Monday, November 03, 2008

Liverpool Must Sort Out Contracts Or Lose Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez fears history could repeat itself if Liverpool's owners fail to secure his future.

The Reds are facing the prospect of losing a man who stands just third behind Kenny Dalglish and Bob Paisley in an exclusive Sunday Mirror-PowerTable analysis of Anfield's managerial greats.

But unless American pair Tom Hicks and George Gillett deliver the new contract that Benitez craves after claiming to have healed the boardroom rift that tore the club apart last season, then the Spaniard could feel forced into making the kind of heartbreaking decision that saw him quit Valencia for Liverpool in the summer of 2004.

Just weeks after leading Valencia to a second La Liga title and the UEFA Cup, Benitez walked out on the final year of his Mestalla contract after becoming disillusioned by a string of broken promises.

He said: "I left Valencia because there were problems with my contract and other situations that meant I decided to leave.

"It wasn't my idea to leave because I had a list of names in place that would have improved the team. I believe Valencia would have gone on to win more trophies."

Benitez's patience had been tested the previous summer when the Spanish club refused to take up agreements he had secured to sign the then-unknown quartet of Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Ricardo Quaresma.

He finally walked away after leading Valencia to the finest hour in their history because they had failed to keep promises about a new deal.

Benitez's fate has turned full circle, with Liverpool's American owners yet to make contact about extending a contract that now has just 18 months to run.

"I spoke with George Gillett in London last week, but there was nothing about a new contract," Benitez revealed.

"That is OK because I want to concentrate on football.

But if the owners ask to talk about a new contract that would be good also.

"If not, I will continue to do my job for as long as I can and then we will see. I really want to stay at Liverpool and hopefully in the future the squad will be even better.

"I would like to be here a long time, so I am waiting. After improving the squad for the last five years I know we are very, very close to having a fantastic team and I want to be part of their future.

"I am also sure that this Liverpool team, with the staff I have also, will get better every year.

"The contract situation does not put me under more pressure to win either the title or the Champions League because in my mind I am just thinking about winning every game.

"I think we are close to having the team I want, but if I start thinking, 'We have to win this trophy' it is possible to lose focus."

It's ironic that Benitez will face his one-time Valencia nemesis Jesus Garcia Pitarch this week. Pitarch, the sporting director who was blamed for Benitez's departure four years ago, now holds the same position with Atletico Madrid, who arrive at Anfield on Tuesday.

During the week, Gillett (left) claimed his relationship with Hicks has improved. And Benitez said: "I have heard that the relationship between Liverpool's owners is better and that's good for the club.

"It is the same with me and Pitarch. We had our problems but they are solved."

Agger Happy To Be Back

Liverpool defender Daniel Agger has spoken of his relief at finally being back in the Liverpool fold after a year out injured.

The Liverpool centre back has been plagued by injuries for the past 12 months and has finally managed to free himself of those problems and gain match fitness once more.

He has also managed to secure a place in the Liverpool side, but this was only due to the horrific injury suffered by fellow defender Martin Skrtel.

Speaking to, Agger said, "It’s never easy to get into the team when you have a squad like we have at Liverpool.

"Things have been very hard for me after the best part of a year out and then missing out at the start of the season. I’m glad to put the last 12 months behind me.

"But being left out of the team after a long time out is just part of football. Now I want to show the fans what I can do again.

"It feels good to get back out there and I feel I’ve had some good games against Crewe in the Carling Cup and Wigan [Athletic] in the league."

Despite this, Agger knows that he will have to work harder to obtain full match fitness.

"I found it hard coming back into the team for the Wigan match. I was very tired early in the second half and could really feel that I hadn’t for a long time," he continued.

"There’s being fit and then there is match fitness - there is a big difference between the two and you can only obtain match fitness by playing in many games.

"Although I want to impress everyone again, I know I have to just play my own game. If the way you play is good enough then you will be in the team and hopefully I can get a good run now.”

"It feels good to be back."

Reds Ready - Dalglish

Kenny Dalglish believes Liverpool have got what it takes to win the Premier League.

The man who won eight league titles as both a player and manager at Anfield says Rafa Benitez's side may have been knocked off top spot by Chelsea, but can still go all the way this season.

