Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Rafa: I Was Right To Drop Keane

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has defended his decision to omit Robbie Keane from the starting XI in Sunday's thriller against Manchester City.

Eyebrows were raised when Keane was benched against City after scoring his first goal for the Reds in their midweek Champions League win over PSV Eindhoven.

The Irish forward, who initially struggled after his summer switch from Tottenham Hotspur, seemed to have finally found his touch with a match-winning display against Everton the previous weekend, and his absence was noticeable at Eastlands as the Merseysiders fell two goals behind in the first half.

Liverpool ran out 3-2 winners thanks to Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt, but some pundits have nonetheless taken Benitez to task over his decision to drop Keane.

The Spanish tactician responded via the club's official website: "City have players with pace and a lot of skill so we were trying to control this in the middle of the park and give freedom to (Steven) Gerrard.

"It wasn't bad but we made some mistakes. In the second half the attitude changed and everything was different.

"Against good teams it's always important to do the right things and we know we can beat anyone. They are a good team with a lot of good players and a good manager, so the belief of our players was the key."

Liverpool's second-half display would seem to at least partially justify Benitez's tactics, as the likes of Gerrard and Xabi Alonso exerted their considerable influence on the game.

The Reds' dominance after the break was highlighted when City defender Pablo Zabaleta was sent off for raising his studs in a desperate bid to win the ball from Alonso.

"Xabi is okay," added Rafa. "It was a clear red card, no doubt about this and very clear.

"At this point we were controlling the game and were on top of them. We were creating chances and we were better than them."

The win means Liverpool maintain their unbeaten record this season. They currently sit second in the Premier League standings, trailing Chelsea on goal difference.

Agger Ready To Fill Skrtel Void

As Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel prepares to learn the extent of his knee injury, Daniel Agger is readying himself for a long-awaited return to the first team.

It is Skrtel's fine form which has kept Agger rooted to the sidelines for most of the season so far, and yet it was a defensive error which could cause the Slovakian to miss the rest of the season.

The former Zenit St. Petersburg star misjudged a hopeful long-ball during Liverpool's miraculous win against Manchester City on Sunday, resulting in a nasty collision with Ched Evans that forced the Reds, who had already used all their substitutes, to play out the game with 10 men.

Television replays showed the 23-year-old's knee flex awkwardly in the challenge, and it has been confirmed that he will be out of action until at least January.

However, it is feared the damage could be even more severe, and Skrtel will see a specialist later today to learn whether he could in fact sit out the rest of the term.

In any case, there is now a vacancy in Rafael Benitez's back-line which desperately needs filling - and while Agger is disappointed for his team-mate, he is determined to grab his opportunity with both hands.

"Of course, I was hoping for some playing time but this is not exactly the way I wished to get it," the Danish defender told the Daily Mail. "I know Martin very well because I share a room with him when we travel.

"I hope to get my chance now and then I will prove that it is my place. At the same time it could be (Jamie) Carragher’s place we are talking about because I don’t know why people only say it is me and Skrtel fighting each other for a starting position."

Agger was a first-team fixture by the end on the 2006-07 campaign, but a recurring metatarsal injury saw him spend the vast majority of the following season on the treatment table.

Thus, with only Sami Hyypia in reserve, Skrtel was recruited in January to plug the gap - a job he performed with such aplomb that Benitez was forced to retain him in the starting XI even after Agger returned to fitness.

The former Brondby star, also 23, has made only two starts so far this season: the first coming against Standard Liege in Champions League qualifying in August, the second in the Carling Cup against Crewe Alexandra.

"I have had to be patient and wait for this opportunity but I’m not complaining. I know how things are," Agger said.

"The team have been playing really well and the results have been great so I couldn’t really expect the manager to make too many changes.

"The only thing I could do was get my head down and concentrate on getting as fit as possible so I would be ready when my chance came."

Speculation has sprung up over the past few weeks concerning Agger's future at Anfield, with several sources suggesting he is bored of sitting on the bench and may seek a move in January.

The strongest link comes from Real Madrid, who recently revealed their admiration for the Dane and confessed that they had initially planned to swoop for him in the summer.

