Friday, November 14, 2008

Rafa: I Couldn't Do It Without Sammy Lee

Liverpool are enjoying a great start to the season on all fronts and Rafa Benitez has hailed assistant manager Sammy Lee for his work.

Sammy Lee didn't make much of a manager, bumbling his way briefly in and out of the Bolton hotseat in 2007, but it's clear that he's an exceptional assistant.

The former Liverpool midfielder was highly-rated by Graeme Souness, Roy Evans and Gérard Houllier during his first stint at Anfield and was a key part of Sam Allardyce's Trotters set-up.

Now, current Reds boss Rafa Benitez can't get enough of him, hailing Lee's impact since he returned to the club in May.

He Spaniard mentioned Lee's Melwood picture montage of iconic players - Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff et al. - as an example of Lee's inspirational behaviour.

Benitez told the club's official website: "This is a good message for the players - to see the legends when they are at Melwood. It can be an inspiration for them.

"Sammy has brought the spirit and mentality of the former players who know everything about the club.

"He has passion and is a very, very positive person. He's been a very good addition."

The wily gaffer want on to say that, despite the Reds' positive start - level with Chelsea, six ahead of Arsenal and eight to the good where Man Utd are concerned - no-one is about it ease up.

"The gap is not really important at this stage," he insisted. "It's better to be ahead but it's too soon for it to be important.

"I always say the same: it's a long race."

The Reds travel to the Reebock to face Lee's former club Bolton at the weekend.

Torres: Albert Will Help Me Beat 33

Fernando Torres believes the arrival of 'real winger' Albert Riera could help him beat the 33 goals he scored last season.

A hamstring tear has restricted Torres to just four starts with his countryman so far, but the striker has already seen enough to predict Riera will have a big impact at Anfield.

"He's a different player to what we've had because he is a real winger," El Nino told the official LFC Magazine.

"On the right we have Jermaine Pennant and now on the left we have Albert.

"He is capable of going on the outside or coming inside. He can dribble and cross - he is a complete player. He is really important to the team already.

"As a striker, it is great to have someone who can cross the ball so well.

"Having him in the team should create more space for the other forwards because defenders need to watch Albert. That should help the rest of us get more opportunities."

Liverpool Lack Title Race Strength In Depth

Liverpool appear to have the best chance of ending their league title drought since Roy Evans's team fell away in the finishing straight in 1997, but their Carling Cup exit on Wednesday has revived concerns over their strength in depth. While their first XI looks formidable, the back-up players have struggled to match those standards, again falling short in the 4-2 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

Fernando Torres and Daniel Agger were the only first-choice players in the Liverpool starting line-up on a night when Rafael Benítez's team suffered their second defeat away to Tottenham in 12 days. But whereas the visiting side were unfortunate to lose 2-1 in the Barclays Premier League, they were poor on their return to North London this week.

Agger, who was part of a defence that conceded three times shortly before the break to leave Liverpool 3-0 down at half-time, claimed afterwards that no trophies, Premier League or otherwise, would be going to Anfield if they continued to play in the same manner. “If you see the goals, it was the same problem every time and they speak for themselves,” the Denmark central defender said. “We conceded four bad goals and you cannot expect to do that and still get anything out of a game.

“Right now it's difficult to take any positives at all. That just wasn't good enough. We have to do better than this otherwise we won't achieve anything this season.”

Liverpool will hope that they can get through the season without many injuries to their leading players, but such a scenario might be less devastating for Arsenal. While their failure to win the Premier League over the past four years has been blamed partly on Arsène Wenger's reluctance to address weaknesses in his first XI by acquiring established top-class players, the manager can boast an abundance of riches in reserve.

The Premier League's “big four” rested most of their first-choice players in this week's Carling Cup fourth-round ties, but Arsenal recorded much the best result. Chelsea joined Liverpool in departing the competition, succumbing in a penalty shoot-out at home to Burnley, while Manchester United needed a late penalty by Carlos Tévez at Old Trafford to see off Queens Park Rangers, but Wenger's team steamrollered Wigan Athletic.

Arsenal's achievement was all the more impressive because their line-up featured a majority of what amounted to third-team players, whereas United and Liverpool had two each and Chelsea had none. Wenger also declined to pick any of his first-choice team, in contrast to Benítez, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Sir Alex Ferguson (although it could be argued that the United manager no longer considers Gary Neville to be his main right back, in which case the Scot also overlooked his entire first team).

