Saturday, December 20, 2008

Phil Thompson Believes Liverpool Will Beat Real Madrid

Liverpool are the only Premier League representative to be drawn against non-Serie A opponents in the first knock-out round of the Champions League, as they come up against La Liga heavyweights Real Madrid.

Former defender Phil Thompson though believes Liverpool can turn the Spanish champs into chumps when they do battle in February.

"It's a tough one because you don't know what they're going to be like in February. If we were playing them now, it would be no problem but things might change," he is quoted by the club's official website as saying.

"Having said that, it's still a game I fancy Liverpool to win. Rafa Benitez will be going home, and remember, Fernando Torres didn't get the opportunity to play against Atletico - his old team - earlier in the season. So, he'll be really looking forward to going back there and putting one over Real."

Thommo continued: "I think Liverpool will have too much for them in the second leg at Anfield.

"It's a wonderful tie. I remember playing against them in 1981 - the all-whites versus the all-reds." That was in the final, when Liverpool won 1-0.

Because Liverpool topped their group this autumn, while Real finished runners up, the first leg will be contested in Spain on February 24 or 25, while the return leg will be played in England on March 10 or 11.

Real Madrid's Juande Ramos Not Happy To Be Playing Liverpool

Despite their familiarity with each other's teams, Juande Ramos was hoping to avoid coming up against Rafa Benítez and his Liverpool team and is not pleased with the Champions League draw.

Juande Ramos has admitted that he is not happy that Real Madrid were paired against Liverpool in the first knockout round of the Champions League in Switzerland on Friday.

Los Merengues' coach had hoped to avoid English opposition and he stated that he was not pleased, but did consider that Rafa Benítez would also not be satisfied.

It will be an even contest though as Ramos knows Liverpool well from his time at Tottenham, while the Reds' manager knows Madrid as he was a coach there before.

"We have not liked the draw that we have been given and I suppose that they will not have either," Ramos told reporters.

"Rafa Benítez knows Real Madrid very well and I also know Liverpool and Benítez well from my time in England."

Although he is not pleased with the draw, Ramos admitted that while Liverpool are a strong side Madrid should not worried about playing any team in particular.

"They are a complete and difficult team and have some very good players," he continued. "But Real Madrid cannot fear anyone and we have the same chances as them to go through."

Steve McManaman: Liverpool Are The Favourites Against Madrid

Former ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’ winger Steve McManaman believes that Liverpool are the favourites to beat Real Madrid at the moment based on current form.

Real Madrid will square off against Liverpool in one of the many mouth-watering clashes in the last 16 of the Champions League, following yesterday’s draw by UEFA in Nyon.

One player who has authority to speak on behalf of both clubs is former Reds and Los Blancos winger, Steve McManaman. And the retired 36-year-old did not hesitate to pin-point the weak and strong attributes of the two sides who have won the European Cup/Champions League 14 times between them.

“Right now, Liverpool are the favourites. They only need a goal at the Bernabeu, just one, and they normally score on the road,” he told Radio Marca during a phone interview.

“This year, Liverpool are better away than they are at home and this is very crucial.

“But for me, the most important factor is whether or not Real Madrid will be free of injuries. If they can have a strong team [by February] then I don’t know, because Madrid have a very important history in the Champions League.

“In February, I believe the two teams will be more balanced, but now Liverpool are favourites. But at the moment, they are not playing very well, either because Fernando Torres is injured or Liverpool need Torres,” concluded McManaman.

Liverpool FC's Champion's League Draw Brings Back Memories

The Champions League draw stirred magical memories for Alan Kennedy of his finest hour.

Liverpool’s left-back scored from a seemingly impossible angle in Paris in 1981 to give his side victory over Real Madrid in the European Cup final.

That is the only time the two clubs – who have won club football’s top honour 14 times between them – have ever played each other, but they will meet again following yesterday’s draw for the last 16.

However, as much as Kennedy will be cheering on his former club over those two legs, it’s the chase for domestic honours in shape of a 19th league title that is his main focus this season.

“I have to say at the moment my concern is the Premier League,” said Kennedy.

“First of all I want Liverpool to concentrate on that, starting with the game at Arsenal. Liverpool must do all they can to make sure they're still top of the League when they take on Real Madrid in February.

“But it’s a fantastic draw, and for the fans especially. A lot of people I’ve spoken to were there in Paris 27 years ago and remember how we won the European Cup.”