But Agger dismissed rumours that he is unhappy at Liverpool, saying: "There have been a few stories about me recently but I couldn’t be happier. I’m really glad to be a Liverpool player and all I want is to play a part in maintaining our good start to the season."

The Reds are undefeated so far this season. They sit second in both the Premier League and their Champions League group, with only goal difference separating them from Chelsea and Atletico Madrid respectively.

Dirk Kuyt Optimistic Liverpool Are On Course

As he reflected on an uplifting start to the Barclays Premier League campaign for his Liverpool team, Rafael Benítez was eager to make clear that the real hard work lies ahead. That perception will only be enhanced by the grim confirmation yesterday that Martin Skrtel could be absent for six months with cruciate knee ligament damage, but not even that news could wipe the smile off Liverpudlian faces as they wondered whether maybe, just maybe, this could be their year.

It feels too early in the season to be pinpointing results that define a campaign, but Liverpool have had enough of them in recent weeks to suggest that they have summoned the spirit and resolve that is required of champions. Whether they have the necessary quality in all departments is to be determined, but, as they left the City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday evening after recovering from a 2-0 deficit to beat Manchester City 3-2, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and the rest looked as if they felt that they had just proved something to each other as well as to Chelsea, Manchester United et al.

The misfortune for Liverpool is that the injury to Skrtel, one of their most impressive performers, threatens to take some of the wind out of their sails, with doubts over whether the Slovakia defender will play again this season after he damaged the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee shortly before Dirk Kuyt's stoppage-time winning goal against City. He will have a further assessment today.

In Skrtel's absence, Benítez must decide whether to opt for Daniel Agger, who has not played in the Premier League since suffering a fractured foot 13 months ago, or Sami Hyypia, who was deemed surplus to requirements when the manager submitted his squad for the Champions League at the end of August.

Hyypia, who turns 35 today, will have a part to play - not least because of his ineligibility for the Champions League, which came about as Benítez grasped for a way around Uefa's quota system on homegrown players - but, if Liverpool are to sustain their title challenge, it is essential that Agger returns to the form he had begun to show before injury brought his last season to a premature end. The Denmark defender has been troubled by concerns over the injury since returning to fitness over the summer, but Benítez will need him at his best for the tests ahead, most notably the encounter with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on October 26.

Either way, the majority of Liverpool's players departed for international duty in high spirits. “It was great for us to take all three points after what happened with Martin,” Kuyt, the Holland forward, said.

“Sunday was a really important win for us. I think the first half was our worst 45 minutes of the season, but we were a completely different side in the second half. It was great to win a game like that because it gives us even more belief, but we know it is still very early in what will be a long season. The most important thing now is to keep taking it one game at a time.”

Indeed, Benítez was eager to reinforce the “one game at a time” message, pointing out that there are matches at home to Wigan Athletic and away to Atlético Madrid, the latter in the Champions League, before the trip to Stamford Bridge.

Wigan were one of seven visiting teams to escape defeat at Anfield last season, but with victories at home to United and away to City, Liverpool have illustrated their determination to succeed where they failed last season - one game at a time.

Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez Not Looking Beyond Wigan To Chelsea Clash

With some vital victories, Liverpool seem to be on the right track for the Premier League title challenge and manager Rafa Benitez has revealed a simple yet effective secret to it.

The Reds' impressive 3-2 win against Manchester City at the City of Manchester Stadium where they were down by two goals at half time, shows their calibre and determination to mount a sustained title challenge.

The victory has also kept Benitez’s side on a 12 match unbeaten run in all competitions and the Reds will look to maintain it when they face Wigan Athletic at Anfield after returning from the international break, before the big clash against Chelsea on October 26.

"We have a clear idea of what we have to do," Benitez said.

"We have to go one game at a time. This was another great win and three points.”

"The main thing from my point of view is the belief of the players."

Rafa: Nando Is A Good Boy!

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has once again hailed the impact of Fernando Torres.

Torres fired his 28th and 29th Premier League goals for Liverpool yesterday, a tally that takes him beyond Patrik Berger as the Reds' all-time foreign goalscorer in that competition.

The ex-Atletico man followed his brace in the Merseyside derby with another two-goal salvo at Manchester City in the weekend's 3-2 win and his manager could not be happier.

