Friday, August 29, 2008

Gerrard Has To Put His Club Before Country, Capello

Club versus country is a perennial struggle. I used to play for England, suffer an injury and the letters from Liverpool fans would question me for putting my country first.

It seemed harsh at the time, especially when I was nursing a broken ankle, but they had a point: I was being paid by Liverpool and missing matches through injuries collected in an England shirt. I estimate that I missed hundreds of Liverpool games. Their harsh words told me what I already knew - Liverpool was my day job.

Your club always has to come first. Not just because of the growth in prestige of the Champions League and the Barclays Premier League in the modern game, but because they are your paymasters. Club first, country second. It's how it has to be.

Liverpool's coaching staff would not have thought for one moment about England's World Cup issues in deciding on an operation for Steven Gerrard. A difficult away game in Zagreb is nothing more than a necessary distraction to them.

There is nothing wrong with them choosing the timing and sending Gerrard for his operation, if that is the advice of their medical staff. It's a loss to England but no club would act any differently.

He will be upset at missing the two World Cup qualifiers, but particularly that match away to Croatia. The England players will feel they have unfinished business against Slaven Bilic's team after the haunting experiences of the last meeting between the nations. You want a player like Gerrard in the trenches for a tricky game like that. England will do well to earn a draw there.

The best players want to play in the big games. This isn't about a player choosing the draw of the Champions League ahead of England duty. What more could he have done?

Gerrard wasn't himself against Standard Liege and nor was he a driving force for England against the Czech Republic, though starting him on the left side didn't exactly help.

So I can understand the need for him to have an operation. Go under the knife, get it right and come back on top of his game for the rest of the season and the qualifying campaign. It's better that he returns to full health, rather than playing on through the injury without being able to fully let himself go.

His absence is a loss for England but it makes the selection simple. If Fabio Capello wants to play with four in midfield, Joe Cole will come in on the left and he's played there before. He's also started the season well and will thrive on the responsibility of taking that position against Croatia.

It will leave Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the centre. Capello may choose to add Owen Hargreaves, too, if he is fit to play and England want to play with the 'belt-and-braces' tactic of two holding midfielders throwing a screen across the back four.

The other thing to remember is that England have more than enough quality players to emerge unscathed. Let's not start looking for excuses already.

Mascherao Set For Villa Return

Olympic gold medallist Javier Mascherano will almost certainly be plunged into Liverpool's tough away Barclays Premier League game at Aston Villa on Sunday.

The match has added spice after the summer of disagreement between Villa boss Martin O'Neill and Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez over the drawn-out saga of Gareth Barry's on-off move to Anfield.

And their confrontation will be the highlight of the afternoon at Villa Park under the eagle-eye of the TV cameras.

Benitez will go into the match without skipper Steven Gerrard, who has had an operation on a groin problem that will rule him out for a fortnight.

Therefore the game will miss out on a clash between Gerrard and Barry, with many thinking that by now the pair would be side by side in Liverpool's midfield.

The Villa man has been the subject of a summer-long transfer wrangle, only ended this week when the player opted to stay with Villa this season - although he was not prepared to discuss a new contract until the end of the campaign.

Mascherano's return from the Olympics, where he helped Argentina retain their crown, gives Benitez the obvious option to replace Gerrard in midfield.

Benitez said: "Mascherano is training well, Lucas likewise, so both of them will come into contention for the Aston Villa game. And we also have the young player, Damien Plessis.

"We have plenty of options now in the middle, but I have no problem considering Mascherano for the match after his trip to Beijing.

"Maybe having won a second gold medal he will be inspired to perform well for us.

"He has kept in contact with me during the Olympics and has been keen to know everything that has been going on at the club. Now he is back he is a welcomed addition to our playing strength."

Benitez will also expect another all-action display from Dirk Kuyt, who grabbed the late goal on Wednesday that made sure Liverpool reached the Champions League group stage.

Benitez said: "You must give credit to Dirk Kuyt. Sometimes he makes a mistake and people react, but he never lets it worry him.

