Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rafa Benitez Has Confidence In Liverpool's Mental Strength

RAFAEL BENITEZ is confident his unbeaten Liverpool side have the mental strength to emerge triumphantly from two crucial games in five days.

The Liverpool manager knows his side’s 15-match unbeaten run will be tested severely in Madrid on Wednesday and then against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

Against Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon, Liverpool can virtually seal qualification from Champions League Group D with victory.

And if they can end Chelsea’s 86-match unbeaten home league record on Sunday they will lead the Premier League and make a dramatic statement of intent.

Benitez, whose side came from behind to beat Wigan on Saturday, said: “I am confident that my players can produce the right performances this week.

“We are showing character and the right mentality you need for a winning team.

“We have Atletico next, and then Chelsea, two very tough away matches.

“But with games like that to come, how can we start talking about what we can win this season?

“It is too early to be talking of titles and cups.

“We must just keep going the way we are.

“It has to be a case of concentrating on each game, not looking to the future.

“But our players are showing great character.”

Liverpool have lost just one of their last 24 games in all competitions and only two in 32.

Benitez continued: “The team showed great character to beat Wigan on Saturday, and we are showing the belief that we can win every game.

“The Premier League is very tough.

“To show the mental strength we have displayed this season is very positive. We did that again against Wigan and we must maintain it for the next games, particularly this week.

“My priority is now Atletico, not Chelsea just yet. But the games are very close together and we will see whether we can continue to show the character we have been showing.”

Liverpool have been forced to stage comebacks four times already this season after going behind, the last two being the 3-2 victories over Manchester City and Wigan Athletic.

At Eastlands they were 2-0 down, and at the weekend Wigan led twice before Liverpool surged back to again win the points.

Benitez said: “Comebacks like we are achieving gives us confidence, but the Champions League is another competition. We are away against a very good team, but we have the confidence and belief to handle this. But maybe it would be nice to get two or three goals in the first half so I can relax a little on the bench.”

Torres Declines Atleti Invite

Injured striker Fernando Torres has turned down the opportunity to watch Liverpool's Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid from the luxury of a VIP seat at the Vicente Calderon.

A hamstring tear has denied Torres the sensational homecoming that was planned for him by UEFA's Champions League draw.

The 24-year-old, who moved from Atleti to Anfield last year, was forced from the field early in Spain's World Cup qualifier against Belgium last week, and tests confirmed that he would be out of action for up to 15 days.

Thus, Torres will not face his former team-mates in Wednesday night's blockbuster in the Spanish capital, where he plied his trade for six years after graduating from Atletico's youth system in 2001.

'El Nino' was given the chance to view the game in style, however, as los Rojiblancos offered their former idol a place in the Calderon's VIP section.

But Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez told the Daily Mail: "We talked with the doctor and physios, and with the player himself, and we decided it was important for him to stay here and continue with his recovery."

Dirk Kuyt Ready To Rise To The Challenge And Fire Liverpool To Victory In Madrid

Dirk Kuyt believes Liverpool can make a major statement of intent for the rest of the season if they can win their Champions League clash away to Atletico Madrid.

Liverpool fly out to the Spanish capital for a Group D match, where victory in the Vicente Calderon would virtually clinch their progress into the knockout stages.

Dutch forward Kuyt, who scored twice to beat Wigan on Saturday as injured Fernando Torres' stand-in, can expect a similar role in Madrid.

But even without their Spanish star, Kuyt is confident Liverpool can become the first English side to win a European match in Atletico's intimidating stadium.

Kuyt said: 'This is the big one in our group, to win would be a very strong statement. We know Atletico are a very strong, tough side but it is another challenge and one we will rise to.

'If we get a win in Madrid it will take us a very big step closer to qualification for the next stage of the Champions League.

'This is a vital week for us, firstly in Madrid and then at Chelsea on Sunday. Players can get tired with all the club matches and the internationals, but that is the way it is at the top.

'When you are with a big club you have to play every three or four days, but we prepare well. We drink and eat properly, we have our ice baths. We are professional and go to bed early.'

