Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rafa Benitez: Now It’s Time To Focus On The League

Rafael Benitez is determined Liverpool will still be top of the Premier League when they return to Champions League action in February.

Liverpool won Group D with a 3-1 victory at PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday to justify Benitez’s faith in his supporting cast, with a clutch of fringe players impressing.

With no European matches to worry about before the last-16 phase begins in late January, and only the FA Cup as a distraction, Benitez and his squad can now focus on their main aim of ending a 19-year wait for their 19th championship.

Liverpool have 10 league games in that time, starting at home to Hull City on Saturday, and Benitez has every intention of seeing his side continue leading the way before European football comes around again.

“We now have almost three months to concentrate on the Premier League, and the FA Cup,” he says. “We would want to go back into Europe next year still top of the table.

“We have qualified for the next stage in Europe, we are top of the Premier League, and now we concentrate on domestic considerations. We do not want to give up top spot, if we are still there when we start up again in Europe, the chances of a really good season will be obvious.”

Benitez was delighted to see youngsters Lucas and David Ngog produce telling performances, along with the misfiring Robbie Keane.

Having had the club’s youth structure also thrust under the microscope, Benitez was more than happy to sing the praises, too, of local boys Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly who made their European debuts.

Benitez said: “I was so pleased to be able to give three local lads a run-out in the Champions League, it is something I have been wanting to do because we do have good young players coming through.

“It is good to bring players through, whether from the Academy or when we have signed them from abroad.

“It was good not to have to bring on Steven Gerrard from the bench to win us a game. It has been good to give a opportunity to these boys, I could not be happier with them.

“With Ngog he has a very bright future at Liverpool. They have not played too many games for the club, but they showed with good performances that they have futures with Liverpool.

“In a few months you can see the progress they have made, and in a few months they will still be improving.”

Lucas, who was man of the match on Tuesday, had come in for criticism from some sections of the Anfield support who made him the scapegoat for the recent goalless draw at home to Fulham.

“Myself and the staff, as well as his team-mates, know that Lucas is a very good player,” said Benitez. “He showed that he has character and quality.

“Maybe Lucas has been spurred on by some of the criticism. But this week he has shown he is a good professional and his reaction to questions about his form and the reaction to him from some fans recently, has been very good.”

Liverpool Need Home Tonic To Bolster Title Push

The inconsistent home form of Premier League leaders Liverpool continues to pose serious questions about their ability to end the long wait for an English league crown.

Hull City are the visitors to Anfield on Saturday. Liverpool are yet to lose on Merseyside but their last two matches on home turf ended in suffocating 0-0 draws with Fulham and West Ham United.

Against West Ham the final whistle was greeted with jeers despite the point taking them clear of Chelsea.

Stoke City also escaped with a 0-0 draw earlier in the season, so the visit of high-flying Hull, whose away from has been superb in their first season in the top flight, will offer no guarantees of three points for Rafael Benitez.

The desperation of the Liverpool fans for a first title since 1989-90 has led to a muted atmosphere at Anfield in recent matches, with their worries appearing to sit heavily on the shoulders of the players.

With striker Fernando Torres injured and Robbie Keane failing to spark, Liverpool have become jittery as they struggle to break down entrenched visiting defences.

Dutchman Dirk Kuyt is also injured and Keane is likely to shoulder the burden of providing much-needed firepower on Saturday as he struggles to justify his big-money close-season move from Tottenham Hotspur.

"I'm not the kind of person who gets down about things," Keane, who has managed just four goals for Liverpool and has been linked with a move in January, told the club's website.

"I'm confident in my own ability and I know I'll score a lot of goals for this club. There's a lot more to come from me.

"I've only been here a few months and it takes a bit of time to settle into a new club. That's not an excuse but I deserve to be judged a little further down the line."

Hull have been a revelation since gaining promotion. They play with flair and adventure away from home and in Brazilian Geovanni they have one of best midfielders in the top flight.

His goals have helped Hull to sixth place and their four away victories include a stunning upset of Arsenal in which Geovanni scored a contender for goal of the season.

Former Liverpool player Nick Barmby, now back with his hometown club, said the trip to Anfield, Hull's first in a league match, will hold no fears.

"We'll go there full of confidence and we'll give them a game," Barmby told Hull's website (www.hullcityafc.premiumtv).

Second-placed Chelsea, who are just a point below Liverpool, will be looking to pounce on any slips when they host struggling West Ham United on Sunday.

Didier Drogba, scorer in the week against CFR Cluj in the Champions League, is likely to start for the Londoners after completing a ban for throwing a coin at fans.

Champions Manchester United face a difficult away trip to Tottenham on Saturday as they seek to keep the leaders in sight before heading off to the Club World Cup in Japan.

Shot-Shy Albert Riera Vows To Score More For Liverpool

Albert Riera scored a scorcher from 25-yards that flew into the top corner of PSV Eindhoven's net on Tuesday evening. Ryan Babel and David N'Gog were also on the scoresheet as Liverpool finished their Champions League group campaign on a high, coming back to win 3-1 in the Netherlands.

