Saturday, February 28, 2009

Premier League Preview: Middlesbrough vs. Liverpool

Middlesbrough downed West Ham United during the week to book their place in the FA Cup quarter-finals for the fourth year running. It was a confident performance and they were good value for their 2-0 victory over Gianfranco Zola's Hammers. If only the same could be said of their recent Premier League form.

The Teessiders are currently mired in the relegation zone, second from bottom and two points from the safety spots. They haven't won in 14 league outings and their last goal came against Sunderland on January 10. Attendances at the Riverside are dropping week by week and the forecast is not a sunny one for Gareth Southgate & Co.

Still, Boro hold a fairly decent record - although one win in 12 outings sounds less than impressive - against their upcoming opponents, who needed a last-gasp Steven Gerrard special to steal the points at Anfield toward the start of the season. And in context, the visitors are similarly desperate for a turnaround in their domestic fortunes.

Liverpool went into their Champions League clash with Real Madrid on Thursday after dropping yet more points in the title race, having drawn 1-1 with Manchester City to slip seven points shy of the tabletop. But they returned to England all smiles after claiming a monumental victory at the Santiago Bernabeu with what some are hailing as one of the most accomplished defensive performances in recent memory.

However, the Reds have a history of European hangovers - i.e. brilliant CL results followed immediately by sloppy, goalless league showings. But they will be confident of picking up a win by the Tees, as they presently boast the longest unbeaten record on the road - they last went without points away from home on November 1, against Tottenham Hotspur.

Off-field issues could play a part, though. It was confirmed on Friday that the club's chief executive, Rick Parry, will leave at the end of the season, while there remains considerable doubt over manager Rafael Benitez's long-term prospects.



Feb 25 Middlesbrough 2-0 West Ham United (FA Cup)
Feb 21 Middlesbrough 0-0 Wigan Athletic (Premier League)
Feb 14 West Ham United 1-1 Middlesbrough (FA Cup)
Feb 07 Manchester City 1-0 Middlesbrough (Premier League)
Jan 31 Middlesbrough 0-0 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)


Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (Premier League)
Feb 07 Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 04 Everton 1-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 01 Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea (Premier League)



Boro are expected to sport the same side that beat the Hammers in midweek, while Marlon King should return to the squad after being ineligible for the last three games. Didier Digard, Chris Riggott and Andrew Taylor are all unavailable.

Last XI (vs. West Ham United): Jones - Hoyte, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz - O'Neil, Arca, Bates, Downing - Tuncay, Aliadiere


Fernando Torres is back on the sidelines after injuring his ankle against the Merengues, but Steven Gerrard could start after making a late substitute appearance in the same game. Daniel Agger is nursing a back problem.

Last XI (vs. Real Madrid): Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio - Benayoun, Alonso, Mascherano, Riera - Kuyt, Torres


Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

The Englishman was perhaps the best performer against the Irons on Wednesday and netted the opener with a beautifully taken free-kick. His touchline-hugging play on the left could cause serious problems if he gets his final ball right.

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Who else but Stevie G? Until his injury-time jog at the Bernabeu, the super-skipper had been absent since tearing his hamstring in the FA Cup loss to Everton on February 4. With Torres out, all eyes will be on the Scouse hero - if he starts, of course.

How Will Liverpool FC Players Deal With The Off-Field Distractions?

BARELY a week goes by without a journalist asking Rafa Benitez how he thinks his players will cope with the ongoing off-field distractions.

It is a question which is usually answered with platitudes about how Liverpool’s squad is filled with professionals who are not easily distracted by politics, boardroom battles and daily headlines.

But how the Liverpool players manage to rise above the speculation and the subterfuge is something which is becoming almost impossible to work out.

Like everyone else in Madrid during the week they will have heard all the rumours suggesting that their manager would be leaving after the Champions League clash with Real.

And like everyone else there will have been an element of doubt in their minds about what the future holds for them and the club they work for.

But when it came down to the game they went out and to a man executed their manager’s tactics and produced a performance as professional as any in Europe last week.

It is to their eternal credit that they did so and it also serves to underline just how remarkable Liverpool’s performance was in beating the Spanish giants.

Success is usually extremely difficult to attain without togetherness and somehow Liverpool’s players are managing to create a collective spirit even when other parts of the club are so clearly lacking it.

Should they go on to lift a major trophy this season it will be an incredible achievement because no other set of players in world football are having to deal with the levels of acrimony and distraction that they are coping with pretty much every single day.