Steve Bruce, the Wigan manager, described Arsenal's youngsters as “frightening” and admitted that “we got our backsides kicked by a very good team”. The six players who started at the Emirates Stadium but who would probably not make the club's second XI are Gavin Hoyte, Jack Wilshere, Mark Randall, Fran Mérida, Jay Simpson and Carlos Vela, teenagers all. Among them they provided the goals - two by Simpson and one by Vela - and two of the three assists.

Five of this half-dozen also started the 6-0 win over Sheffield United in the previous round. The only possible drawback for Arsenal fans is whether any of these players are ready to make a significant contribution to the present Premier League campaign. The answer to that question, and the depth of their rivals' reserve strength, may help to decide the destination of the title.

Daniel Agger: We Have To Do Better At Bolton

Daniel Agger has demanded improvement from Liverpool as they look to sustain their Barclays Premier League title challenge with victory at Bolton on Saturday.

Centre-back Agger was the only player retained in the starting XI for the midweek Carling Cup defeat against Tottenham where Rafael Benitez’s under-par second string made his squad look lightweight and lacking depth.

Benitez will recall his first-choice players for the trip to the Reebok Stadium, with Agger hoping there will be no hangover from White Hart Lane.

The 23-year-old Denmark international feels standards must be higher if Benitez needs to call on his squad players again.

"We definitely have to do better," he said. "Bolton are a physical and strong team so it will be a tough match for us, but we are focused on making improvements in every area."

The 4-2 defeat allows Benitez to prioritise the Premier League and Champions League - and Agger feels there should be lessons learned from the defeat to Spurs as well.

"We can’t take many positives from that game," said Agger.

"I think it’s easy to say that when you let the opposition score four goals, you won’t win the game.

"Our team performance was just not good enough. We were far from strong enough and we have to do better.

"But now we will think about improving against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday - that is all we can do.

"We take every game as it comes and must play a lot better than how we performed against Tottenham."

Fernando Torres returned from his hamstring tear against Spurs, and he is relishing a return to action to link up with fellow Spaniard Albert Riera, who was signed from Espanyol to provide genuine width.

"He’s a different player to what we’ve had because he is a real winger," Torres told the LFC Magazine. "On the right we have Jermaine Pennant and now on the left we have Albert.

"He is capable of going on the outside or coming inside. He can dribble and cross - he is a complete player. He is really important to the team already.

"As a striker, it is great to have someone who can cross the ball so well.

"Having him in the team should create more space for the other forwards because defenders need to watch Albert. That should help the rest of us get more opportunities."

Rafa Riles Reds Owners Again By Revealing Details Of Talks Over A New Liverpool Contract

Rafa Benitez is continuing to rub Liverpool's co-owners the wrong way by going public with their plans to open talks over a new contract.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett have seen their Anfield regime weakened by internal conflicts and the global credit crunch - but the tycoons have again found common ground in disapproval of Benitez, according to The Times.

Having finally been given encouragement last week to believe that Hicks and Gillett would agree to discuss a new deal, Reds manager Benitez confirmed in an interview with the Liverpool Echo that 'they gave me their word' and that he expected talks to start some time this week.

But the Americans were frustrated that the message was broadcast to the media so quickly, increasing their feeling that they are being forced into a corner by Benitez.

After an impressive start to the season, Benitez is in a sufficiently powerful position to have been able to force contract discussions on to the agenda.

Hicks had alluded to a one-year extension to Benitez’s existing £2.6 million-a-year deal, which expires in June 2010, but Gillett, having taken their fallouts more personally, had been opposed to the idea.

Preliminary discussions between chief executive Rick Parry and Benitez’s agent, Manuel Garcia Quilon, are due to take place in the coming days, but, with the parties likely to be far apart on the size and length of any contract, it may be that Liverpool are under new ownership by the time the matter is resolved.

Hicks and Gillett are looking to sell the club and there is a growing belief that they are ready to drop their asking price from £550 million to £500 million - closer to sums that have been offered by Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, and another unidentified Arab consortium.

Hicks and Gillett remain hopeful that they will succeed in persuading Royal Bank of Scotland to grant a six-month extension to their £350 million refinancing loan, which expires on January 25, but there have not yet been any such guarantees.