Torres set Rafa Benitez back over £20million, but the Liverpool boss has been more than repaid in terms of goalscoring output.

Today, he took the opportunity to talk up the European champion’s credentials.

He told the press: "We know how important Torres is for us. He is always a threat to the defenders and can score goals. He also gives space to his team-mates and Torres is a fantastic boy with a good mentality. He was unlucky not to get his hat-trick."

Martin Skrtel's Knee Injury Confirmed By Liverpool FC Medics

MARTIN SKRTEL is facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines after a scan revealed he suffered a cruciate ligament injury in Liverpool’s win over Manchester City.

The Slovakian defender was carried off in agony after falling awkwardly in the latter stages of the Reds 3-2 win yesterday.

Skrtel was also given oxygen on the pitch and Liverpool’s worst fears were today realised when the results of the scan showed that he sustained an injury to his posterior cruciate ligament.

He will see a specialist tomorrow, at which point it will be determined how long he is likely to be out of action.

Club spokesman Ian Cotton said: “Martin underwent a scan this morning which showed damage to the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

“He will see a specialist tomorrow to assess the extent of the injury and will then have an accurate idea of the time scales involved before he is back playing again.”

Meanwhile, Dirk Kuyt today dedicated his winning goal in yesterday’s clash to his stricken team-mate and admitted the sight of Skrtel being carried off made Liverpool even more determined to secure victory.

“Martin’s injury looked very ugly but hopefully it will not be too serious,” said the Dutchman.

“He is due to have a scan and with a bit of luck it will turn out to be not so bad but we will have to wait and see.

“It was great for us to take all three points after what happened to Martin and I think we all wanted to win it for him.”

It is feared Skrtel has suffered a knee ligament injury but nothing will be confirmed until the results of the scan are known.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez said: “Martin has twisted his knee and we will have to wait for the scan but we think it could be serious.

“That's the bad news for us from yesterday. When a player like Martin is on the ground you know it’s serious so we will keep our fingers crossed that it won’t be too bad.”

After going 2-0 down to City before half-time, Liverpool staged a remarkable second half comeback which saw them win the game thanks to a brace from Fernando Torres and Kuyt’s last gasp strike from close range.

Kuyt was delighted to score his first league goal since last November but he insists he is even more pleased that the Reds managed to take all three points after an opening 45 minutes which he readily admits was Liverpool’s worst of the season so far.

He said: “It was a really important win for us. I think the first half was our worst 45 minutes of the season but we were a completely different side in the second half.

“At half-time the manager told us that we had to go back out there and play our own game and that we would be back in the game if we scored a goal.

“That’s exactly what we did. We worked really hard and with Fernando getting the first goal early on in the half it gave us the belief that we could go on and win the game.

“The most important thing is to keep taking it one game at a time.

“It was great to win a game like this one because it gives us even more belief and confidence but we know it is still very early in what will be a long season and we have to keep focusing on getting results.

“I hadn’t been thinking of the fact it had been so long since I scored a goal in the league but it was great to score such an important one at the very end of a game and I am even more delighted because it gave us the three points we wanted so badly.”

“Now hopefully we can keep it going.”

Liverpool Boss Benitez Top Of Juventus List To Replace Ranieri?

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is on the top of the list to replace Claudio Ranieri at Serie A giants Juventus, according to Tuttosport.

Ranieri's future at La Vecchia Signora is clouded with uncertainty, despite the former Chelsea manager gaining promotion for the Turin club from Serie B the season before last and taking them to 3rd place in the Scudetto last season and qualifying for the Champions League.

However, the Bianconeri are struggling in 11th place in Serie A and had to come back to earn a draw with BATE Borisov in Europe last week after going 2-0 down. This has led to the board at Juve bringing Ranieri’s future into question and drawing up a list of people to replace the Italian.

Anfield chief Benitez is understood to top the list, with Zenit St Petersbug’s Dick Advocaat also on the list along with AS Roma coach Luciano Spalletti.

Benitez joined the Reds from La Liga side Valencia amidst reports of differences in transfer policy with the board at the Mestalla. Something Benitez has clashed with the American co-owners of Liverpool on more than one occasion, but a move to Italy would seem unlikely at the moment, with Liverpool making their best ever start to a Premier League season.