"He goes again, he gives everything and he did just that for 120 minutes to make sure we qualified for the group stages.

"The key is that he never hides. He played on the right, on the left and then as a second striker with (Fernando) Torres.

"What he gives to the team is really important. You must judge over a full season - sometimes in one game it may not always be perfect.

"People call for more pace and special ability. But over a whole season he is always available, always ready and he is a fantastic professional."

Anfield Saviour Savours New Role

IT’S no wonder Dirk Kuyt isn’t making any demands to be restored to his favoured centre-forward role – as he’s become a Liverpool goal hero playing out of position.

The Dutchman proved to be their Champions League saviour once more on Wednesday when his extra-time goal ensured progression to the group stages at the expense of the battling Belgians from Liege.

Kuyt popped up in the penalty area for a classic poacher’s strike – even though he again spent the game playing wide on the right.

And although it might not be his natural position, it hasn’t affected his ability to find the net on the European stage.

He scored eight times in 12 Champions League games last season and his goal against Standard was the fourth consecutive two-legged tie in which he has netted for Liverpool.

For someone who hasn’t hit the target in a Premier League game since last November, the statistics are rather puzzling – but it’s not something Kuyt will waste his time worrying about.

“I was pleased to score again in Europe and I have a good record in the competition. But the fact that we won was the main thing,” he said.

“I’ve played on right for the last 10, 15 games for the team. I try to work really hard, also in defence, and do a lot of important things for the team as well as scoring goals. So I don’t mind playing on the right.

“I will play wherever the boss wants me to play. For me the most important thing is to win some trophies and I think we have a good enough squad to do something this year.”

Since a worryingly below-par performance yielded a goalless draw in the first leg in Liege, Liverpool have won three consecutive games.

But the displays have hardy got much better and Kuyt’s intervention on Wednesday was the fourth goal in three matches Liverpool have scored in the final 10 minutes to snatch those victories.

But far from being disheartened that they have had to do it the hard way, those inside Anfield are putting a more positive spin on things.

The results are gelling together even though the players aren’t, and at the moment that is the most important statistic.

Kuyt explains: “We know we’re not playing really well, but we’re good in defence and we always have the quality and belief that we can score in every game.

“And that’s the important thing. We can play better and things will come right.

“That’s the thing about the team. Speaking for myself, I didn’t give my best performance for Liverpool. But that’s not important.

“What is important is that we won the game and I did everything to make that happen. One chance can change everything and I was really happy to score.

“Sometimes things like this happen in football. I just said before you can’t find any bad sides in Europe and Standard Liege are a very tough side. They were really strong. In the end, we were really happy that it didn’t go to penalties.

“But this is the fun thing about football. We know how good the Champions League can be and we always want to be part of it, fighting until the end.

“The fans were great for us and they helped us keep going right to the end.”

But they were also deeply frustrated and although they were grateful for Kuyt’s late volley, they were also bemoaning the lack of natural width from both sides.

The left is likely to be the first flank where that problem is addressed with the capture of Albert Riera, while time is running out to find an adequate outlet for Kuyt’s side.

But he is not concerned that his manager Rafael Benitez is in the market for someone to challenge for the slot he has unexpectedly made his own since the back end of last season.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen about players coming in,” said Kuyt.

“We’ve got a good squad and every good player is welcome in our team. I want to win things and you can only win things with the best players.”

Before Kuyt struck, there was an inevitability starting to swell around Anfield that penalties could be imminent.

Which might not necessarily have been a problem in terms of Liverpool’s progress given that they have a goalkeeper who has such an impressive shoot-out record since arriving in England.

Pepe Reina’s saves have already got LIverpool to a Champions League final and won them an FA Cup and the importance of his early block from Brazilian full-back Dante in the first leg against Liege was underlined heavily on Wednesday.

But the Spaniard said: “We were a bit tired in extra time and we thought it might go to penalties – but thankfully it didn’t, Dirk scored and we are through.

