Thursday, November 06, 2008

Liverpool’s Riera Eyes Victory Against Marseille & PSV Eindhoven

Liverpool winger Albert Riera has said that the Reds want to win their forthcoming games against Marseille and PSV Eindhoven to finish top of Group D and move into the Champions League first knockout round.

Rafa Benitez’s side secured a last-gasp 1-1 draw last night against Atletico Madrid at Anfield and just need a point from the last two group games to move into the next round.

After the draw against Atletico, Spanish international Riera, who moved to Anfield in the summer, said: "This was definitely a very important point for us.

"We knew when we went into this game that a win could have been enough to take us through.

"That did not happen but a draw is still a good result and it means that we still have the same chances to go through, albeit with one match less to do it.

"But we will do everything we can to win our last two matches because we want to go on and win this group."

Daniel Agger's Injury Causes Problems For Liverpool

Rafa Benitez has been rocked by a fresh injury worry as he attempts to steer Liverpool out of their mini-slump.

After starting the season with a 16-game unbeaten run, Liverpool finally came unstuck at Tottenham on Saturday and were seconds away from a second successive defeat, at Anfield last night, when Steven Gerrard salvaged a Champions' League point with an injury-time penalty against Atletico Madrid.

Fernando Torres was again missing with a hamstring injury and Daniel Agger could now join him on the sidelines after damaging a finger in the second half of last night's 1-1 draw.

The Denmark centre-back came off for lengthy treatment near the bench and will have a scan amid fears the finger is broken.

With Martin Skrtel still weeks away from fitness, it would leave Benitez with only two fit central defenders, in Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, for Saturday's tea-time kick-off against West Brom at Anfield.

'It was painful, and no-one is too sure at the moment whether I have suffered a break,' said Agger. 'I hope to be fit for Saturday, but I will know more after the scan. It just about finished off a frustrating night for me, because I should have won the game for us.

'On a good day, I might have had three or even four goals, but almost is not good enough. It is one thing creating chances, but you have to finish them off.

'The first should have been a penalty after only two minutes, because I was fouled, but it's no good complaining now.'

Mascherano Unruffled By Reds' Goal Problems

Diego Maradona was not at Anfield, after all, to see his future Argentina charges Javier Mascherano and the Atletico Madrid prodigy Sergio Aguero on Tuesday night. But the spirit of the man was there in the penalty decision which, as injustices go, had something of the Hand of God about it.

Perhaps some of Maradona's celestial presence will rub off in L4 because, let's face it, Liverpool are hardly a side playing with his giddying lack of inhibition at present, despite their second position in the Premier League table. When the dust settled on Martin Hansson's extraordinary 90th minute penalty decision yesterday, talk turned again to their collective ability to fashion goals when Fernando Torres is wrapped up in the stand. "It's not something we should be worried about," Mascherano insisted. "The main thing is just to play well and we are. Two weeks ago people were talking of us as being contenders because we'd beaten Chelsea, so we know things can change quickly in football, but it's not something to worry about."

Yet huge psychological boost though beating Chelsea was to Liverpool, it was fashioned through determination, not invention. The creative deficit between last season's two Champions League finalists and Liverpool is there for all to see. Witness Liverpool and Chelsea's respective efforts against Sunderland.

"Sometimes it's like this: if you score quickly you kill the match and it's a different match, but [Atletico] scored and they tried only to defend and to close our passing and it was very difficult," left winger Albert Riera said. It was a pretty accurate description of much of Liverpool's domestic season. It took another Steven Gerrard penalty to knock down Portsmouth a week ago and the question is: how much longer can toil and luck keep Liverpool up among the challengers?

Mascherano talked down suggestions that Torres, absent in the wins against Chelsea and United, was the be-all and end-all for Liverpool. "Of course we have others who can score, like Keane, Gerrard and sometimes players like Riera." But his case lacked conviction. Robbie Keane's frustrated reaction to substitution on Tuesday was one of a man who knows he is still yet to shake the monkey from his back – despite declaring that he had. Riera has one Liverpool goal to his name.

That Keane was replaced by a nervous 19-year-old, David N'Gog, revealed Liverpool's thin resources. They are more dependent than Benitez would like on Dirk Kuyt – a blue-collar worker whom he admitted only this week has a touch which is simply "not bad".
Though Torres – "the main one for us," as Mascherano described him – is expected to be in the team to face West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, Liverpool's immediate goals are more prosaic than Argentina's. As Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina put it yesterday: "Sometimes goals don't come so you have to keep fighting and keep improving."

