Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Liverpool Jilted By Another Suitor

The ownership saga at Liverpool has taken another twist amid claims that a Middle East investment group came close to buying the Merseyside club two weeks ago, only to drop its interest in mysterious circumstances.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., the club’s American owners, continue to deny that they are looking to sell Liverpool and that they have held negotiations with any potential buyer, but sources claimed last night that an Arab group — unrelated to Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai — had made a firm offer for the club, having inspected the company accounts, but walked away without explanation with a deal looking imminent.

The Times has learnt that there has been interest shown in Liverpool recently by a consortium from Kuwait, although it is not clear whether this was the same group that came close to buying the Merseyside club. The previous £500 million offer from Sheikh Mohammed, now operating independently of, rather than through, the Dubai International Capital group, remains on the table.

The American tycoons are expected to issue another public denial today, amid concerns that the price could be driven down if they are seen as active sellers, but it is an open secret in the world of football finance that they are willing to sell for the right price. Even if they have not been directly involved in negotiations, others have negotiated on their behalf. Last month The Times revealed that they engaged Merrill Lynch, the investment bank, to help to find a buyer. Another swift denial was issued that day, but Gillett squirmed and declined to comment when put on the spot in an interview with a Canadian radio station last week.

Gillett conceded in the same interview that he was “embarrassed” by certain episodes since buying the club with Hicks in February 2007, such as the failure to deliver their promise of a new stadium in Stanley Park, the construction of which has been postponed indefinitely because of their inability to raise the funds.

The Americans are under additional pressure to restructure their £350 million loan with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Wachovia banks, which expires on January 25. If no buyer can be found in time, they hope to be given permission to take up the option of a six-month extension, but RBS, at present under public ownership because of the credit crunch, is by no means guaranteed to renew thereafter. Amid that growing pressure, Hicks and Gillett are firmly expected to sell the club sooner rather than later.

Fears Over Fire Sale Of Liverpool's Top Players

One of English football’s most influential powerbrokers has expressed grave concerns for the future of Liverpool under the ownership of George Gillett Jr. and Tom Hicks. Keith Harris, the chairman of Seymour Pierce, the investment bank, and the man responsible for brokering some of the biggest takeovers of Barclays Premier League clubs, including the sale of Chelsea to Roman Abramovich in 2003, believes that the Americans could be forced to sell leading players if they are unable to pay off the club’s £350 million debt.

Although Hicks and Gillett have an option to extend the January 25 deadline for repaying the loan by six months, it is far from guaranteed that an extension will be granted, with their main lenders, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Wachovia, being two of the banks worst hit by the global economic crisis.

Hicks and Gillett are confident that an extension will be granted, but, with the Government set to own up to 60 per cent of RBS after the £20 billion bailout, MPs have lobbied Gordon Brown to prevent the bank from giving the Americans extra time to repay the loan when many believe that they are not in a position, financially, to do that, let alone fund a new 60,000-seat stadium.

“The one that worries me is Liverpool,” said Harris, the former chairman of the Football League, who has been asked to find buyers for Everton and Newcastle United. “Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia are two of those that have suffered. Whether they want to lend it [the money] again or not, they may not be able to.” A £500 million offer to buy the club, from Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, remains on the table, although Harris believes the club’s hand could be forced if a buyer cannot be found.

The Times revealed in April how Liverpool may have to sell Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel unless they repay by next summer the £31.5 million borrowed to sign the Spain and Holland forwards.

Harris, who was in Zurich yesterday to address football financiers at the International Football Arena conference, said: “If the banks won’t finance, you have to raise equity. If they can’t find it, it’s a brave banker that would repossess Liverpool Football Club.”

Harris added that he was struggling to find a credible buyer for Everton in the face of a sharp economic downturn. Everton are also hopeful of building a new stadium, but Harris hinted that it would make far better sense financially for the Merseyside clubs to groundshare, a move that has been steadfastly opposed by the clubs and their supporters.