He admits that the Blues superior firepower is something Liverpool will have to compete with in the transfer window and that champions Manchester United are a "fantastic side", but is convinced the current Reds crop have it what it takes to end an 18-year wait for the league title.

Dalglish was at the helm the last time Liverpool ruled the land and told Goals on Sunday that this season it is a case of so far, so good.

"I would go for Liverpool, but Man United are a fantastic side," he told Goals on Sunday. "But it doesn't matter what number title Man United are going for, Liverpool can only look after themselves.

"If they have got ambitions of winning the championship - which they have - they have got to beat Man United and they have got to beat Chelsea. And they've done that.

"They've beaten them twice, so they've got a lot more points from the top two teams than they did last year.

"For me, I think they've got enough to hang on, but it's whether they can get over the line or not. I think it's going to be really tight.

"Chelsea are a fantastic team. They looked really ordinary against Liverpool but as we saw yesterday, they're a fantastic team and they've got a huge goal difference. Between them and Liverpool that could be vital at the end of the season. They do have a greater goalscoring threart than Liverpool."

Dalglish hailed Robbie Keane as a "big, big signing" in the summer and backed him and Fernando Torres to form the sort of partnership he and fellow Goals on Sunday guest Ian Rush enjoyed during the club's most succesful period.

Torres was missing as Liverpool lost their first league game of the season at Tottenham on Saturday and with Keane still struggling, their former boss expects Benitez to reinforce his frontline in the New Year.

But, he believes they have the defensive durabilty to finish the season as champions.

"I think they need to start looking at scoring goals and that's something for the January transfer window," he said.

"But the good thing about Liverpool this year - and it happened in the first half at Tottenham until they maybe took their foot off the gas a wee bit - is they're winning a lot more possession in the opposition's half. They're pressing them a lot higher up the pitch.

"When they do that Liverpool are a real threat and it really gets the crowd going when they close down in the other half of the pitch, especially at home. And they are good enough to do that.

"(Jamie) Carragher and (Daniel) Agger are good enough to go one-on-one at the back and they can close down higher up the pitch.

"Man United have been the better team, simple as that. But Rafa has won the European Cup, he's got to another final and lost that and Gerard Houllier won the UEFA Cup and something like five other trophies, so they have had relative success.

"But they've not won the championship and that's the thing they are all craving - and Rushy and I are the same!"

Torres Set For Reds Return

Rafa Benitez is hoping Fernando Torres will be fit to return to the Liverpool team against his former club Atletico Madrid.

Torres has missed the Reds' last five matches after suffering a hamstring injury on international duty with Spain last month.

He failed to recover in time to take a place on the bench in Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Tottenham, but could be involved in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

Liverpool welcome Atletico to Anfield and Benitez is keen to have Torres back in his plans after his attack stuttered in recent games.

"Hopefully he will be ready," said Benitez on the club's official website.

"If he cannot start the game then he will be on the bench if everything is okay.

"Clearly when you have a striker with the quality and potential of Torres, and he is available, it's a very good option.

"We have an important match against Atletico Madrid and having Fernando starting or on the bench is a good option for us.

"Clearly he really wants to play as he hasn't played for a while. And he was very frustrated not to play in the first game against them."

Alex Ferguson Wary Of Liverpool's Real Push For Title

THE last time Alex Ferguson wanted Liverpool to win any game it was only because Manchester United's title hopes were resting on it.

On the final day of the 1994/95 season Fergie was relying on a favour from Liverpool to stand any chance of guiding United to the championship.

A win for the Reds against Blackburn at Anfield would have been enough to hand the title to United as long as they kept their side of the bargain by beating West Ham at Upton Park.

In the days leading up to Sky's original "Super Sunday" Ferguson kept banging on to the press about Liverpool having to do right by the competition by doing their level best to inflict defeat on Blackburn - even though there was nothing riding on the outcome for Roy Evans' side and Rovers were managed by Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish.

Liverpool won the game but, thankfully, United could only draw theirs. Blackburn were crowned champions and Liverpool's honour was left intact.

More than 13 years have passed since then but at the start of this week Ferguson was again delighted to see Liverpool win a game – or so he said.

"That was the result I wanted," insisted the United boss and with those six words he basically admitted for the first time in far too long that Liverpool are a genuine threat.

Ferguson only ever says nice things about teams that don't concern him, that's the nature of the beast.