Javier Mascherano 'Excites' Liverpool With Prospect Of Diego Maradona visit

Javier Mascherano is emerging as an integral figure in Liverpool’s powerful start to the campaign but the midfielder admits that events in his international career currently provide him with equal excitement.

The appointment of Diego Maradona as Argentina's national team manager will allow Mascherano to work with a figure he describes reverently as "God." The stir created by Maradona's return to football prominence has even had an impact on the Anfield dressing room with Mascherano now attempting to bring his idol to the club's training ground to meet his club team-mates.

More relevantly, Maradona has also stated in interviews that he plans to hand the Argentina captaincy to Mascherano as the 24-year-old becomes an increasingly significant player for club and country.

"It's great to have him as our manager," said Mascherano who could lead his country in Maradona's 'debut' against Scotland in two weeks.

"We all know Diego gave us so much as a player and now we hope maybe he can give us many things as a manager as well.

"It's great to have such a legend as manager of Argentina. To us he is like God. He's the best player we've had in our history, the best player football's ever had.

"I don't know if he's going to come to Liverpool, he was talking about this, saying he will come and other players are excited, wanting to see him. We will try and bring him to Melwood so all the players can meet him.

"I can't talk about if he will succeed because I don't know him, the only thing I can say is he has a lot of experience in the international team, many years, so maybe he can give us all the experience he had as a player and we can use this. Scotland will be a good test for us, we'll see."

Maradona's first difficult decision may be whether to appoint Mascherano as his captain, a position currently held by the legendary Inter defender Javier Zanetti.

After an unbeaten start to the campaign, a defeat for Liverpool at Tottenham on Saturday was followed by an unconvincing home Champions League draw against Atletico Madrid.

Liverpool required a controversial penalty award deep in injury-time to finally equalise, having squandered a catalogue of chances, but Mascherano believes that his team's habit of scoring late in games can be viewed in a positive light.

"It was very important because the team continues to show character and determination," said Mascherano of Steven Gerrard's late penalty heroics against Atletico. "Teams know Liverpool will continue playing and trying to score in the same way until the end of the game.

"We were very sad after the Spurs game because I think we deserved to win but I'm not worried, sometimes football's like this.

"Sometimes you have many chances and you can't score. Maybe we need to work a little bit more on finishing. The most important thing is that we had the chances, the team can create."

Liverpool Knocked Back As Ownership Saga Rumbles On

A Middle East investment group came close to buying Liverpool last month before dropping its interest in mysterious circumstances, according to The Times.

Liverpool's co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett deny they are looking to sell the club but sources claim that an Arab group — unrelated to Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai — had made a firm offer, having inspected the company accounts, but walked away without explanation.

A Kuwait consortium is believed to have shown an interest but it is unclear of this was the same group who came close to buying the Reds.

Sheikh Mohammed, operating independently of the Dubai International Capital group, still has his £500million offer on the table.

Gillett said yesterday he was embarrassed at the way he and Hicks have coped with Liverpool's financial difficulties.

Plans to build a new stadium in Stanley Park have been put on hold amid the economic crisis and the pair were reported last month to have signalled that they are ready to sell their stake at Anfield after engaging Merrill Lynch, the investment bank, to find a buyer.

'You feel a responsibility and an embarrassment on occasions when you haven't provided all you might have,' Gillett told The Times Online. 'There's a level of embarrassment and you want to correct it quickly.'

Gillett remained tight-lipped on his personal thoughts about why the pair remain so unpopular with Reds supporters, adding: 'I think you would have to ask the fans. I think there are some things that have happened that upset them.

'But I think they're at a point where they are allowing the boys to demonstrate their skill and allowing Rafael Benitez – one of the great coaches in the history of the sport – to do his thing so we just want to leave it that way.'

Gillett has refused to say how long he would remain at Anfield but admitted the financial crisis had affected his sporting interests.

'All the sports teams I know of are re-examining all of their futures,' he said. 'We now have clubs that will be successful in the long run, that can compete for the championship every year and don't depend on buying high-priced players every year.'

Liverpool's Skrtel Will Not Be Rushed Back

Liverpool's Slovak defender Martin Skrtel has stated that his rehabilitation is going to plan but he won't be rushed into making a premature comeback.

