Monday, December 08, 2008

Hats Off To Rafa Benitez - Steven Gerrard

Stevie G has heaped praised upon his football-obsessed boss, labelling Rafa the Red as "one of the best managers there is".

It is fair to say that, every since he arrived in 2004, opinion has been split on whether Rafael Benitez is the man to lead Liverpool back to the top.

Although the Reds have won the Champions League and the FA Cup under his charge, the glaring lack of a Premier League trophy - or evening the merest hinst of a challenge for one - has sullied the Spaniard's record so far.

This season could be different, though.

The Anfield giants have found their footing on the very top rung of the league ladder, and 16 games in they hold a one-point lead over Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea. They might be out of the Carling Cup, but they've already secured their spot in the knockout rounds in Europe.

Things are going fairly well for Rafa and his Merseysiders, even though - as typified by Saturday night's 3-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers - the performances haven't always been of the highest quality.

But it is exactly that ability to grind out results when not playing well which many feel Liverpool have lacked since their glory days of the 1980s; that ability which has served Chelsea and Manchester United so well in recent years.

And Steven Gerrard, the club captain, has left no doubt as to whom he attributes the team's newfound resolve.

"Rafa is obsessed with football 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said in the latest edition of the official UEFA Champions League magazine.

"You have to take your hat off to him. He’s one of the best managers there is."

Benitez and Gerrard have not necessarily enjoyed the calmest relationship since the ex-Real Madrid man replaced Gerard Houllier after leaving Valencia four years ago.

A few years back there was endless speculation about the skipper's long-term future at Anfield. Indeed, he almost joined Chelsea twice in successive summers after becoming frustrated with both the club's domestic efforts and his own ever-changing role in the team.

But things have settled down as the native Liverpudlian has matured, and he has now come to quite like both Benitez the manager and Rafa the person - even if the former is not the most complimentary character.

"Rafa is the type that when you finish a game as man of the match having scored three goals, he won’t even mention it," Gerrard said. "Instead, he’ll mention that you never used your left foot at a certain point!

"But Rafa does it right. When I need a pat on the back I get it. I have had lots of ‘well dones’ from him, but when I need a kick up the backside I get it too.

"He can also make me laugh, but you don’t see that side of him — or me — from the outside.

"We spend a lot of time together on the training ground, travelling to matches and he joins in. We’ve got a great team spirit here and my relationship with him is perfect at the moment."

Rafa Benitez Faces Injury Crisis At Liverpool

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has a major injury headache as he prepares for Champions League duty.

Already without the injured Fernando Torres, Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio for tomorrow's visit to Eindhoven, and lacking Sami Hyypia from his European squad, Benitez now has concerns over the fitness of four more key players.

Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel limped out of the game against Blackburn, and Xabi Alonso is exhausted after playing so often in recent weeks.

Benitez wanted to rest Alonso and Steven Gerrard tomorrow given that Liverpool have already qualified for the knockout stage.

But with so many players missing, he may have no choice but to play the midfield pair and also throw Robbie Keane straight back into the firing line after giving the striker a break at Blackburn.

Benitez will wait until today to assess the injuries, but he admitted: "Ideally I would look to rest players, but we have problems."

Liverpool And Manchester City Could Make Move For Gareth Barry In January

Rafa Benitez had admitted that he would still sign Barry from Aston Villa if he had the money to do so.

Barry is about to enter the last 18 months of his contract and although Villa say they are happy to let the season pass they could now have new bids for the England star.

However Liverpool now face rivalry from newly-rich Manchester City, with Mark Hughes keen to land Barry next month - and with the money to outbid them in the market.

A massive tug-of-war is about to start with both Alonso and Barry involved - as they were in the summer - but now with a third club pulling in another direction.

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool Might Not Want To Top Group D

As the Reds prepare for their final run-out of the CL group stages, their Spanish boss has suggested that perhaps defeat would be more convenient than victory.

Liverpool have already booked their place in the last 16, after downing Olympique Marseille 1-0 in a tight encounter at Anfield on Matchday 5.

The Merseysiders will battle against PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night as they grapple with Atletico Madrid for top spot in Group D, which the Spaniards lead by just one goal's difference.

However, the standings in other groups lead Rafael Benitez to believe that it may be more beneficial for his Reds to stay put in second place.

"It is difficult to know whether you want to finish first or second," the ex-Valencia coach was quoted as saying by The Sun. "We cannot play an English side in the last 16, so that reduces the options.