“There is no progress at all [on Everton],” Harris said. “The demographics of Liverpool as an area are not hugely compelling. It is not a very wealthy city and Everton share the city with another club which has been in the vanguard for the last decade. They both have a stadium to build, so the economics need a lot of looking at, whereas Newcastle is a one-club city with a fabulous stadium.”

Torres is expected to be included in Liverpool’s squad for their Carling Cup fourth-round tie at White Hart Lane this evening. However, Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, expects to play several fringe players, including Fraizer Campbell, the forward, who came on as a substitute during the 4-0 victory against Dynamo Zagreb in the Uefa Cup group match last week.

Paul Stalteri, Adel Taarabt, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Hossam Ghaly may also play, but Benoît Assou-Ekotto, the left back, is suspended, and Ledley King is expected to be rested. “I’m going to make one or two changes to give the lads who haven’t played an opportunity,” Redknapp said. Giovani dos Santos does not need surgery on an ankle problem, but the forward will be out for up to four weeks.

Benitez Confirms Keane Won't Face Former Club Spurs

LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez has confirmed both Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane will definitely be rested for tonight's Carling Cup fourth-round tie at Tottenham.

And he has intimated Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt and Xabi Alonso could also be left out.

Benitez's decision means Keane will not be able to face his former club, having left Spurs for Liverpool during the summer in a £20million move.

Benitez made it clear he would rest several senior players – some of whom have played six games in 18 days.

Benitez said: "Gerrard will not be in the squad and neither will Keane. It is always difficult to play so many games in a row and you have to change some players depending on the competition. The majority of them can play games in a row but some need to be taken care of.

"Gerrard is one of them at this moment. Dirk Kuyt is another who has played almost every game. Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher and Robbie Keane are the same. You also have to consider that some of these players have played internationals this season too. I believe Keane has played 23 games already."

One big name not needing a rest is Fernando Torres, who requires match practice after missing six games with a hamstring tear. The Spaniard will travel to White Hart Lane and may even start against Harry Redknapp's men.

Benitez said: "He will be in the squad and hopefully he can play. He could start. It is an important competition for us. We have players who are not always involved but have enough quality. They need games for match fitness because they could be needed later in the season."

Redknapp Wants Better For Return Of Liverpool

Harry Redknapp admits Tottenham Hotspur will lose their grip on the Carling Cup if there is a repeat of their performance against Liverpool during his first week in charge at White Hart Lane. Spurs could have been dead and buried against Rafael Benitez's men when they met in the Premier League, only for Jamie Carragher's own goal and a last-ditch winner from Roman Pavlyuchenko to give them a 2-1 win.

Redknapp's magic touch has been credited with Spurs going unbeaten since their change of manager – and defending the Carling Cup is the next task, with Liverpool their opponents in the fourth round. "We played Liverpool and beat them but let's face it, they murdered us," Redknapp said.

Redknapp has Benoit Assou-Ekotto suspended and Ledley King in need of rest, and he has the option of involving fringe players such as Paul Stalteri, Ricardo Rocha, Adel Taarabt, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Hossam Ghaly who all struggled under former head coach Juande Ramos.

A full-strength team was picked for the Uefa Cup game against Dinamo Zagreb last week and balanced against the defence of a trophy, Redknapp is keen to keep his whole squad involved in first-team duties. "All the players are in the dressing room after the games, delighted that we have won," Redknapp said. "I have not isolated any of them. They are part of it. And that is how I want to keep it."

Ricardo Rocha has felt the difference, and the Portuguese defender said: "Redknapp is a great coach, very communicative and everyone is motivated to show what they can do."

Another factor in Redknapp's possible starting XI is the tight bottom half of the Premier League, with three points separating West Bromwich at the foot and 10th-placed Fulham, who Spurs face at the weekend.

"The only thing that is important at this moment in time is retaining our Premier League status because we are still very much in trouble along with lots of other clubs and no one is getting carried away here," said assistant coach Kevin Bond.