Martin Skrtel is progressing well following the knee injury he picked up against Manchester City last month in an awkward fall. The defender is apparently very close to a comeback, but he will not set a definite date for his return.

He said: "Already before the check-up I felt much better than before, the leg almost did not hurt at all. I even did special exercises in training on the knee.

"The doctor told me that he was very satisfied with how the treatment had gone so far and told me I could be satisfied too.

"I can already walk without crutches but for the next two weeks I have to wear a special orthosis."

Despite the positive news, the player insists that he will not play until he feels that his knee is completely healed and 100% strong enough to cope with the demands of the Premier League.

He said: "The doctor explained some new exercises to me and we have not discussed the date of return yet. Anyway, I cannot nor do I want to rush anything.

"First, I must wait for the leg to be ready 100% and only then I can return."

He also stated that even with the injury, his training schedule has not been that different from his usual pattern, despite the treatment on his knee.

"Every day I go to the training centre in Melwood. For an hour I do special exercises, then I am spending one hour in the gym, then the pool and then various massages.

"Otherwise it does not differ much from the schedule I have when I am fit. I have a normal training, then I am spending time with my girlfriend and my family, who are here, and so on."

Steven Gerrard Hailed As Anfield Penalty King

Rafael Benítez praised Steven Gerrard's “nerves of steel” yesterday after his captain scored the injury-time penalty that rescued a draw against Atlético Madrid, but the Liverpool manager should be grateful that his star is not always so iron-willed.

It is Gerrard's change of mind after he resigned as Liverpool's penalty- taker in 2005 that has helped him to build a reputation as a man who delivers under pressure. His penalty on Tuesday was his third late spot-kick goal in the Champions League since the start of last season and his fourth strike in the last 15 minutes in this campaign alone.

Yet it was originally a duty that took a psychological toll. In April 2005, Gerrard missed against Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool only drew, damaging the team's hopes of taking fourth place from Everton. “That's me [finished] with penalties,” he said. “I should have scored and I'm so sorry I missed. I blame myself for us not winning.” It was a resolution that lasted less than a summer as he scored against Kaunas in a Champions League qualifying match in July. Gerrard admitted to relief that he had not needed to break his pledge sooner under far more taxing circumstances.

He reacted to Andriy Shevchenko's failure in the shoot-out that gave Liverpool the 2005 Champions League title a fraction later than his ecstatic team-mates because he was so focused on preparing to take what would have been the next kick. During the famous second-half comeback it was Xabi Alonso who took the penalty when Gerrard tumbled under a challenge from Gennaro Gattuso. Alonso's effort was saved by Dida, the AC Milan goalkeeper, the Spain midfield player putting the rebound into the net to level the score at 3-3.

“Steven has nerves of steel, he has great confidence in what he does on the pitch,” Benítez said. “I always have confidence that he has the calmness to score under that sort of pressure. We know that Steven will not give up, he'll keep going right to the end and it is no surprise when he scores such late goals now.”

It was Gerrard's fourteenth penalty success in 19 attempts. Since 2005-06 he has scored 12 from 15 tries, last missing against Marseilles 11 months ago. “I was just trying to concentrate and blot everything else out,” he said after the Atlético game. “I decided where I was going to put the ball and stuck to that. Usually I like to get on with it but their players were complaining about the decision and I had to wait. But I was cool, I put it right where I wanted it.”

He admitted that Tuesday's decision was “debatable”. Made on the advice of the assistant referee after Mariano Pernía nudged Gerrard in the back as they jumped for the ball, it infuriated Atlético. Even the referee, Martin Hansson, appears to harbour doubts. “From my angle, I am not sure if it was a penalty,” he reportedly told a Swedish TV station yesterday.

Pernía claimed that the assistant admitted he made a mistake. “In nobody's eyes was that a penalty,” he said. “It was not a foul, Gerrard threw himself on top of me. It couldn't have been more clear. The linesman said, 'Sorry, sorry' after the penalty was given. He had time to correct it and go back on it but he didn't.”

As the scorer of the most dubious goal in history, it would have been interesting to hear Diego Maradona's take on events, but despite rumours, the new Argentina coach was not at Anfield to run the rule over Javier Mascherano and Sergio Agüero, the forward whom Mascherano believes would benefit from a move to a big English club.

“I don't know if [Maradona] is going to come to Liverpool,” Mascherano, who has been tipped to be named Argentina captain, said. “He was talking about it, saying he will come - other players are excited, wanting to see him.