Benitez Won't Commit To Liverpool Until Ownership Issue Is Resolved

Uncertainty over the future ownership of Liverpool is the main obstacle preventing Rafa Benitez from committing himself to a new Liverpool contract.

In what has been a tumultuous week for Liverpool, manager Rafael Benítez has made it clear that he will not sign a new contract until he receives guarantees about the Merseyside club's future ownership.

On Friday, Liverpool announced that chief executive Rick Parry would be leaving Anfield at the end of the season. But Benítez made it clear that his decision about whether or not to sign a new four-year deal was never dependent upon Parry's future at the club, even though there has been a public power struggle between the two.

One of Liverpool's co-owners, Tom Hicks, is ready to agree to Benítez’s demands for greater control over the club’s transfer policy and youth system, but Times Online reports that the main stumbling block to the ex-Valencia boss committing himself to a new contract is the continuing uncertainty about who will own Liverpool. “It is too simple to say [if Rick Parry goes, I will sign a new contract],” Benítez said.

Benitez's stance underlines the need for Hicks and George Gillett Jr, his estranged business partner, to resolve the ownership issue before the summer, when other clubs, possibly including Real Madrid and some Premier League rivals, make a move for the Spanish tactician.

However, Hicks is not in a position to give Benitez the guarantees he is seeking. Gillett still has to find a buyer for his 50 per cent share in the club, and The Times claims that even if he wanted to sell to Hicks, his partner does not have enough funds to buy it off him.

Under the terms of their ownership agreement, Gillett could sell two per cent of his stake to Hicks, which would give the Texan majority control. However, Gillett would risk not being able to sell the remaining 48 per cent - because neither the would-be investors from Kuwait nor those from Dubai want to buy into a club that Hicks still controls.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking financially. In July, a £350 million refinancing package must be repaid by the two American co-owners.

George Gillett And Son At Risk As Tom Hicks Wins Liverpool Power-Play

Checkmate Hicks. Rick Parry's impending departure not only marks the end of his troubled tenure at the helm of Liverpool, but also the stalemate which has enveloped the club for more than a year.

Parry, closely aligned with co-owner George Gillett and his son, Foster, in Anfield's fractured boardroom, acted as one of the few obstacles to Tom Hicks's attempts to force his partner out of their joint venture. Now Parry has fallen, the rest will surely follow.

To the dismay of many fans, Hicks has made it plain he has no intention of giving up on his investment just yet, not while the potential rewards remain so great. Parry survived one assault last April, but was in no position to come through a second.

When Hicks spoke out against Parry last year, describing him as a "disaster" and claiming that he had been asleep at the wheel as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea drove off into the gilded sunset of worldwide merchandising and money-printing stadia, Gillett stepped in to save him.

That he did not do so again not only suggests Gillett, like Hicks and Rafa Benitez, had lost faith in Parry but also that the diminutive American might be prepared to follow him out of the door. Hicks has been actively seeking to trade in his current partner for a richer, more pliable model. Gillett has bowed to the Texan's wishes once. There is no reason to suggest he will not do so again.

Unpalatable to the Anfield faithful it may be, but Hicks's position of strength is good news for Benitez, the man they cherish above all others. Nobody is bigger than a club like Liverpool, but after the miracle of Istanbul, to many on the Kop, Benitez, the heir of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish, comes close.

Privately, those inside Liverpool admit the relationship between manager and chief executive had become unworkable. Benitez may not have actively brought him down, but he was part of it. They fell out over Parry's inactivity on transfers, his valuations of players, his lack of speed in tying current employees to new contracts.

Benitez insists those issues, as they pertain to his own four-year contract extension, have been ironed out. Now the problem concerns guarantees over what happens to him if the club's ownership changes. The Spaniard wants to know his position is secure and that he can get out if the boardroom vision of the club suddenly differs from his own.

One opponent has been vanquished and even if the other, wounded, does not follow, Hicks's power play has left Anfield in no doubt as to who is in charge. The stalemate has been broken. Hicks is calling the shots. Now he can give Benitez answers.

Rafa Benitez Now Has To Deliver Trophies After Winning Liverpool Power Struggle, Says Mark Lawrenson

Rafa Benitez has won his power struggle with Rick Parry - but must make sure he keeps the fans onside.

It was an impossible situation with a manager and chief executive barely speaking and at loggerheads over key issues at Anfield.

Clearly, Liverpool have backed Benitez over Parry. Now it's time the manager puts pen to paper as quickly as possible on his new contract.

The fans have stuck with Benitez and been loyal to him and their support will only have been strengthened by Liverpool's win in Madrid. But their patience will eventually wear thin.