In the weird and wonderful world of Premier League mind games, put downs are seen as an effective way of gaining a psychological advantage over your rivals and Ferguson has used them time and time again.

The year after Blackburn pipped his team to the post, Newcastle were United's big rivals in the title race and as the pair edged closer to the finishing line Ferguson indulged in the kind of mind games which have become his trademark.

With Newcastle set to meet Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, Ferguson told the media he doubted Frank Clark's team would make the same kind of effort against the Magpies as they would if they were facing his own.

Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan exploded with his infamous "I'd love it" rant, Newcastle went on to only draw with Forest and the title was Old Trafford bound. Easy.

Ferguson is not stupid, he knows full well that given the way Liverpool have started this season that they have their best chance of mounting a genuine title challenge in years.

He also knows that were they to go all the way his hopes of "knocking them off their perch" as England's most successful club before he retires would be put in serious jeopardy.

That's why the mind games have already begun.

And Liverpool should take his insistence that a victory by the club he still regards as United's biggest rivals was the result he wanted as the biggest backhanded compliment they could ever receive.

A draw at Stamford Bridge would have suited Ferguson down to the ground because United going eight points behind Liverpool has never and will never be viewed as a good thing at Old Trafford.

It remains to be seen whether or not Liverpool have got what it takes to go the distance in this season's title race but one thing's for sure – Ferguson is already worried that they can and it's doubtful in the extreme that he will "want" them to win any more games in the coming months.

Benitez: Liverpool FC Have To Bounce Back After Tottenham Defeat

LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez believes that his side must follow Chelsea’s example by showing the character to bounce back after a first Premier League defeat of the season.

A shock last-minute 2-1 defeat to bottom club Tottenham on Saturday saw Liverpool surrender both the last unbeaten record in the Premier League and first place in the table as Chelsea returned to the summit on goal difference.

Liverpool had taken the lead through Dirk Kuyt in the second minute and dominated proceedings for long periods – hitting the Tottenham woodwork on three occasions when leading 1-0.

However, a Jamie Carragher own goal gifted the hosts an unlikely equaliser and substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko snatched victory for Harry Redknapp’s side in the final minute.

The loss came just six days after Liverpool had climbed to top spot in the capital courtesy of a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge which ended Chelsea’s 86-game unbeaten home record.

Since then, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side have recovered to win 3-0 at Hull City in midweek and then crush Sunderland 5-0 on Saturday, to reclaim pole position thanks to a goal difference of plus 23 which is 15 better than Liverpool’s current total of 8.

Benitez believes that his own team must now follow their title rivals’ example by showing the mental strength to immediately recover from their setback.

He said: “Chelsea have shown that they’re a good team and we have to show the same. We have to show the same character now.

“It’s football – sometimes you can win, you can lose but after this last game we don’t need to be worried about the performance of the team, their character or quality.

“The key is to keep the confidence in the team and keep working as hard as we did against Tottenham and we will be there.”

Liverpool were on top for such long periods at White Hart Lane with Steven Gerrard striking the crossbar, a Darren Bent miss-clearance hitting an upright and Xabi Alonso missing a golden opportunity with a free header. Benitez was at a loss to try and explain where it all went wrong.

He said: “It’s not easy for me to define where the turning point was in Spanish – and it’s even more difficult in English!

“We were so dominant. We were controlling the game, we were controlling everything. It was a surprise. At half time we were talking about how we needed to score a second goal to finish the game.

“It’s really difficult to explain how we conceded two goals and lost this game.

“Harry said ‘Sometimes you need luck’ and I agree with him.

“I have had some experience here in England of playing well, creating chances and conceding goals in the last minute but that’s the Premier League.

“It’s very difficult to win every game now because some of the other teams are really good.”

However, after a collection of dropped points, mostly from a series of home draws in games they dominated, prevented any serious title challenge from Liverpool last season, the Spaniard emphasised how important it is to be clinical in front of goal.

He said: “We could see that the team is really good, the players have quality and the mentality is good but sometimes it’s the last pass. Taking your chances is the key mentality for winning titles.

“I think we have a good mentality but we still need to take our chances.

“We’ve been winning without Fernando (Torres). We know when we have Fernando we have another option which is different.

“But (Robbie) Keane was doing well with Gerrard and after that (Ryan) Babel with Kuyt – it was always a threat.