Kennedy recalls only too clearly his goal.

“Of course, it brings back great memories for me, you can never forget that,” he said.

“This is going to be different. It’s over two legs. Liverpool must be in the top four to win the competition and I expect them to go through.

“Real have a temporary manager in Juande Ramos and I don't want him turning it around before the tie.”

Benítez Finally Comes To Terms With What Liverpool Fans Really Want

After a period of promise and setbacks Rafael Benitez needs to deliver a league title to the red half of Merseyside.

For a man obsessed with reducing the variables through the analysis of statistics and the ­imposition of systems, Rafael Benitez displays a curious ­affinity for extremes. Having begun his tenure as Liverpool's manager with the most unlikely and dramatic comeback in more than half a century of European Cup finals, he arrives at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday on top of the Premier League but with no consensus over his ability to take the club to their first title since May 1990.

An FA Cup victory over West Ham United the year after that thunderous night in Istanbul is the only other ­senior trophy to have come to Anfield since Benitez took over in the summer of 2004. The story has been one of promises and setbacks, of players coming and going without leaving a trace, of patterns slowly emerging and then dissolving in displays suggesting the side's inability to achieve the sort of consistency necessary to win the championship.

This season has been different but unpredictable. The highs have been very high indeed: a first league victory for Benitez over Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United at Anfield in September, followed a few weeks later by the ending of Chelsea's 86-match unbeaten home record with a display of quite outstanding intensity, particularly from Liverpool's midfield, which gave a superlative demonstration of the art of pressing, a stratagem learnt from the manager's favourite team: Arrigo Sacchi's Milan of 1987-1991.

The lows, however, can be seen in a series of lacklustre performances in their Champions League group matches­ — although they are not alone in that ­— and, most of all, in their home record in the domestic league: unbeaten but with four draws in nine matches. Eight points have been dropped at Anfield against Stoke City, Fulham, West Ham and Hull City, a statistic that may be turning the ­manager's neat little beard grey as the season nears its end.

The beard, which made its appearance last year, is just one of the signs that Benítez is among nature's late adopters. After 4½ years in England he finally seems to have taken on board the belief that the league is the competition he must secure not only to satisfy the fans' hunger but to ensure his place in Liverpool's history alongside the great names of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. Even Kenny Dalglish, the last beneficiary of that great dynasty, won the old First Division in its ante-penultimate season. And it may be that the Spaniard will never have a better chance than the one that faces him as the present season nears its halfway point.

For him the present situation in the English league bears a similarity to the one he found in La Liga when he succeeded Hector Cuper in the head coach's job at Valencia in 2001 and took the club to two titles in three seasons, their first in more than three decades, followed by victory in the Uefa Cup. His logic, however, will not please everyone. "For me, Valencia and Liverpool resemble each other," he told Javier Prieto Santos and Simon Capelli Welter in a recent interview in France's So Foot magazine. "For these two to win, it's necessary for the big teams in the league to do badly. When I won the league with Valencia, that's exactly what happened. Real Madrid and Barcelona were in transition, which made it easier.

"For Liverpool to win the Premier League, it's necessary for Chelsea, [Manchester] United and Arsenal, who have far greater economic resources than us, to have a bad season. But normally it's very rare that these three clubs fail at the same time ­— it's not possible to wait for our direct opponents to make a faux pas, because that won't happen."

The difference, he said, is that when he arrived at Liverpool he had to start from ground zero. "To build a team and mould it the way I wanted took a bit of time. At Valencia it was different. The club had played in two European Cup finals with a squad including many automatic starters."

He is right that Cuper's team was a well-established unit studded with talented and experienced players, although its most creative influence, Gaizka Mendieta, and its most dangerous striker, Claudio Lopez, left the Mestalla just before Benitez arrived. But Liverpool were hardly down to the bare bones when he took over from Gerard Houllier. On the playing side the first-team squad was stocked effectively enough to enable him to use not just Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher but Sami Hyypia, Jerzy Dudek, John Arne Rise, Milan Baros, Djibril Cisse and other established names in his first season, before starting to refresh his resources.

Given those foundations, Benitez's rebuilding process took an unconscionable amount of time. The run of 99 league fixtures in which he failed to name the same starting line-up for two matches in a row became a source of derision, and his decision to retain the 99th line-up for the 100th match made it look as if he had done it just to avoid the three-figure headlines — a minor indication of mental weakness.