Now, the Spaniard has admitted that he liked the taste of finding the net and feels he can add more scoring punch to the Reds' already high-octane midfield. All he needs to do is start shooting more often.

He told the club's official website: "It was a very important goal for getting the win, but I'm sure I will wait a lot of matches to score a goal like that one again.

"However, we were talking in training about shooting from quite far out. Sometimes I try it and it works... sometimes not.

"I was in a great position had a go. Now I have to try shooting like that more often. Some players like Stevie [Gerrard] or Xabi [Alonso] like to try shots from far out and they have scored some great goals.

"I'll do it especially at Anfield, because a lot of teams come to defend and it is difficult to get chances in those matches."

He added of the mood in the Premier League leading Reds camp: "We are really confident and want to keep playing this way."

Torres: English Defences Harder To Penetrate Than Those In Spain

Spanish hit-man Fernando Torres claims that he under-estimated the strength of defences in the Premier League.

Skilful striker Fernando Torres scored 33 goals in all competitions last season; 24 of those arrived in 33 outings in the Premier League.

Torres never managed that sort of ratio while donning the red and white stripes of Atletico Madrid, but the service he received from the likes of Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard was perhaps superior to what he was used to at Vicente Calderon.

Nevertheless, Torres has confessed that upon arriving in England, he expected the defences to be weak and easy to unlock. But the
24-year old now admits he under-estimated Premier League rearguards, as his markers are stronger, and more atheltic, than he initially expected.

He is quoted by Setanta Sports as saying: "At first, I thought English defences were very weak, but I quickly realised they don’t offer you any gift once you’re on the pitch.

"It’s even harder than in Spain," he said.

"Defenders are tall, strong and fighters and the referees only give you a foul once you are bleeding.

"At the same time it’s good because you have to have the same athletic level as them, not ask yourself any question and go for it," he added.

"If not, they eat you!"

Liverpool Pleased With Emmanuel Mendy's Progress

The Reds' list of teenage gems continues to grow as yet another Spaniard looks poised to make his mark on Merseyside.

In a week where Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez gave three young hopefuls their first taste of European football, reserves boss Gary Ablett has voiced his delight with the development of another promising prospect.

English trio Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Stephen Darby each came off the bench to make their Champions League debuts in the Reds' 3-1 victory over PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night.

It may be several years before Emmanuel Mendy follows suit, as the young midfielder has only just broken into the seconds at Anfield, but Ablett has high hopes.

He told the club's official website: "He is young, he is new to this and he is a little bit raw. The language is a bit of a problem for him at the moment, but when you speak to him he will look at you right in the eye because he wants to listen and he wants to learn.

"He's come into the team in a difficult situation because we are not playing very well. I think he can be quite pleased with his contribution over the last couple of games. He has not let anyone down.

"Young players are going to make mistakes and it is a massive learning curve for him to get used to a new life here during the last couple of months, but he is one we will stick with and keep working with because he wants to improve."

Mendy joins an ever-growing list of highly rated Liverpool lads, which includes compatriot Daniel Pacheco and Hungarian sensation Krizstian Nemeth.

Robbie Keane: I’ll Become A Liverpool Scoring Sensation

ROBBIE KEANE is confident he will overcome the lean start to his Liverpool career and score the goals to justify his place in Rafael Benitez’s plans.

The Republic of Ireland international has netted just four times in 23 appearances since his £20million summer move from Tottenham Hotspur, where he scored 107 goals in 254 games during a six-year stint.

Keane was dropped from the weekend win at Blackburn Rovers, prompting speculation in some quarters that Liverpool could cash in on the 28-year-old during the January transfer window.

Although warning the player he must improve his form, Benitez stated at the beginning of the week he has no intention of parting with the striker next month.

And having been recalled for the 3-1 Champions League win at PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night, Keane insists he is going nowhere while convinced he will soon find the target on a regular basis.

“I know I will score a lot of goals for this club,” said the forward. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out as well as you’d like but I know for a fact it’s only a matter of time before I start scoring a lot of goals.

“In football everyone goes through stages. I don’t want to keep harping on about it because I’m not worried so I don’t see why others should be.

“I’m confident in my ability and always have been. I haven’t scored all those goals over the last 10 years for nothing, and I know it’s not going to stop now. But I accept that at club like Liverpool, as a striker you are judged on the goals you score. I love scoring goals, but I also love being involved.”

Such has been Keane’s underwhelming form this season, his appearance in Holland was only the fourth time he had played the full 90 minutes as a Liverpool player.

But the striker is determined to prove a success at his boyhood club and hasn’t even considered moving a possible departure.

“There has been lots of speculation and people like to create something that’s not there but that is out of my control,” said Keane. “For me it’s not even an issue. Why am I so committed? I have only just come, I’m a Liverpool player, and I intend to be for a long time, not just five months.