"Looking at the groups we could finish top and end up playing against Juventus or Real Madrid. It is also possible to face Lyon or Bayern Munich so it is very difficult to decide who you’d rather play next."

However, Benitez admitted there were also perks involved in finishing top.

"The best thing about winning the group is that you play the second leg of the next round at Anfield, which is very important for us."

Alonso To Arsenal If Barry Joins Liverpool?

Arsene Wenger is keen to bring the Reds' midfield maestro to the Emirates, but any deal could be dependent on Aston Villa's willingness to allow Gareth Barry to join Liverpool.

According to a report in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is ready to dip into the transfer market and make a £12 million bid for Xabi Alonso.

The Spanish international looked almost certain to leave Liverpool in the summer, with either Juventus or the Emirates appearing to be his most likely destinations.

However, his departure from Anfield was dependent on the arrival of Gareth Barry from Aston Villa - and as that deal fell through, Alonso stayed put.

The 27-year-old has been an integral part of the Reds' title push this season, featuring in all 16 league games and weighing in with 2 goals.

It is that good form which seems to have rekindled Wenger's interest in the midfielder and, while he would be ineligible for the Champions League this season, the Gunners may well need him to help steady their league form.

However, it is unlikely that Rafa Benitez will sanction the sale of such a key individual unless he is able to find a replacement.

With Barry's contract set to expire in the summer of 2010, there are rumours that Liverpool could make a bid for the England international this January.

The report claims there is just one snag - Manchester City. The Citizens have plenty of cash to throw around and could be ready to aim it in Villa's direction, which would scupper Arsenal's chances of capturing Alonso.

Tottenham Ready to Trade For Robbie Keane?

Tottenham Hotspur are readying an offer of £5million plus Jamie O'Hara and Aaron Lennon to bring Robbie Keane back to White Hart Lane.

Robbie Keane has endured a difficult start to his Liverpool career after finding the back of the net only twice in his first 15 Premier League appearances.

The Republic of Ireland international, who has won 85 caps and scored 35 goals, has regularly been substitued when starting games for the Reds and failed to even make the first eleven for Saturday's game with Blackburn.

Question marks have, therefore, been raised as to where the future of a player who cost £20 million pounds this summer lies.

According to a report in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror, the 28-year-old's former club Tottenham Hotspur are prepared to offer him an early escape route.

Apparently, manager Harry Redknapp is a bag fan of the forward and could offer Liverpool £5 million as well as midfield duo Jamie O'Hara and Aaron Lennon.

However, with only Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt as recognised senior strikers available to manager Rafa Benitez, it is unlikely that he will want to sell without securing a replacement in that department.

Furthermore, along with Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry, the Spaniard insists that Keane will be going nowhere.

Liverpool Shaken By Loss Of Potential Buyer

The Liverpool ownership saga has taken another twist, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, telling the club’s owners that he has finally dropped his interest after an unsuccessful two-year pursuit.

Amanda Staveley, who has been negotiating on Sheikh Mohammed’s behalf since the turn of the year, has informed Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr that he is no longer in contention to buy the club because of the financial climate and their refusal to lower an “unrealistic” £600 million valuation.

This was initially regarded in some quarters as a negotiating tactic, but Staveley has told the Americans and their respective legal teams that there is no prospect of a bid for Liverpool being revived.

Hicks and Gillett are aware of other potential investors, at least one of them from the Middle East, but the likelihood is that the club will have to muddle on for the time being.

The owners hope to be granted a six-month extension to their £350million loan from Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia, which expires on January 25, but their long-term prospects at Anfield remain bleak.

Gillett, in particular, recognises the need to sell because of the effects of the credit crunch, but, if Sheikh Mohammed is serious about having dropped his interest, the Americans are in danger of running out of potential buyers.

Rafa Unfazed By Pressure

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez insists his side can handle the pressure that goes with being top of the Premier League.

The Reds cemented their place at the summit with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Blackburn following two disappointing draws at home to Fulham and West Ham.

Benitez is confident his side can maintain their title push if they can stay at the top during the busy Christmas period.

"We have shown we can manage the pressure. When you have a game like this, you know you might have problems," said Benitez.

"But we were more clinical than other days and that is important with the Christmas programme coming up."

Benitez also believes there is plenty more to come from his team as he accepts they have yet to reach their best form so far this season.

"There is plenty of room for improvement. We are not playing at our level," added Benitez.

"We have some players we know can play better and others to come back.

"But if players are not playing well and we are still winning, that's important. And we have plenty of options."