“They were a good team over both legs. It was really tough. It was not the best game, but we are through. Dirk scored at the end for us, which was great. I don’t know how many goals he has scored now in Europe, but it is his competition.

“We are not playing our best and we need to do better. We are at the early part of the season and in a few months we will be at the top of our fitness. Every team is like this.

“But, yes, it would probably have been a disaster if we had missed out.”

Luck Will Run Out If We Don’t Improve – Dirk Kuyt

DIRK KUYT has warned that Liverpool’s luck will run out if they continue to under-perform – resulting in an early Champions League exit.

Yesterday’s draw for the group stages paired Fernando Torres with his former club, Atletico Madrid, who finished fourth in La Liga last season.

Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven are also in Group D as well as Marseille, who shocked Liverpool 1-0 in the group stages at Anfield last season.

In fact, it was only a victory in France in the final group game that saw Liverpool through to the knockout stages.

And Kuyt fears a similar struggle this time after it took his late extra-time goal to break the deadlock against Standard Liege in the third qualifying round this week, following another underwhelming Liverpool display.

“One day your luck will run out and then we will have to perform really well to win,” said Kuyt.

“Of course if we play like that in the group stages we will be in danger of not progressing.

“We all know what happened last year in the group stages and we just want to improve as quickly as possible.

“We know it was not the quality we want to show. Off the pitch we are speaking with each other about this because we want to improve.

“We are going to improve, but it has to be quickly because one time our luck will run out.”

The game with Atletico will also see a reunion for Luis Garcia with his former club, as he moved to Madrid shortly after Torres made the switch in the other direction in the summer of 2007.

Ex-Liverpool forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle is also in their squad as well as established internationals Maniche, Diego Forlan, captain Maxi Rodriguez, Tomas Ujfalusi and Simao.

Atletico haven’t played in the Champions League since they reached the quarter-finals in 1997 but showed their pedigree with a 4-0 win over Schalke 04 on Wednesday

to secure their place in the group stages with a 4-1 aggregate victory.

The group as whole should hold little fear, however. Liverpool brushed aside PSV in both the groups and the last 16 on their way to the 2007 final and Marseille were easily beaten 4-0 on their own turf once Liverpool had regained their foothold in the group.

But with Standard occasionally threatening to pull off another Anfield surprise on Wednesday, Kuyt is only too aware that Liverpool need to up their game once again.

However, he feels the character and belief they showed to ensure their progress can act as a platform for improvement – which is much-needed with a trip to Aston Villa in the Premier League looming on Sunday

“It was a very difficult match for us, but we showed belief in ourselves and kept working hard,” said Kuyt. “We got our goal and we’re in the Champions League.

“We all want to play really well as a team. We haven’t given our best performance so far, but we are working very hard in training every day to progress.

“We know we have to progress. Maybe we have had a lot of luck so far, but we know we are going to improve, but to do that we have to change things and quickly.

“We know that we have to get much better and we will. We know we have the quality. I think the good thing is that even when we are not playing well, we fight for each other.

“We just want to improve as quickly as possible, starting with Aston Villa on Sunday.”

Arbeloa Acknowledges Stiff Competition

Alvaro Arbeloa is refusing to get cozy in Liverpool's starting XI, as he is well aware of the competition he will face from his team-mates throughout the season.

Arbeloa has started all four of the Reds' competitive fixtures so far this season, leading some to declare that he has won the title of first-choice right-back.

But the Spaniard dismissed the notion that he has cemented his place in the team, saying in LFC Magazine: "No way. You can never say that you are a first choice at this football club.

"If you start to think like that then you can just about guarantee that you are about to lose your place.

"It's a big fight to get into the team – it's a bigger fight to stay there. I need to play to the best of my ability in every minute of every game I start to stand a chance."

Nonetheless, it seems clear that Rafael Benitez prefers his compatriot over the ageing Steve Finnan, who for so long owned that slot on the right-hand side of Liverpool's rearguard.