“We will try and bring him to Melwood [Liverpool's training ground] so all the players can meet him. To us, he is like God. He's the best player we've had in our history, the best player football's ever had.”

Voronin Pining For Liverpool Return

Once a vocal critic of life at Liverpool, Ukranian striker Andrei Voronin has had a sudden and dramatic change of heart and now appears intent on securing a return to Anfield.

Voronin, who joined Hertha Berlin on loan after failing to make an impact on English football, made himself Public Enemy No 1 on Merseyside after criticising the standard of living in Britain and in particular the city of Liverpool.

Now, in a recent interview with Russia's Pro Sport magazine, the 25-year-old showed himself to be open to a return to the place that he spoke so badly of.

'I'm a leader at Hertha and feel their fans love me but I would like to be a leader in a team which is always fighting to win the Premier League, the Champions League and which have such people playing for them as Steven Gerrard who is a symbol of the city like the Beatles," he was quoted as saying.

'I see no sense in staying in Berlin saying to myself: 'OK, everyone loves me here, why do I need to play for Livepool?'

'I'd really like a new start there. I have a contract with them for two more years. When I joined Liverpool I knew I could play at such a high level and think I proved it. The rotation of the squad by Benitez really enraged me, but he told me from the start about that and I should have been prepared for it."

Ref Not Sure On Penalty

The Swedish referee Martin Hansson has contravened Uefa regulations by publicly admitting that he was "not sure" about the controversial 94th-minute penalty that allowed Liverpool to secure an equaliser against Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night.

He has also hinted that the atmosphere at Anfield might have been a factor in giving the penalty.

"From my angle I am not sure that it was a penalty," said Hansson, who admitted on Swedish television that the atmosphere at Anfield is "dizzying" before saying: "I am not authorised by Uefa to talk about my decision."

Meanwhile the defender penalised for a foul on Steven Gerrard has claimed the linesman who flagged for the penalty realised his mistake and apologised for the decision which cost Atlético victory.

"The linesman apologised three or four times. He was saying 'sorry, sorry' in English, because he realised he had got it wrong and robbed the game from us," said Mariano Pernía.

We Must Handle Pressure – Pepe Reina

Pepe Reina accepts Liverpool must learn to handle the pressure of increased expectations following their controversial Champions League escape.

Only a contentious injury-time penalty from Steven Gerrard prevented Rafael Benitez’s side from falling to a damaging loss at home to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

It meant the Anfield outfit avoided a second defeat in five days after their unbeaten start to the campaign was halted in agonising fashion at Tottenham Hotspur.

Another defeat would have cast inevitable doubts over Liverpool’s ability to bounce back from setbacks, a failing that has undermined their efforts in recent times.

But while admitting Gerrard’s equaliser may not have silenced the critics, Reina is confident Benitez’s side now possess a greater mental strength to cope with the heightened scrutiny of their performances.

“We didn’t feel any extra pressure because of what happened at Spurs,” said the goalkeeper. “You’re always going to lose some games.

“We don’t think we deserved to lose at Spurs, we played a lot better and had plenty of chances. Sometimes that happens, sometimes you get luck and sometimes you don’t.

“But if Stevie hadn’t have scored at the end against Atletico, then we know people would have been talking.

“You have to handle that kind of pressure here at Liverpool. People expect you to win every game. When you don’t win, it’s normal that people will talk about it.”

Gerrard’s penalty was the eighth goal Liverpool have netted in the final 10 minutes of a game this season, all of which have proven pivotal.

And Reina added: “I don’t know if scoring all these late goals gives us a psychological advantage against opponents, who might think we’re never beaten. But I do know we are quite strong mentally, and we keep fighting and never give up on the result until the very last second.

“We’ve scored a lot of late goals this season, but we suffered one at Tottenham. That’s football.

“But it’s unbelievable that Stevie can handle the pressure of putting that penalty away in the 90th minute. It’s amazing. If he took five penalties against me in training, I’m sure he’d score all five!”

Wednesday’s draw has moved Atletico back above Liverpool at the top of Group D, although Benitez’s men only need one victory in their last two games at home to Marseille and away to PSV Eindhoven to progress.

“It was really important to get that goal at the end because we’re still depending on ourselves to get through now,” said Reina. “If we win against Marseille, then we know we will progress. Atletico defended really well. They were strong in midfield and put the extra man in there, which made it difficult for us to penetrate them.