Against Liverpool last time out, Redknapp's magic touch was almost undermined by errors from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. Redknapp has spoken to Gomes about the selection process for claiming crosses, and the Spurs manager has backed the Brazilian to make a marked improvement over the coming games. "He did all right against Manchester City [at the weekend]," said Redknapp. "He has just got to settle in and understand what is required in England. When you talk to people about him, they talk highly of his qualities. Tony Adams did when he returned from Holland. Gomes took PSV to the semi-finals of the Champions League almost single-handedly. He was that good.

"It is a game of confidence and he has had one or two iffy days. Hopefully now his confidence will start to grow and we will see what he can do."

Redknapp is not expected to make radical changes in the January transfer window. Andrei Arshavin, a Spurs target in the summer, has been linked with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, while Vagner Love has committed himself to CSKA Moscow. The striker said: "My contract with CSKA has three years to run. I am going to defend their interests at least until then."

The Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will make a late decision on whether striker Fernando Torres starts at White Hart Lane tonight. Torres is in need of match fitness after missing six games with a hamstring injury and is expected to feature in the fourth round tie while Benitez rests several of his other stars, including Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane.

He could also leave out Carragher, Dirk Kuyt and Xabi Alonso. Second-choice goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri, Sami Hyypia, Yossi Benayoun and Jermaine Pennant are expected to play.

Benitez believes he has players desperate to prove themselves given the size of his squad and that that will make the difference against Spurs.

He said: "We have enough players in the squad waiting for their chance to impress, it will be important for them to grab this opportunity. And when the team is playing well it is easier to change players and retain the system.

"I believe we can still continue to play well and to keep winning regardless of the players we use.

"We want to win every game but this is another competition and we have several players who are tired after some difficult weeks so we rest some and change a few."

Liverpool FC Second String Ready To Impress - Rafa Benitez

Rafael Benitez believes Liverpool can march into the Carling Cup quarter-finals with a revenge win at Spurs because he has players desperate to prove themselves.

Benitez will make wholesale changes for the fourth-round tie at White Hart Lane, scene of the Reds’ only defeat this season when Spurs fought back to claim a late 2-1 victory.

The bulk of that side will not be on show tomorrow, although Benitez is considering using Fernando Torres from the start.

Torres played for the final 19 minutes of Saturday’s 3-0 win over West Brom after a six-game absence with a hamstring injury.

The likes of Steven Gerrard, Jose Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano, Daniel Agger and Albert Riera are not expected to figure but Benitez insists Liverpool can force their way into the last eight.

He said: “We have enough players in the squad waiting for their chance to impress, it will be important for them to grab this opportunity.

“And when the team is playing well it is easier to change players and retain the system.

“I believe we can still continue to play well and to keep winning regardless of the players we use.”

Benitez will probably bring in goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri, defenders Sami Hyypia and Andreas Dossena, midfielders Yossi Benayoun, Jermaine Pennant, Lucas, Nabil El Zhar and Ryan Babel.

Robbie Keane may get a chance to play again at his former club, possibly alongside Torres, while youngsters Jay Spearing, David Ngog, Emiliano Insua and Damien Plessis could be involved.

Benitez added: “We want to win every game but this is another competition and we have several players who are tired after some difficult weeks so we rest some and change a few.

“But we have a good squad so we will try to win with different players.

“We may well use Torres from the start. It is a decision I will take on the day after seeing how he has done during training.”

The league defeat at Spurs earlier this month still rankles with Benitez, and he will be looking for his much-changed side to gain revenge.

He said: “We were very much on top and looking a good team, but in football you can play really well and lose while on other occasions you can play badly and still win.

“That was the case last time. We played well and lost. It was more a case that we lost the game rather than them winning it.

“But Spurs have done well. When you are at the bottom and start winning, the confidence comes back. They have good players and finished fifth twice a few years back.”

Israel midfielder Benayoun already has his eyes on a Wembley appearance and a winners’ medal.

He said: “We have a cup game we know we can win and want to win. We want to win all the competitions, do not doubt that.

“We want to win at Spurs, especially having lost there in the league.

“And for the other players in the squad it is a chance to show what we can do.

“We want to win the game and go on to win the Carling Cup, whoever is in the side. It is important for us.

