the void as Rafael van der Vaart joined Real Madrid, and according to the Telegraph, enquiries have been made about Kuyt, who has been preferred by Reds boss Rafa Benitez in wide roles.

Nevertheless, Benitez, who had earlier priced out Juventus in Xabi Alonso pursuit, has some more options up his sleeve as reports have suggested that any players including Yossi Benayoun and Jermaine Pennant, could be sold to raise the funds.

Gareth Barry Unhappy At Delay Over Liverpool Switch

Gareth Barry would consider pulling the plug on his prospective move to Liverpool from Aston Villa if the transfer is not resolved come the start of the Barclays Premier League season in eight days' time.

Barry is eager to join Liverpool, but the England midfield player is becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of time the deal is taking, after Villa paved the way for the move last weekend, and he is not willing to wait much longer.

Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager, has been waiting patiently for Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. to produce the cash promised to him last week, but that has yet to materialise amid rumours that the club's American owners have run into more financial difficulties, claims that were strenuously denied yesterday.

If the Americans do not stump up the money, Benítez's hopes of landing Barry will be dependent on him offloading Jermaine Pennant, the winger, and Andriy Voronin, the striker, given that he already has about £10 million in the coffers. However, Liverpool have yet to receive an offer for either player.

Benítez is insistent that Yossi Benayoun, the midfield player, and Dirk Kuyt, the striker, will not be sold.

Boro Eye Finnan As Young Joins Villa

Aston Villa have signed England right-back Luke Young from Middlesbrough, who reportedly want Liverpool's Steve Finnan as his replacement.

Young, 29, completed a medical on Thursday evening before becoming the second new full-back to arrive at Villa Park following the capture of Nicky Shorey from Reading earlier in the day.

"I'm really pleased to be here at Villa. It's happened quite quickly. One minute I was training up at Boro and the next I'm down here for a medical," he told Villa's official website.

"Obviously I'm glad to be here now, but it could have been a year earlier. There was interest last summer, but it didn't quite happen for whatever reason. I'm just glad to find myself here now.

"I think this is a great opportunity for me to try and win something. I think at the minute Villa are a notch above Boro, and there's a great opportunity for me to play European football as well."

Boro boss Gareth Southgate reportedly sees Finnan as the ideal replacement for Young, and Rafael Benitez is likely to be open to a transfer as he has Philipp Degen and Alvaro Arbeloa fighting for the right-back spot at Anfield.

Young has seven England caps but has not featured for the national team since a friendly against Argentina in November 2005.

He could make his first competitive appearance for the Villans in next week's UEFA Cup qualifier against FH Hafnarfjordur, and Young admits the promise of European football was a major element in his decision to leave the Riverside Stadium.

"The chance of European football was definitely an important factor in my decision. You always want to test yourself at the highest level," he added.

"I had a brief stint playing European football at Tottenham. But that was almost 10 years ago, and it will be great to get another chance this season.

"It's definitely a case that Villa's ambitions match my own. I've worked hard over the last 10 years to perhaps get this chance to show what I can do on a little bit of a higher stage."

Young spent just a season at Boro after his cut-price £2.5million move from Charlton, following the Addicks' relegation.

He will finally provide Villa with a first-choice right-back after the departure of last year's incumbent Olof Mellberg, who has since left the club for Juventus.

O'Neill added: "The right-back position caused a few problems for us last season, in terms of us not having a natural right-back.

"Luke is a natural right-back and played for England not so long ago. He did very well for Boro last season, and this is a great opportunity for him."

Young is Villa's fifth summer signing after Shorey, Steve Sidwell and goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan.

Kuyt and Benayoun stay - Benitez

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez insists that Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun will not leave the club this summer.

Dutch forward Kuyt, 28, is a target for German club Hamburg while Benitez admits Roma are interested in midfielder Benayoun, also 28.

But Benitez, after meeting with both players on Thursday, said: "Neither of them will be leaving.

"I have no more news about Yossi - he will be staying. [And] I am really pleased with Kuyt. He will be staying."

It had been suggested that the Anfield boss would let both go in order to finance a deal for Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry.

Liverpool have had a number of bids rejected for the England international, the latest of which was believed to be just short of Villa's £18m valuation.

But Benitez has made it clear he still considers Kuyt and Benayoun part of his plans.

"I have talked to Yossi and told him I want to keep him. He is a player with quality and has shown that during pre-season," he said.

"I also talked with Dirk Kuyt this morning. I am really pleased with him."

Liverpool signed Dutch international Kuyt from Feyenoord in August 2006 in a £10m deal while Israel's national captain Benayoun joined from West Ham in July 2007 for £5m.

At present Benitez seems no nearer to concluding a deal to bring Barry to Anfield, though Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill gave the green light to the deal - if the terms are right for Villa - at the weekend.

Fenerbahce Release Statement On Liverpool's Alonso

Turkish club Fenerbahce have issued a statement on reports linking Spanish International Xabi Alonso with a move to the Sari Kanaryalar from Liverpool.

26-year-old Alonso had been linked with a move to Juventus all summer, but La Vecchia Signora’s valuation of the EURO 2008 winner did not meet that of the Merseyside club. With Juve opting to sign Christian Poulsen from La Liga side Sevilla instead.

Alonso was then linked with a move to Fenerbahce, who are now coached by former Spain boss Luis Aragones, but the Turkish club have now moved to dismiss the reports as press speculation.

The statement said: “For a while now, there are reports in the press saying our club is after Xabi Alonso and that even a deal has been reached upon his transfer.

“Today, a lot of newspapers published news that we were negotiating with Liverpool and that we had a tactical strategy of bargaining. “

“These reports are not true. Our club has no intention on transferring Xabi Alonso.”

This would seem to end any link with Alonso, with Anfield boss Rafa Benitez deciding on if he will keep Alonso at the Reds in light of the recent injury to captain Steven Gerrard.