Boss Rafael Benitez is confident Kuyt can continue his European scoring run, which stands at 10 goals in his last 17 Champions League games.

The Spaniard said: 'Without Fernando we know the option is to play Kuyt up front, and it works well for us.

'He can score goals, we always know that. He is a very important player for us, a special player who works so hard.

'He can play on the right very well, but now he may have to stand in again for Torres and I have every faith in him. He is a player with so much industry in his game, any manager would be happy to have him in their side.

'I am confident that my players can produce the right performances this week. We are showing character and the right mentality you need for a winning team. We have Atletico next and then Chelsea - two very tough away matches.

'It has to be a case of concentrating on each game, not looking to the future. But our players are showing great character.

'We can field a team good enough to beat Atletico, then we must think about how we play at Chelsea. But I am confident in my players that they can produce the right performances.

'We have a few minor injury problems to (Yossi) Benayoun, (Steven) Gerrard and (Robbie) Keane, but I do not expect them to be serious, they should all play on Wednesday.'

Gerrard - We Need To Dictate

Steven Gerrard insists Liverpool have to start 'dictating' games rather than relying on late comebacks.

The Reds are riding high in the Premier League, but they have had to come from behind on four different occasions to win and retain their unbeaten status.

Their latest comeback came against Wigan at the weekend, when they twice went behind to Amr Zaki goals, but they fought back to seal a 3-2 triumph.

Although Gerrard is pleased with the battling qualities shown by the side, he admits they need to start dominating teams from the start.

"In the past few weeks we have proved that you can never count us out in any situation, and the battling qualities we have shown are very important," he said in the Daily Mirror.

"But we know that we can not keep conceding the lead in games like we have done in the last two matches.

"Sooner or later it is going to catch up with us, and we'll pay the price.

"We have shown the grit, determination and belief that there is in this squad this season, but we have to start dictating games.

"However we are full of confidence after what we have achieved, and we believe that there is a lot more to come from this side than we have seen so far.

"We are ready to take it on to another level and the confidence we now have will help us."

Luis Garcia Tips Old Club Liverpool To Win Premier League

Atletico Madrid forward Luis Garcia believes his former club Liverpool are on the brink of Premier League title success and insists he will feel “no joy” if he scores against his old club in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Luis Garcia was a hero of Liverpool’s 2005 European Cup triumph in Istanbul and will come face to face with his old Anfield friends in the Vicente Calderon stadium later this week.

It will be his first meeting with the club he spent three happy years with, and he still admits to following all their matches.

Their form has impressed him, and the 30-year-old said: “The team and the squad is getting stronger each year, and I am sure that Rafa (Benitez) deep down believes he can take the team closer to the league this season even though he may never show it publicly.

“I have watched and you can see the team growing, If they continue in this way they could win the league.”

That would clearly delight Luis Garcia, but he is not sure of his emotions if he scores against Liverpool in the back-to-back Group D matches over the next fortnight.

He said: “I am always happy to score goals and I am an Atletico player now. In my heart I would feel strange, and I would say ’sorry’ because I wouldn’t feel any joy scoring against Liverpool.”

Luis Garcia is still remembered fondly on the Kop, and says: “It makes me happy that Liverpool fans look back and appreciate what I gave to the team.

“There were times last year when I wished I was back there, when I watched Liverpool games and thought I could add something to the team, I became frustrated just thinking about it.”

Luis Garcia left Liverpool when Fernando Torres moved from Atletico, although the deals were not formally linked.

Initially he struggled to get into Madrid’s first team regularly and has not always been a fixture in the side this term - he was only a late substitute in Saturday’s home defeat by Real Madrid - but has impressed in Europe.

He starred in the club’s win away to PSV Eindhoven in the opening group match, but he does not know whether Atletico boss Javier Aguirre will utilise his skills against Benitez’s men, saying: “I have played in a few positions so far this season, mainly on the right but the boss knows I can also play as a striker.

“There have been games that I have switched to that role and confused the opposition. It worked against PSV and I set up a goal.

“Whether we try that against Liverpool is different because Rafa understands my game and will know what to try if I do that.”