Even if they are granted more time, Hicks and Gillett have little or no prospect of taking the club forward, having failed to raise the additional £350 million required for the construction of a new stadium.

Liverpool FC Academy Production Line Is Letting Side Down

ENJOYING their best-ever start to a Premier League season and closing on yet another qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League, things would appear to be going well for Liverpool.

But scratch beneath the surface at Anfield and it’s clear something has to change.

Wednesday’s woeful Carling Cup capitulation at Tottenham Hotspur should have sent the alarm bells ringing throughout the club.

While Arsenal’s youngsters continue to thrill in the competition, Rafael Benitez is evidently finding it a struggle to find any of a similar standard either at home or abroad.

Lacking the financial resources that allowed Arsene Wenger to snap up the cream of the world’s budding talent in recent years, Benitez’s attempts to unearth a rare gem of his own from across the globe means there are nearly 30 youngsters at the club under the age of 23.

Few of those hopefuls realistically have any chance of ever forging a career at Anfield.

However, the alternative production line at the Academy, another profitable source for Wenger, is proving just as fruitless.

After all, why did Benitez see fit to select only one recent homegrown graduate, reserve team skipper Stephen Darby, in the squad for Wednesday’s trip to White Hart Lane in a competition that is a long way last in the manager’s list of priorities?

Of course, this situation hasn’t just happened overnight. Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier was regularly at loggerheads with the Academy over the lack of quality emerging from the Kirkby set-up.

Benitez has used the Carling Cup to give youth its chance at Anfield, most notably on his previous visit to Tottenham in the competition in December 2004 when eight homegrown players made an appearance.

But it’s telling that none are still at the club with only Stephen Warnock plying his trade in the top flight.

Punters who hit the internet message boards and radio phone-ins to lambast Wednesday’s performance as one of the worst they have ever seen from Liverpool certainly have short memories.

Don’t forget, it was less than two years ago that the Anfield outfit were humbled 6-3 at home by Arsenal in the quarter-finals.

Carling Cup exits have proven a watershed during previous seasons under Benitez, particularly for the young hopefuls selected.

After losing at Crystal Palace in 2005, David Raven and Zak Whitbread never played for Liverpool again while Darren Potter made only one further appearance.

And the Arsenal humbling in January 2007 saw a last outing for Lee Peltier, with Danny Guthrie only playing one more time and Gabriel Paletta three times.

It was also a final appearance for Warnock, who joined Blackburn Rovers shortly afterwards.

Ominous signs, then, for the likes of David Ngog, Nabil El Zhar and Damien Plessis, who all played at White Hart Lane.

But the trio weren’t helped by the performances and attitude of some of their senior professionals on Wednesday.

Philipp Degen in particular demonstrated little appetite for the fight and the sight of him hobbling off with yet another injury may be the last time he is seen in a Liver-pool shirt. Darby is surely a better long-term bet.

Liverpool’s Academy may be located six miles from Melwood but it could just as easily be in another country and not just because of the accents that echo around the corridors these days.

Co-operation between the two complexes does not exist, simply cynicism of what each other is trying to achieve when they should be chasing the same goal.

There is no doubt that some people at the Academy will have relished the sight of Ngog, Plessis and El Zhar toiling – which in itself is an even bigger disgrace – without offering up a solution to the problem themselves.

Manchester City can churn out talent and Everton can churn out English talent that, even if they do not prove good enough, would raise some money. Nothing is coming from Kirkby.

Liverpool’s board cannot keep on ignoring the situation by refusing to take sides for fear of upsetting people.

Both sides need shaking up for the common good of the club and it amounts to a dereliction of duty that the status quo is being allowed to fester.

The Academy has other difficulties, as highlighted last month by Sunderland manager Roy Keane.

Premier League rules dictate that boys must live within 90 minutes’ travel time of any team they sign for, putting the likes of coastal outfits Sunderland and Liverpool at a disadvantage compared to London clubs.

“That’s something we are looking at,” said Keane. “If you look at our academy, we are restricted in terms of our location.

“You can only bring in kids from a certain area. It’s a certain radius and a lot of our radius is in the water. We have to look at whether there’s any good fish out there.”

If Liverpool are going to improve their catch of youngsters, then the bait, the rod and maybe even the anglers need to be reassessed.