His buying policy often seems hap­hazard — for every Pepe Reina, Luis Garcia, Dirk Kuyt or Fernando Torres there is a Gabriel Paletta, an Antonio Nunez, a Jermaine Pennant and a Robbie Keane, and his attitude to home-produced talent remains at best ambivalent. Stephen Warnock and Danny Guthrie, both of whom might have expected to become long-term regulars under previous administrations, were allowed to go to Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, while a quintet of English 17-to-20-year-olds with current squad numbers — the midfielder Jay Spearing, the central defender Martin Kelly, the full-back Stephen Darby, the midfielder or defender Steve Irwin and the striker Nathan Eccleston — may find that their FA Youth Cup exploits are no guarantee that they will ever get a game with the seniors.

His man-management skills, too, often appear to lack finesse. The handling of Gerrard's position on the field became nothing less than a soap opera and, having seen Xabi Alonso become one of the squad's key players, Benitez tried unsuccessfully to sell him to Juventus in the summer and did not rebuff parallel inquiries from Ars­enal, while attempting, with equal lack of success, to sign Gareth Barry.

Yesterday the manager learnt that his next assignment in Europe will be against Real Madrid, the club for whose junior sides he played as a teenage midfielder before beginning his coaching career with the Bernabeu's age-group squads. The link has been revived by rumour and speculation in recent seasons, often coinciding with stories about Benitez's contract negotiations or his unhappiness with the regime of George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

It was to Real Madrid that Benítez sold Michael Owen during his first weeks in charge and with 12 months left on the striker's contract. He would please many of Liverpool's fans, and probably Gerrard and Carragher, too, by reversing his stated lack of interest in bringing Owen back to Anfield during the January transfer window, for a price some way below the £9m that Real Madrid paid four years ago. Eight or 10 of Owen's goals during the run-in might just do the trick but Benítez's history suggests that his intransigence is final.

Rafa Roulette: Liverpool Striker Forced To Cash In Anfield Chips

Liverpool strikers think they're playing football -- but in fact they've been playing a bizarre game of Rafa Roulette under the Benitez regime.

The Reds manager doesn't seem to mind whether his players score goals or fire blanks, because he has shown a fiery impatience with his hit men since he took over in 2004.

Benitez has often baffled fans and players with his rotation policy but when it comes to strikers, he has often rotated them right out of the club altogether, and Ireland captain Robbie Keane is only the latest in a long line of front players to find themselves out in the cold.

A £20.3m signing from Tottenham Hotspur and an established Premier League striker, Keane expected to be given an extended run in the Liverpool side.

Instead, he has found himself repeatedly substituted and, more recently, ignored and left on the bench.

Clearly, the Dubliner is bewildered and frustrated by his treatment. However, should he reflect on the Anfield transfer records, Keane might well consider he's wasting his time when he checks the list of forwards that have left the club on Benitez's watch.

Neil Mellor (Who?), Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Milan Baros, Fernando Morientes, Djibril Cisse, Craig Bellamy, Robbie Fowler, Andriy Voronin and Peter Crouch have flared across the Anfield skyline only to see the sun set on their Liverpool careers.

In fairness, Benitez has delivered in Europe, but it remains a deep wound that Liverpool have not claimed a league title since season 1989-90.

Significantly, the players entrusted with hitting the net regularly have not delivered quite enough under Benitez's leadership.

That begs the question: Is the quality no longer there or has Benitez failed to give strikers the chance to flourish?

It must be remembered that, ever since the days of Bill Shankly, Liverpool's successful sides featured awesomely-talented first-choice strikers who were feared the length and breadth of England.

Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Kevin Keegan, John Toshack, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish -- these were wonderfully-effective practitioners of the striker's art.

In later years, Fowler and Michael Owen became Kop favourites but they never emulated the heroes of the 60s, 70s and 80s by winning a league title.

Incidentally, the front players in the 1989-90 squad were Dalglish (player-manager), John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley, Ronnie Rosenthal and Ian Rush -- but leading scorer that season was midfielder John Barnes with 22 goals.

Wenger: Torres Key To Reds

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes keeping star striker Fernando Torres fighting fit is the key to Liverpool's chances of sustaining their Barclays Premier League title challenge.

Torres has not played since the end of November because of a hamstring problem and will again sit out Sunday's trip to Emirates Stadium.

Reds boss Rafael Benitez, though, hopes the five-goal former Atletico Madrid front man can return by the start of the new year.