But we knew it was going to be difficult.

“It’s always good to remain unbeaten in any competition, so to keep that record going in the Champions League can give us the confidence to win that game we need to go through.”

‘Goals Will Come If We Keep Creating Chances’

As ever, the television cameras were trained on Fernando Torres, tracking the Spaniard’s every movement and reaction at a packed Anfield.

The problem for Liverpool is their star striker was once again sat in the stands as his former club Atletico Madrid came within seconds of returning home with a surprise victory on Wednesday night.

Some charitable officiating and Steven Gerrard’s nerves of steel meant, as at the Vicente Calderon two weeks earlier, the spoils were shared with both teams edging nearer the knockout stages of the Champions League.

But Liverpool’s inability to find a way past erratic Atletico goalkeeper Leo Franco from open play underlined why Torres is being sorely missed.

It was a similar story five days earlier, when the Spaniard’s presence may have prevented the profligacy from Benitez’s side that allowed Tottenham Hotspur to somehow steal a 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane last Saturday.

Torres has now sat out six games with the hamstring injury sustained while on international duty with Spain in Belgium last month.

However, even if the striker fails to overcome the problem in time for Saturday’s visit of struggling West Bromwich Albion, midfielder Javier Mascherano is confident Liverpool will soon click into goalscoring gear once more.

“We’re certainly not worried about missing chances, the most important thing is that we have had a lot of them,” says the Argentine. “That proves we are playing well.

“Sometimes we’ve missed a few, yes, but we’re creating a lot so I don’t think we have anything to worry about. We know we’ve won important games without Torres but obviously he’s a key player for us and it’s much better to have him there.

“Of course we have others who can score, like Keane, Gerrard and sometimes players like Riera. But obviously Fernando is the main one for us and I have no worries because in the next game we could end up scoring plenty of goals.

“It’s not something we should be worried about, as I said the main thing is just to play well and we are.”

Liverpool have won three, drawn two and lost one of the games Torres has missed. But since the 3-2 win over Wigan Athletic, they have scored just one goal in each of their last five outings.

Of course, accusations of the Anfield outfit being a one-man team were made redundant earlier this season when both Manchester United and Chelsea were beaten without any help from Torres.

But there’s no doubt Liverpool are a more potent outfit with the Spaniard, with Robbie Keane in particular toiling as the spearhead of a 4-2-3-1 formation favoured by Benitez in recent weeks that is far more suited to Torres.

Keane again fired a blank against Atletico – it’s just two goals in 18 games since his near £20million summer move from Tottenham Hotspur – but Mascherano didn’t mind who was on target provided Liverpool avoided defeat.

We deserved to win on Wednesday, but when it gets so close to the end the main thing then is just to make sure you don’t lose,” he says. “We’re still up there with Atletico and know if we win our next game, we could end up on top of the group.

“It’s too early yet to start talking of winning trophies but I think we will be fighting for titles if we carry on playing like we are.

“Two weeks ago people were talking of us as being contenders because we’d beaten Chelsea, so we know things can change quickly in football, but it’s not something to worry about.”

Mascherano has been a resounding success at Liverpool since his arrival almost two years ago.

And that consistent form has been noted by new Argentina manager Diego Maradona, who has already earmarked the midfielder as the new captain of the national team.

But Mascherano says: “I haven’t turned down the chance to be captain because I’ve not spoken to Maradona yet. And at the moment we have a captain in (Javier) Zanetti, who has played for Argentina for 14 years and won 125 caps, so we need to respect that.

“For everyone in Argentina it will maybe be a shock having him as manager, but it’s great as well. It will be fantastic. Now we need to help him as players too and help him take Argentina to the top of the world.

“We all know Diego gave us so much as a player and now we hope maybe he can give us many things as a manager as well. To us he is like God. He’s the best player we’ve had in our history, the best player football’s ever had.”

Another player in which Maradona is expected to place his faith is Atletico Madrid’s talented teenager Sergio Aguero, who came on as substitute on Wednesday.

Benitez revealed last month that, had finances permitted, he would have been keen to sign Aguero before he made his move to Madrid.

And Mascherano says: “He’s certainly good enough to play in the Premier League. He’s a fantastic player, very strong with a very good technique and a good finisher, although at the moment I think Messi is maybe one step higher.

“But I think it would help Aguero by playing for a big club in England. He’s doing very well in Spain and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the same over here.”