“There’s a little bit of revenge maybe. The league game at Spurs was one of our best performances of the season and we lost at the end.

“We know we are a better team than that and we have a team who can win at Spurs.”

Benayoun admits he is impressed by the job new Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has done, adding: “I have been a little surprised by what Harry Redknapp has done, he changed them almost in a few days.

“He deserves the credit and is a good manager and a good person. I wish him all the best, but only after Wednesday.”

Rush: Fringe Benefits

Liverpool legend Ian Rush feels the performances of Rafael Benitez's fringe players will decide their future in the Carling Cup as they prepare to face holders Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Wednesday.

Rush and former Spurs captain Alan Mullery spoke to Sky Sports News about the fourth round game, and although Liverpool may include Fernando Torres after six matches out with a hamstring injury, Steven Gerrard and Jose Reina are set for a well-earned rest.

That will put pressure on the likes of Diego Cavalleri, Sami Hyypia, Lucas and Ryan Babel, who could do their chances of a run in the first-team plenty of good with a positive display.

Rush explained: "I think Harry (Redknapp) will play his strongest side - he will be looking at it as a chance to that Tottenham can get into Europe. They are the defending champions so I think Tottenham will take it very seriously.

"Apart from the top four, and obviously they have a stronger squad to play certain players in these games, the likes of Tottenham and everyone else will play a strong side.

"I think what Rafa will do is give these fringe players a chance to show what they can do. I think to win the league it's not 11 players that win it, it's 19-20, and what Rafa will be doing now is to say to these players here's your chance to prove you are good enough to play against Premier League opposition.

"I think he'll be looking to them to do that and if they can they give the manager a problem when it comes to league games, it's a great chance for them.

Rush also paid tribute to Robbie Keane after his weekend double against West Brom, although the former Spurs hero is one of Benitez's regulars who will not be in the squad on Wednesday.

He added: "He's a fantastic player. I think his work-rate is unbelievable. He hadn't scored before the weekend, but with Liverpool winning, they were looking at his work-rate.

"It's only when you are losing that people look at the strikers, but I think he's worth every penny Liverpool paid for him and I think he will get better and better."

Mullery feels Harry Redknapp has been little short of a miracle worker so far for Spurs, but wonders if he will get the same sort of luck he enjoyed when the two clubs met 10 days ago, a game in which Liverpool hit the woodwork three times, missed a host of chances, and went on to lose 2-1.

Mullery explained: "If you go back to the Liverpool game in the league, I bumped into Jamie Redknapp and he said to me 'What do you think Alan?' I said 'Do you want the truth? I think we should have been four down at half-time.'

"He said 'I don't agree with you' and I thought there was going to be an argument, but he then said: 'No, it should have been five!'

"We had all the luck that was going, it was absolutely amazing, and also for Pavlyuchenko to come on at half-time and score the winning goal in the 93rd minute was just amazing.

"Liverpool on the day were outstanding, I thought they looked a very very good side and if they'd have scored the goals - and the biggest word in football is if - which they didn't, then Spurs go and get the winning goal.

"I hope Harry doesn't change his side and picks the players he has been using recently, but Liverpool will definitely change their team, there's no doubt about that."

Lucas: Play Me And I'll Be Red Hot

Liverpool's Lucas Leiva wants to show what he can do against Tottenham Hotspur in the midweek Carling Cup showdown.

He looked promising when he first arrived on Merseyside, but young Lucas Leiva hasn't quite made the first team impact he'd hoped for and is now very much a fringe player. In fact, sections of the Liverpool fanbase are seriously underwhelmed by his progress.

However, the Brazilian is hoping he'll get the nod from boss Rafa Benitez for the Carling Cup clash with holders Tottenham in midweek.

The 21-year-old former Grêmio midfielder has further urged Rafa to let him off the leash so he can fulfil his potential as a goalscoring threat.

"In Brazil I scored goals," he noted, "I got eight in my best season.

"Now? I can't get into the box as much. I didn't last season because I was adapting to the game here, where the pace is so different.