Wenger is in no doubt of the threat a fully-fit Torres would pose to any side.

"If you ask them, they will want Torres on the pitch so they will not be stronger without Torres in the long term," said the Gunners boss.

"In the short term, sometimes you can stay without your stronger players - but if that should last until March or April of course it will be detrimental to their chances.

"I believe if it is only a hamstring problem he will back in January."

The Gunners head into the encounter looking for a clean sweep of victories over their likely title rivals.

Despite failing to build on the win over Chelsea by dropping points at Middlesbrough last weekend, Arsenal got lucky as all of the teams above them also drew.

However, with a resurgent Aston Villa - whom the Gunners face away on Boxing Day - now ahead of them in fourth spot, Wenger knows the margins for further error are all but gone.

"We are highly motivated to beat another of the so-called top four, and I am convinced we have the quality to do it," he said.

The Arsenal manager rejected suggestions revenge would be on the agenda following their controversial exit in the Champions League quarter-finals last season.

"It is an opportunity for us to catch them which we want to take, that is all," Wenger said, his team eight points off the pace.

"At the moment the race is still very tight because it looks for me, for the first time in six or seven years, that the number of points for the winner of this league will be much lower than usual because everybody drops points against everybody.

"For us the first step is to get back into the race, and to get back into the race the important thing is for us to beat Liverpool."

Wenger maintains the boardroom changes earlier this week - which saw majority shareholder Lady Bracewell-Smith, who owns a 15.9% stake and whose family has a long association with the Barclays Premier League club, voted out following a disagreement over the club's future direction - will have "no impact" on his duties.

The Gunners boss has been pledged funds should he wish to enter the transfer market in January.

However, Wenger maintained: "I have not found anyone special yet and I have not seen anyone special yet.

"More than any special position I am looking at opportunities, but at the moment I am more focused on getting this team to where I feel it can be and proving to people that this team deserves confidence and belief in them because I strongly believe that without buying, we can do it.

"That's what I want to show until 1 January and start to convince people that it is not necessarily in the transfer market that will we get back in the race.

"It is with our quality, our belief, our commitment."

Wenger Still Feels Cheated By European Exit At Hands Of Liverpool

Arsène Wenger suggested yesterday that Liverpool had cheated their way to victory over his Arsenal team in last season's Champions League quarter-final.

The Frenchman is preparing for the Premier League showdown against Liverpool at Emirates Stadium tomorrow, but the draw for the Champions League last 16, which paired Arsenal with the Italian club Roma, prompted a wistful look back.

Arsenal had been set fair for progress into the semi-finals on away goals last April, when Emmanuel Adebayor scored in the 84th minute at Anfield to make the scoreline 2-2 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate. Yet the dream was shattered two minutes later, when the Liverpool substitute Ryan Babel went down after a tackle from Kolo Touré to win a contentious penalty.

Steven Gerrard scored and Babel made the game safe with Liverpool's fourth goal in injury time. "It was a dive, you can say that, because Kolo didn't touch him but he [Babel] did it well," said Wenger, who also claimed his team ought to have had a penalty in the first leg when Dirk Kuyt challenged Alexander Hleb. "We had the penalty that was not given and the one over there [at Anfield].

"We were really unlucky in the championship game as well in between the two Champions League ties [that finished 1-1 at the Emirates]. Hleb had a fantastic chance to win the game in the last second, on his own, in front of the keeper. I feel we were especially unlucky in all three matches. Is it still painful? I am more about looking forward but it happens. In football, that's why everybody becomes crazy because it is never like you planned it."

Wenger has spoken out about diving in the past and he even criticised one of his own players, Emmanuel Eboué, for going to ground too easily. "It can happen that your own players dive sometimes," he said. "It is down to the players and to the referees to get it right, and maybe to video assistants. The general situation, though, has improved. I can show you some video replays of 20 years ago. You had some good divers then."

Arsenal's season fell apart with the three matches in seven days against Liverpool and Wenger now senses a similarly defining period this time out. After tomorrow's fixture, in which he described victory as "compulsory", the team travel to Aston Villa on Boxing Day in the Premier League and host Portsmouth next Sunday.

"The title race is still very tight because it looks to me that for the first time in six or seven years, the number of points for the winner will be much lower than usual," Wenger said. "Liverpool and Chelsea have dropped many points at home, which means the winner of this league will not get over 80 points."