Luis Garcia has had a string of assists this season and also scored in the Champions League qualifier against Schalke.

He added: “When I first arrived things were not working out the way I expected when I decided to leave Liverpool.

“I was thinking all the time that I had made the wrong decision to come back to Spain. But this season things have been more positive, I feel a lot better about my game.”

Luis Garcia scored 10 vital goals for Liverpool in the Champions League, including that controversial winner against Chelsea in the 2005 semi-final, and can expect a warm reception from Liverpool’s travelling fans on Wednesday, and a hero’s reception on November 4 in the return.

He said: “The game in Liverpool will be very special for me, in terms of sentimentality, the biggest of my career.

“I was not able to say goodbye properly when I left because I was injured at the end of the season, it was the worst way possible to finish my career there.

“I was so happy there and am desperate to play one more game at Anfield.”

There will clearly be mixed emotions over the two games for the Spanish international, but none over his desire to see Liverpool crowned Premier League champions.

He said: “When I first joined, Chelsea were far better than us, the gap is closing and Liverpool can now win the league.”

MARK LAWRENSON: No Reason To Fear Chelsea, With Or Without Fernando Torres

BEING without Fernando Torres does not mean that Liverpool can’t realistically go to Stamford Bridge on Sunday and get something.

In fact, even a point would be another decent marker to put down in their efforts to finally prove they have what it takes to take a shot at the title.

It would make it four points out of six in two games against the other ‘top four’ sides this season and that mini-league is often key to the race for honours, simply because those sides don’t drop many points to rest of the teams in the Premier League. Least of all Chelsea.

The reason I think Liverpool are unconcerned about absentees is because whoever plays, they seem super-fit and able to keep up the tempo and pressure right to the final whistle.

I don’t know what’s been done differently this pre-season to make them like that but take the WIgan game on Saturday. Last season, a game like that would have been a draw and two points dropped.

No, they are still not playing particularly well. But at this stage, if the results are right, that won’t bother the players one little bit.

MARK LAWRENSON: Nothing Risky About Luring Emile Heskey Back

BRINGING back players who were discarded in the past is always a risky business in football – but one Liverpool should take with Emile Heskey.

Wigan already seem resigned to him leaving and pursuing his dream of returning to Champions League football and making England’s squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

And that is why Liverpool should find a way of doing whatever is necessary to tempt Heskey back to Anfield.

Let’s face it, that’s not really too much is it? Both terms of persuading him to return and coughing up the cash to make it happen.

The player has already hinted he would love to go back and why wouldn’t he? He has unfinished business here because he never had the opportunity to convince Rafael Benitez he was worthy of a place.

And when you think that Djibril Cisse, Milan Baros, Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama-Pongolle were all given chances in Benitez’s first season, then his offloading to Birmingham City seems even more hasty now.

It’s not as if buying Heskey would break the bank either.

Wigan chairman Dave Whelan is a businessman and knows it will be a bad move if Heskey is allowed to walk away at the end of the season when his contract runs out.

Why risk that when he’s already going misty-eyed at the thought of bearing down on the Kop end in red shirt once again?

If Wigan, as is looking likely on the evidence of their showing at Anfield on Saturday, seem safe from relegation by the time January ticks round, then they might as well take a couple of million for Heskey then. After all, they might not be in a position where they have to rush out and get a replacement.

However they want to play it is up to them and the player of course. But from Liverpool’s point of view, they certainly need a proven top flight striker to boost their numbers in that area of the field. It’s clear they haven’t got the four forwards that you generally need to have a squad strong enough to sustain a title challenge.

With Fernando Torres injured, Dirk Kuyt might be in form but nobody is convinced he can produce that kind of goalscoring week-in week-out.

Robbie Keane is still struggling to find his feet and David Ngog is too raw to know what you’re going to get from him – the exact opposite of Heskey in fact. But the most important thing about Heskey is that he gives you something different.

You don’t buy him and say: “Right, we want 16 goals from you.” He doesn’t do that.

However, you do know what you are going to get from him and, as England have found to their benefit in the past week, that is more than worth the amount of cash needed to prise him away when the window opens.