"This season, though, I can get into the box more and hopefully get some goals. The Carling Cup is an opportunity for us to show what we can do.

"It's not as important as the Premier League, but when you play for a club like Liverpool you want to win all the trophies. I want to opportunity to play at Wembley, where some of the Brazil internationals have played."

It'll likely be tough for Lucas to prove himself as a goalscoring midfielder in a team full of prolific midfield marksmen.

Riera: Let's Learn English, Lads

Albert Riera is keen for his Spanish colleagues at Anfield to join him in speaking English in order to help team unity.

Albert Riera's performances have been a nice surprise for Liverpool fans since his summer switch from Espanyol.

The winger failed to make a significant impression two years ago whilst on loan with Manchester City, but has thrived at Anfield thus far.

Undoubtedly, the large Spanish contingent in the present Reds squad has helped the 26-year-old to settle more quickly than he might have elsewhere.

However, Riera isn't wearing Roja tinted glasses and has urged Rafa's Spanish army to brush up on their English skills.

He told Setanta: "We came here, not the opposite. We have to learn here and improve with the football.

"We are not in Spain, we are here. We need to learn here and to speak in English, because we speak in Spanish a lot of time.

He insists, however, that there's no dressing room divide, adding: "It’s true we know each other and, on the pitch, it’s very important.

"However, I think all people can see on the pitch we are as a team. Not only Spanish, I think it's all players and that’s very important."

Rafa: Torres In Contention For Spurs Start

After nursing his way back to match fitness following a hamstring injury, Spanish striker Fernando Torres may feature for Liverpool in Wednesday evening's Carling Cup clash with Tottenham Hotspur.

Fernando Torres' problematic hamstring has kept the Spaniard sidelined since mid October, but he may feature in Liverpool's fourth round Carling Cup tie on Wednesday evening against resurgent lily white side Tottenham Hotspur.

Manager Rafa Benitez confirmed today that his No 9 may even start the fixture.

"He will be in the squad and hopefully he can play. He could start," the Liverpool boss told the club's official website.

The Carling Cup traditionally provides Premier League sides a chance to rest their star players, rotate, and gives members of the top four an opportunity to groom their younger players.

"Gerrard will not be in the squad and neither will Keane," Benitez continued. "It's always difficult to play so many games in a row and you have to change some players depending on the competition. The majority of them can play games in a row but some need to be taken care of.

"Gerrard is one of them at this moment. Dirk Kuyt is another who has played almost every game. Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher and Robbie Keane are the same.

"You also have to consider that some of these players have played internationals this season too. I think Keane has played 23 games already," he said.

"We will use players who haven't played every game. I have confidence in them because they are all internationals."

Banks Could Force Sale Of 'Financially Vulnerable' Liverpool

Liverpool, whose American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett stand two months away from the expiry date of loans which could force them to sell up, are the most financially vulnerable club in the land, the Premier League's most experienced football financier declared yesterday.

Keith Harris, of Seymour Harris, who brought Roman Abramovich to Chelsea and is currently seeking buyers for Everton and Newcastle United, said he had doubts about whether Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Wachovia, buffeted by the worldwide financial crisis, were either willing or able to refinance the loans which are currently propping up Liverpool.

Speaking at the International Football Arena conference in Zurich, Harris said of Britain's debt-laden clubs: "The one that worries me is Liverpool. The principal lenders [RBS and Wachovia] are two of those that have suffered. Whether they want to lend it again or not, they may not be able to." Without fresh investment, said Harris, the club's joint owners could be forced to sell players. If neither refinancing, nor new financial stakeholders can be found, the banks must consider whether to repossess the club. "It's a brave banker that would repossess Liverpool Football Club," he said.

By the indicator which bankers judge the financial health of the club – the ratio of operating profit against interest payments due on their debt – Harris is right. Newcastle, one of the clubs routinely cited as financially troubled, have had their debt removed by Mike Ashley, and West Ham, despite Sheffield United's impending legal suit over the Carlos Tevez affair and the damage caused to its owners by the problems of the Icelandic financial system, make almost enough profit to cover their interest twice.