Wenger attempted to skate past the upheaval behind the scenes at the club, which has seen Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, the holder of a 15.9% shareholding, manoeuvred off the board. She has, though, pledged not to sell her shares. "It has no impact on me," Wenger said. "What is important in a football club is the directors do not speak about technique and that I do not speak about shares. The future is made by the team, by their results and quality, and by the financial management of the team."

He was more bullish, though, about his chances of winning the Champions League for the first time. "I am confident we can beat anybody," he said. "If you tell me we play Barcelona tomorrow, I am confident we can beat them. We were very close in 2006, when we lost one game in the whole season in the Champions League and that was the final [against Barcelona] and we were down to 10 men after 10 minutes so we know we can do it.

"Roma are back to form and are maybe the best team in Italy at the moment. It will be interesting. The form of the day makes a difference. Until now, if you had one bad game, you could catch back. That is finished. If you miss five minutes of the 180, you are out."

Eboué, meanwhile, admitted he could understand why some Arsenal fans vented their frustrations at him for his poor performance in the Premier League win over Wigan at the Emirates Stadium earlier this month. The 25-year-old Ivory Coast international has pledged to return stronger from the experience.

"They pay money to watch Arsenal [try] to win," he said. "Then when we do not play well, not give our best performances on the pitch, they are very angry.

"I do not blame them, and I hope they will all come out to support us on Sunday, when we will try to do our best and try to win the game for them. I try to forget that now. I was disappointed but I am happy now. The next day in training I saw the boss and he gave me confidence."

Liverpool Need To Strengthen Position Over Christmas Period

Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee is looking for the Barclays Premier League leaders to strengthen their position over the Christmas period.

The Reds currently have a one-point advantage over Chelsea heading into the busy festive schedule. With so many matches in such a short space of time, Lee knows the slightest slip-up can hand the initiative to your rivals.

"Historically, Christmas has always been a crucial period," said Lee. "It is the ones who get the most points in that period that kick-start the new year."

Keeping players fresh and fit at this time of year can make a crucial difference and that is why Lee claimed the club were unhappy about the scheduling of their fixtures.

After Bolton at home on Boxing Day, kicking-off at 3pm, they travel to Newcastle for a noon start two days later.

"You have to make sure you recover well from each and every game," he added. "We are a little disappointed our second game is at noon because every hour counts in recovery time.

But that is the nature of the game and we have to make sure we recover well and get as many points as we can out of this period."

Lee has been taking charge of training this week with manager Rafael Benitez convalescing at home after a kidney stones operation.

Benitez's absence from the club's Melwood training ground this week has not affected planning for Sunday's visit to Arsenal.

"The plan of our weeks and months is always well in advance so we knew what we were going to do," said Lee.

"The players have done really well, they have focused and concentrated with all the stuff which has been going on in the background."

Liverpool FC's Rafa Benitez's Eye For Detail Is Amazing, Says Lee

Sammy Lee has revealed how Rafael Benitez’s meticulous attention to detail has ensured the smooth running of the club in the manger’s absence.

Benitez – who was yesterday handed a return to his home city of Madrid after Liverpool were drawn with his former club Real in the last 16 of the Champions League– was admitted to hospital in the early hours of Monday morning with a kidney stones problem and was kept in for an operation.

He will be back on the sidelines tomorrow when Liverpool go to Arsenal looking to extend their one-point lead at the top of the Premier League.

But his absence from the training ground has had no negative impact on the preparations due to the painstaking forward planning that the Spaniard is renowned for.

“To say that we don’t miss him would be totally wrong because he is the manager, he is such a presence,” said Lee.

“But it is a credit to him and the way he has set things in place that it means we can go on with him not being here.

“The work we put in is planned weeks and months in advance so, depending on the weather or if players have injuries, we all know what we are going to be doing.

“His presence has been missed about the place but he puts his plans in place and he relies on his coaches to implement those plans and we have done that.

“The players have done really well, they have focused and concentrated with all the stuff which has been going on in the background.”

Lee also described the frustrations of the manager at being away from Melwood during his recovery.

“Rafa has been hurt himself because he loves being on the training park,” added Lee. “He was in a lot of pain earlier in the week but he has got better and he will be there on Sunday.

“I have phoned him every day to keep in touch and let him know what has been going on.

“He doesn’t like being ill and he is not happy when he is away from the football club but he will be there on Sunday.”