The other key challenger is Philipp Degen, the Swiss international who arrived at Anfield on a free transfer earlier in the summer, but his opportunities have been non-existent thus far due to injury.

But Arbeloa was full of praise for both Degen and Finnan, insisting each will prove tough competition as the campaign wears on.

"I don't know too much about Philipp Degen but what I have seen of him since he came to Liverpool you can see why the manager signed him. He is good going forward," the EURO 2008 winner continued.

"You also have Steve Finnan still at the club and any time he plays he plays well. He is very consistent and no-one ever seems to get the better of him.

"Degen has been injured but he has come here to compete and he will want to play. When he is fit then I know that I will have a bigger battle on my hands than ever before."

Thompson Satisfied With Reds' CL Draw

Phil Thompson believes Liverpool will have few problems negotiating their way to the Champions League knockout stages despite drawing one of the tougher groups.

Last night's official draw saw Rafael Benitez's men pitted against Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, French giants Olympique Marseille and Spanish up-and-comers Atletico Madrid in Group D.

The Reds have met PSV and l'OM during their past two Champions League campaigns, but Atletico remain an unknown quantity as far as the Mersey men are concerned.

And while Thompson admitted that los Rojiblancos could be a stumbling block, he insisted that Liverpool should have no problem topping the group.

"Atletico are a tough draw, but we've got enough to get through," the man who won two European Cups during his playing days at Anfield told the club's official website.

"We have the know-how and the knowledge to get through this group - I can't see it being a problem.

"We know about PSV and Marseille and I can't see a problem there. Atletico, yes, that'll be difficult but we will go through.

"The important thing is making a good start. We took one point from the first three games last season and we've got to do better."

Benitez Will Try To Deliver Width With Riera And Milner

Liverpool are set to make Albert Riera and James Milner their priorities before the transfer window finally shuts on Monday.

Despite going into the summer with the wide positions at Anfield being a huge concern, the bulk of Benitez’s money has been spent on Irish striker Robbie Keane. This has created some discomfort amongst Liverpool fans, who weren’t too disappointed with Steven Gerrard’s and Fernando Torres’ contributions last season.

Despite picking up three wins and remaining unbeaten in all competitions so far, Liverpool’s performances have been poor at best and it took everything barring penalties to see off Standard Liege in the Champions League qualifiers.

The lottery of penalties was avoided only with a last gasp Dirk Kuyt effort against the tiring Belgians, who deserved to progress over the two legs.

Qualification for the Champions League proper is not only vital to avoiding depressing Thursday night football, but it massages egos / reputations and the money secured will mean that Benitez will have another attempt at adding the finishing touches to his squad, before he has to be happy with what he’s got.

These final jig-saw pieces (in what must be the biggest jig-saw ever...) have supposedly been sounded out in the form of Espanyol’s Albert Riera and Newcastle’s James Milner.

Negotiations with the Spaniard are at a very advanced stage, where as James Milner’s recent transfer request has meant a fury of activity from clubs who are eager to add a talented Englishman to their squad, namely Aston Villa and Everton among others.

Liverpool’s supposed interest in the former Leeds and Villa midfielder (Milner) is likely to frustrate David Moyes, who saw a heftier bid for Riera rebuffed as the player was not interested in moving to that half of Merseyside.

Milner’s written transfer request was allegedly sent on the 20th of August, yet it was only made public on Wednesday. From that, it is likely that Milner is confident of a move away from the club, despite Kevin Keegan’s reluctance to talk of his (Milner’s) possible departure.

As an English player, the Leeds-born winger may prove difficult to resist as Benitez rubs his last pennies together, given UEFA’s new rulings on English players.

Any move away from St James’ Park is likely to upset Newcastle fans. The Geordies have held high hopes for Milner, who despite his seemingly long career, remains only 22 years old.

Fans of Liverpool may be disappointed that these two players [should they join] are not of the Quaresma or Silva mould but Benitez is most likely doing the best he can with the funds remaining. I know I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed with the arrival of both, despite the boo-boos of a Man City loan, long in the memory.