My theory is that George Gillett does not want him at Liverpool but Tom Hicks does. So there are still obstacles to overcome. It is unsettled at Liverpool, a club renowned for being private, successful and protective of what goes on within Anfield's corridors of power.

Benitez is trying to engineer his new contract so that he has total power. He has won his power struggle with Parry, so why not just sign as quickly as possible?

I'm with Benitez in that if you've £25million to spend it should be up to the manager who he signs. He wanted Gareth Barry and got Robbie Keane.

But Benitez has got his way and must start rewarding the fans for sticking by him.

That means signing a new deal and winning some silverware. And the Liverpool fans really want the Premier League title.

Rafa Benitez: I Did Not Make Rick Parry Quit Liverpool

Rafa Benitez last night insisted that he did not demand the departure of Anfield chief executive Rick Parry.

And the Liverpool manager warned he still has issues to resolve before he will sign a new contract that has been on the table for the past five months.

Parry will leave at the end of the season after losing a long and acrimonious power battle with Benitez and Tom Hicks, the club’s American co-owner. Benitez said: "My negotiations are not a question of power, they are about normal football matters. I have never said I won’t sign a contract if Rick Parry stays.

"This won’t have a bearing on whether I sign or not. Rick Parry going is not one of the issues. I don’t see why people say I won."

While it’s hard to believe Benitez had nothing to do with Parry’s departure, it is true that he was not the sole instigator.

Parry has gone because Tom Hicks has wanted him out for a year, and co-owner George Gillett has decided he can no longer protect the chief executive, pointing to his own imminent departure.

How Rick Parry Lost The Liverpool Power Battle With Rafa Benitez

For Rick Parry, yesterday proved one battle too many in the long-running Anfield war.

But his departure as chief executive of Liverpool at the end of the season does not mean yet that peace will come to one of the bitterest disputes English football has witnessed.

Manager Rafa Benitez kept a straight face yesterday as he insisted the removal of his sworn enemy had nothing to do with him.

What Benitez meant to say was that, while he believed he couldn't work with Parry, he doesn't have blood on his hands - because it was co-owner Tom Hicks who was ultimately responsible for his axing.

The chief executive had been marginalised at Anfield for more than a year after Hicks demanded his departure.

Last April, the Texan billionaire called for Parry's head by openly questioning Liverpool's less than sparkling commercial performance, and insisted: "If you look at what has happened under Rick's leadership, it has been a disaster."

It was only the support of joint owner George Gillett that kept Parry in place, but it seems that support has evaporated in recent weeks as negotiations began over a pay off.

Contrary to reports though, Gillett has not fallen out with Parry, but is merely paving the way for his own departure.

Gillett has been looking for a buyer for his 50 per cent stake in Anfield for the past 12 months, and The Mirror understands that he is now ready to accept Hicks will assume full control at the Merseyside club, by either buying the shares himself or finding a partner to buy Gillett out.

Hicks has moved against Parry to appease Benitez, who wants more control over football matters.

But he has also done it to flex his own muscles, and show that he is ready to become more hands on at the club he hopes to have majority control over by the summer. Parry, aware of this, has negotiated a lucrative package to ease himself out of the club.

With Hicks and Benitez working together closely, that will ultimately mean that the Anfield manager will sign a new contract... but not just yet. He still wants other assurances over his control of football matters and transfer budgets.

For Parry, the fight became too arduous. He won his first battle when arriving at Anfield from the Premier League back in 1998 when he replaced Peter Robinson as the chief executive.

His biggest battle was to try and find the right investors to buy Liverpool and build a new stadium, but he and the previous owner David Moores have admitted they made a mistake in selling to the Americans.

Parry's first fight with Benitez came straight after the Champions League triumph of 2005, and since then the relationship between the pair has been increasingly fraught.

A major fall out between the two after the Champions League final of 2007 saw the Americans back Parry and almost sack Benitez, but with Hicks switching sides to win the support of Liverpool fans the chief executive's days were always numbered.

He will leave with a handsome settlement. But for Benitez the pay off could be even more substantial as he gets what he always wanted - full control of the club.

Liverpool FC's Alvaro Arbeloa injured

Liverpool suffered a fresh injury blow last night with the news that Alvaro Arbeloa will be out for at least 10 days.

The full-back has a slight hamstring tear and is a doubt to make the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid at Anfield a week on Tuesday.

Arbeloa sustained the injury during his impressive display in the 1-0 win in Madrid on Wednesday and is currently undergoing treatment.

He will miss the Premier League games at Middlesbrough today and at home to Sunderland on Tuesday.