“In life sometimes things don’t go as well as you’d like all the time. But I’m not just going to throw in the towel and accept it, it’s about performances like tonight, getting out there and showing what you’re made of.

“I know I have got a future at this club. I don’t want to see the headlines saying ‘I’m staying,’ because that’s not even a question. I am staying because I have just come, I want to be part of a Liverpool side for the future, and I want to be a big player for this club and I will keep working hard to try and make that happen.

“I will just keep going. It’s not for me to say what I’m doing, but what I will say is I have only been here a few months and you should judge someone over a while, not judge them over just a few months and jump the gun on things.”

Although Keane failed to score in Eindhoven, he turned provider for David Ngog.

And he added: “I really enjoyed it. I was getting involved a lot and enjoyed playing in the position off the main striker. I got involved and created a few chances for the lads. That’s my game, that’s what I like to do.

“I love scoring but I love creating goals for others and I did that for David. I get a buzz out of that which is great and he took it well. I feel happy enough with my performance.”

Ryan Babel: Why I Asked To Leave Liverpool

Ryan Babel has admitted he did ask Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez about a loan move away from Anfield - and that the Reds boss offered him no assurances about his place in the side.

The young Dutchman scored a fine header to set Liverpool on their way to a 3-1 Champions League victory over PSV Eindhoven yesterday.

Before the match Babel’s commitment to the cause and claims he had tried to get a loan move back to Ajax were talking points.

Babel’s agent claimed the 20-year-old winger had wanted him to sound out Ajax about the proposition.

But Liverpool have made it very clear Babel is going nowhere and must knuckle down to his role in the squad, having been unable to convince Benitez he should be a regular in the starting line-up.

Now Benitez, as with Yossi Benayoun and the out-of-form Robbie Keane, has had to spell out the need to accept the squad system, and that they will not be sold.

Babel said after the win in Eindhoven: “I have talked to the manager about my future, about maybe a loan somewhere so I can play every week.

“Ajax was only an example, a possibility, not something I was trying to make happen.”

Ajax had been keen on the idea, but have been told there is no chance of such a move while Liverpool are fighting for the Barclays Premier League title.

Babel said: “Rafa has said no. He did not promise me anything for the rest of the season, there were no conditions and I have to accept this.”

TOMMY SMITH: Rafa Benitez The Architect Of Liverpool's Perfect Show

There are plenty of positives to take from Tuesday night’s victory in Holland.

In the absence of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, we’ve seen goals – and good goals at that – coming from other areas and other players.

Daniel Agger has come back into the side and put in a top performance alongside the ever reliable Jamie Carragher. The pair were probably our best players, but Robbie Keane also showed some good touches, particularly in the second half, which indicates his doubters may well be eating their words soon.

Hopefully, Robbie’s confidence is on the rise now because we all know what a good player he is.

Other players who the fans have been unsure about also put in much improved displays, which can only auger well for the rest of the season.

But the person who deserves the biggest pat on the back today is probably the manager.

Rafael Benitez, along with his staff at Anfield, had clearly done his homework on PSV and it showed.

He’s often been criticised for rotating too much – it’s a concern I’ve shared on occasion – but no-one is mentioning that today, are they?

Rafa had obviously done his scouting on the Dutchmen and made a number of changes which worked well and saw us control the game.

PSV aren’t a good side nowadays and they visibily wilted at half time as Babel put Liverpool level. There was only going to be one winner after that.

I’ve said before the Dutch League isn’t up to standard these days and if PSV have been Holland’s champions over the last few years, it doesn’t say much for their set- up.

But you can only beat what’s in front of you and that’s what we have done, and pretty emphatically.

Riera’s goal was a beauty and Ngog finished off the sort of pass from Keane which I’m sure the Irishman would like more often to be on the end of himself.

So, after all the stuttering performances recently, we’re top of the Premier League and have also topped our Champions League group with a record points haul.

Of course, it’s only December, and no-one gets any prizes at this time. But it’s not looking too bad... is it?

Milan Chief Denies Agger Comments

AC Milan chief Adriano Galliani has denied quotes attributed to him reportedly discussing their interest in Liverpool defender Daniel Agger.

Denmark international Agger has been strongly linked with a move to the San Siro due to a delay in agreeing a new deal at Liverpool.

He recently admitted he is happy at Anfield, and Reds boss Rafa Benitez also outlined his intention to hang on to the centre-half.

Real Madrid have previously acknowledged an interest in Agger and reports have also suggested that Milan are keen on the stopper, who turns 24 on Thursday.

Galliani was quoted by the Danish media as saying that the former Brondby youngster is on a list of 'three or four names' Milan are considering signing in January.

However, the Italian giants have issued a statement denying that Galliani spoke to the press in Denmark regarding Agger.

A statement on the club's official website read: "With regard to the alleged phrases Adriano Galliani issued to the press in Denmark, and reported by several Italian outlets, the Rossoneri's CEO denies that he has ever issued any statement."