Kevin Nolan: Winning Premier League Would Mean More To Liverpool FC Than European Cup

BOLTON captain Kevin Nolan was in Istanbul to watch Liverpool claim their fifth European Cup in 2005 but he insists a first domestic title since 1990 would rank far higher.

The Reds enhanced their remarkable European pedigree further three years ago with their stunning comeback victory against AC Milan.

Nolan, a boyhood Liverpool fan who still lives in the city, has fond memories of the match regarded as one of the greatest European finals.

However, almost 19 years have passed since the club were last crowned domestic champions and that is a source of immense frustration to Nolan and thousands of other Liverpool followers.

But a hugely impressive start to the campaign has ensured Rafael Benitez’s side head to the Reebok Stadium tomorrow lunchtime joint top of the Premier League with Chelsea.

If Sir Alex Ferguson’s men retain the title again this season, they will draw level with Liverpool’s record haul of 18 English championships.

For Nolan, 26, that is simply not acceptable.

“There’s been a lot of talk about United matching Liverpool’s record of 18 and that’s not something that I want to see,” he said.

“As a Liverpool lad and as a fan I don’t think it should happen to be honest.

“It would certainly hurt the history of Liverpool and everything they have achieved.

“It would hurt the players as well but if United get that 18th title then they will deserve it. They have been absolutely fantastic over the last 15 years.

“It would be great to see the championship coming back to Liverpool because it would mean so much to the fans.

“Istanbul was brilliant but winning the league would top that and I don’t think Liverpool are far off.”

Jermaine Pennant’s Anfield Future Is In Doubt

JERMAINE PENNANT’S Liverpool future is under fresh doubt after the winger was left out of the Carling Cup defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.

But the Anfield outfit run the risk of the winger walking away for nothing at the end of the season if they fail to offload him during the January transfer window.

After starting Liverpool’s previous two home Premier League games, Pennant failed to make the squad for the weekend Anfield win against West Bromwich Albion and was again absent from the 18-man party on Wednesday.

It is believed the absence at White Hart Lane of Pennant, who appeared in the win over Crewe Alexandra in the previous round, was due to disciplinary reasons.

Pennant was told by Rafael Benitez earlier this season that he would not be frozen out despite Liverpool actively seeking to sell the player during the summer.

The winger turned down the chance of a £5million move to Stoke City and came close to joining Blackburn Rovers on transfer deadline day.

Recent events are likely to accelerate Pennant’s departure, with Wigan Athletic tracking the player along with Bolton Wanderers, who were yesterday linked with a possible £3.5m bid in the New Year.

However, the situation is complicated by the contract Pennant agreed when signing from Birmingham City for £6.7m in July 2006.

That deal will expire in the summer unless Pennant plays a specified number of games this season. Should he reach that target – thought to be around 15 – it will automatically invoke a one-year contract extension.

But if Pennant, who has played only four times so far this campaign, falls short of the required total of appearances – the likelihood of which has increased with Liverpool’s Carling Cup exit – then he would walk away for nothing in June.

Meanwhile, Daniel Agger admits Benitez’s side will win nothing this season if they don’t improve on their woeful showing at Tottenham.

Liverpool conceded three goals in seven minutes before half-time before eventually slumping to a 4-2 defeat.

And Agger, the only survivor at White Hart Lane from the team that started the 3-0 win against West Brom five days earlier, reckons the Anfield outfit must banish the game from their memory banks ahead of tomorrow’s tricky trip to Bolton Wanderers.

“If you see the goals it was the same problem every time and they speak for themselves,” said the Denmark international. “We conceded four bad goals and you cannot expect to do that and still get anything out of a game.

“We improved in the second half but we knew it could only go one way as we couldn’t play as badly as we did in the first half.

“Right now it’s difficult to take any positives at all. That just wasn’t good enough. We have to do better than this otherwise we won’t achieve anything this season.

“The mood wasn’t the best in the squad after the game but we have to put this behind us quickly. Bolton are a strong, physical team and it’s another difficult game for us. We can’t perform like this on Saturday because if we do then we will lose.”

Agger refused to entertain the notion that the Carling Cup was a mere distraction for Liverpool, given their progress in the Premier League and Champions League this season.

“For some players this is a very important competition,” he said. “We have a big squad and the more games we can have the better it is for us. Not going any further than the fourth round this season is very annoying.”