Bankers begin to get uncomfortable when profit is less than twice the interest payments and Liverpool's profit barely covers the huge interest payments with which Hicks and Gillett have saddled the club. "If their's was a normal business they would be financially in the intensive care ward," one financier said yesterday.

Harris' comments comes amid new hints that Hicks and Gillett are looking to sell Liverpool – despite their fantastic start to the season – before the 25 January deadline by which RBS will decide whether to allow them a six-month extension on the refinancing arrangement they struck last January. Gillett steadfastly refused to discuss the sale issue in London two weeks ago during an interview in which he suggested that he was planning new sporting investment in India.

It is believed that a prospective Middle East investor – unrelated to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai – walked away from discussions to buy the club three weeks ago, during which they tabled an offer believed to be no better than the £500m Dubai International Capital (DIC) have bid in the past. Sources suggest that the prospective buyer was told that the club's projected profit for this financial year was £45m. Most informed estimates would put the likely figure at nearer to £30m at best. It is understood that the DIC offer still stands, months after the Americans walked away from it.

In the current climate, with Hicks and Gillett too cash-strapped to progress the Stanley Park stadium which is integral to their development plans for Liverpool, it is difficult to see how the pair can afford to offer Rafael Benitez the improved five-year contract which he is seeking. Hicks has told the Liverpool manager that talks can get under way, though one interpretation of his willingness to go public on that fact is that the Americans are looking to establish a sense of stability which would help any sale.

RBS are currently being lobbied by the Spirit of Shankly supporters group not to allow the six-month extension. It is unclear whether their move into public ownership as a result of the credit crunch will affect their willingness to allow an extension. No government would welcome the attention which a refusal to extend would bring.

Harris was equally gloomy about Everton, who, he said, were proving difficult to sell. "There is no progress at all," Harris said "The demographics of Liverpool as an area are not hugely compelling. It is not a very wealthy city and Everton share the city with another club which arguably has been in the vanguard for the last decade.

"They both have a stadium to build, so the economics need a lot of looking at whereas Newcastle is a one-club city with a fabulous stadium."

Never, said Harris, had it been more difficult to find the right buyers. "It's not a question of price negotiation – it's should we? People are wondering if now is the time to spend." Speaking after a private address to football financiers in Zurich, he re-iterated that there were still two genuine offers in the pipeline for Newcastle but refused to name them.

Torres Focused On Winning The League - Not On A Move South

Fernando Torres has said he has no intention of leaving Liverpool for Chelsea or any other European club as the Spain international prepares to return to Rafael Benítez's starting line-up at Tottenham Hotspur tonight.

The £26.5m record signing is scheduled to make his first start since October 5 in the Carling Cup fourth-round tie, and announced his recovery from a hamstring tear yesterday by reaffirming his commitment to Anfield. Torres was a supposed target for Luiz Felipe Scolari when the Brazilian first arrived at Stamford Bridge, although no contact was ever made with Liverpool over the player who has become one of the most coveted in the game.

However, the 24-year-old, who signed a six-year contract when he joined Liverpool from Atlético Madrid last year, said: "I have no plans to go anywhere, not back to Spain, not to Italy, not to another English club. I read a lot of things [about Chelsea in the summer] but I was at the European Championships and I did not want any distractions. I don't know if they spoke with the club or with my agent. But in any case even if there was something in it nothing was ever going to make me abandon Liverpool."

Torres hailed the Liverpool manager, Benítez, as "the best coach I have ever had without doubt" and admitted the priority at Anfield this season has to be winning the league title. He added: "When I arrived at Liverpool, everyone talked about the league. We have won it 19 times and Manchester United 18. If they win it this season then they draw level and the fans don't want that. I think 90% of Liverpool fans would prefer the league."

Benítez yesterday confirmed his compatriot could start at White Hart Lane but travelled to London without Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane. Dirk Kuyt, Jamie Carragher and Xabi Alonso are also expected to be rested. "We have a lot of good players in our first-team squad and a lot of young players too, and they all need games, so I have to decide on which ones," the Liverpool manager said.