“You cannot talk about Torres because the rest of the players were doing so well it would not be fair.

“Clearly when you have a striker with the quality and potential of Torres he will be a good addition for us.”

Benitez’s big summer recruit, £20m striker Keane emerged from his first return to White Hart Lane still waiting to score his first Premier League goal for Liverpool having been withdrawn midway through the second half but the striker laid on Kuyt’s opener.

“Robbie was okay. He was doing a good job keeping the centre-back busy and Gerrard had space so he was doing his job properly”, said Benitez.

“I was thinking about changing things (by substituting Keane) because we were so dominant I wanted to control the pace more. They were attacking and they were high but Babel has pace.”

Dossena Should Be Left Behind, Not Left-Back

TO describe that result as a disappointment is the understatement of the century.

Early goal by Kuyt and then total dominance, enough chances to win two matches but eventually the same old problem rears its head again.

We dominate a game but fail to capitalise.

Chelsea had responded to our victory there last week with two resounding wins.

We won with a penalty during the week and then on Saturday blow a lead against the team that’s bottom of the table.

Carragher had a rare off day but maybe he has to spend too much of his time compensating for Dossena at left back.

Left back? He should be left behind. An old joke I know but the Italian continually fails to impress.

He could have done more to stop Bent’s cross for Spurs’ winner and looks permanently a yard off the pace.

Reina too looked a bundle of nerves. Rafa usually manages to change a game with his subs but on this occasion we just got worse.

Riera and Keane went off and Babel and Benayoun did little. We miss a Crouch-type player up front in games like these and in conditions like that.

All Spurs did was pick up the pace and look for opportunities to whip the ball into the box and eventually they got lucky. We didn’t.

We are off the top now and Chelsea’s goal difference is already nearly three times better than ours.

That statistic alone demonstrates the problem.

We need Torres back yes, but we also need more options up front.

Carragher Demands Instant Response From Liverpool

Jamie Carragher has demanded an instant return to winning ways as Liverpool negotiate what he views as an increasingly unforgiving Premier League title race.

The Reds slipped off the summit of the table with their 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane yesterday, Carragher's own goal letting Tottenham back into the match.

Chelsea responded to last weekend's home defeat to Liverpool by putting eight goals past Hull and Sunderland and Carragher wants a similar response from his team-mates.

'Look how Chelsea have reacted since we beat them and how Manchester United reacted when they lost to us,' he said.

'They've been on a great run since. It's how you come back from your setbacks that counts. This will be a test for us now.

'If you want to show you're championship contenders it's how you bounce back that matters.

'Before Jose Mourinho came to Chelsea you could get away with losing five or six but now it seems to be three or four.

'The standards are so high. You can't afford to lose too many.'

Fixtures against the likes of West Brom, Bolton and Fulham mean Liverpool face, at least on paper, a kind November but Carragher is taking nothing for granted.

'It's a different test in itself playing against the teams lower down,' he said.

'Portsmouth was a very difficult game and we didn't score until late on.

'If we play as well as we can we should go on to win the next six games but in the past we've come unstuck in those matches and it's important we get maximum points now.'

Fernando Torres should be back for Tuesday's Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid after recovering from a hamstring injury.

Carragher admits Torres has been missed but insists the squad should be able to cope in his absence.

'You'll always miss Torres. He's probably the best striker in the world of his type," he said.

'Even if we'd won here we would have still missed him because he's such a great player. That's what squads are for.

'That's why the manager talks every year about big squads and good benches.

'Everyone misses players. Chelsea are without Didier Drogba at the moment. You've just got to adapt to it.'

Liverpool could have done with Torres' clinical touch as they let a series of chances go begging against Spurs before Carragher's own goal changed the match.

'That's the Premier League for you. Credit to Spurs but we were in total control,' said Carragher.

'We should have got a second or third goal but if you don't do that Spurs have definitely got quality going forward.

'I'm disappointed to score the own goal. I don't know what happened. I don't know if I was unlucky - I'll have to see it again.

'Even then 1-1 isn't too bad at Spurs. It's not an easy place to go, even though they're in a bad situation.

'We're more than disappointed to concede a goal in the last minute. We missed a couple of chances we would normally score.

'Normally when you're in such control you go on to win the game but you have to give credit to Tottenham for showing character and sticking in there.' "Harry Redknapp is having quite an effect there."