Arbeloa’s injury is further bad news for manager Rafael Benitez, who is ready to throw Steven Gerrard back into his starting line-up today.

The Liverpool manager’s attacking options have been severely rocked by the absence of Fernando Torres following the injury he picked up at the Bernabeu.

Torres suffered a twisted ankle and has been ruled out of today’s game, and now faces a race to be fit in time to face Sunderland.

And with Gerrard making his return from a hamstring tear for the final two minutes in Madrid, Benitez is considering putting his captain back in from the start.

He will be assessed this morning before a final decision is made but Benitez is aware of the need to play as strong a side as possible at the Riverside.

Benitez said: “Every game is so important now because we need to put United under pressure.

“So we need to win and to win you need to have your best players.

Fernando Torres Injury Ruins Liverpool Plans For Must-Win Middlesbrough Game

Rafa Benitez has a massive injury headache for the game he says is a must-win for Liverpool's Premier League title hopes.

The Anfield boss hasn't yet conceded the Premier League to Manchester United despite trailing by seven points, but he will be without Fernando Torres for the visit to Middlesbrough.

Benitez admits that the Reds can kiss goodbye to the title if they lose today, and the loss of Torres is a massive blow, but he said: "We have to go to win as we are still thinking of winning the title.

"It is really important for us to get three points in each game.

"We can talk and talk about the difference but the main thing for us is to win our games to put pressure on United.

"We cannot let the gap get any wider, but we have not given up because many things can happen before the end."

Torres has an ankle problem and will miss the game, but could be back for the visit to Anfield of Sunderland on Tuesday night.

Benitez explained: "He wants to play but the doctor says we have to wait. In this situation two or three days can be a big difference."

Skipper Steven Gerrard is in the squad but could again be on the bench at the Riverside Stadium. Alvaro Arbeloa is out with a hamstring, forcing Jamie Carragher to switch to right back and offering a chance to Daniel Agger.

Liverpool Back In For Barry: Transfer Talk

Rafa Benitez will sign a new contract after winning his power struggle with Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry and his first move after putting pen to paper will be to launch a £20m raid for Aston Villa and England midfielder Gareth Barry.

This column revealed on Monday that Benitez faced the axe because support on the Anfield board was wearing thin.

But owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have decided the club's imminent failure to regain the Premier League title was because of a lack of quality purchases in the transfer market last summer.

That was when Benitez set out his stall to lure Barry from Villa to Merseyside only to be thwarted in his plans when the Reds refused to increase their £16m to match Martin O'Neill's £18m valuation.

There was a bizarre twist when Liverpool then splashed out £20.3m for Spurs striker Robbie Keane only for Benitez to run him out of town last month when he returned to White Hart Lane for just £12m.

The Liverpool manager still wants Barry to team up with talismanic Steven Gerrard as he feels they would form a midfield partnership which would be the fulcrum to Liverpool's success.

Now Parry is stepping down, after apparently losing Gillett's support, Benitez holds the upper hand although he will be under pressure to produce silverware next season.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Liverpool FC Must Treat Middlesbrough Like Real Madrid, Says Javier Mascherano

It’s a long way from Madrid to Middlesbrough in just about every possible sense – but Javier Mascherano believes that what happened in the Spanish capital on Wednesday night could have a positive effect on what occurs in the North East tomorrow.

Liverpool head to Middlesbrough still basking in the glow of their glorious victory over Real and in the knowledge that another win is required if their fading Premier League hopes are to be reignited.

Mascherano – who was at his belligerent best at the Bernabeu – knows that the Reds need to pick up three points to try and raise the pressure on league leaders Manchester United and he is hoping that the feel good factor from their victory over Real will still be evident at the Riverside.

He said: “We are still fighting in the Premier League and we know that there are still quite a lot of games to go.

“So it is good that we have had a result like this against a team like Real Madrid because it gives us confidence for the games to come.

“On Saturday we face Middlesbrough and then after that we play against Sunderland so if we can beat them maybe we will be a bit closer than we are now.

“You never know if Manchester United can drop some points, so we are happy and we need to keep going.”

For a player whom Rafa Benitez reckons fits the bill of a Duracell bunny, keeping on going is something that seems to come naturally to Mascherano.

On Wednesday night he covered pretty much every blade of Spanish grass at the Bernabeu in a game which was always going to suit his playing style which is built on seeking out and destroying potential causes of danger wherever and whenever they exist.

After shackling the likes of Gago, Diarra, Marcelo and Gutti, the Argentinian is now ready to turn his attentions to doing whatever it takes to ensure Middlesbrough suffer a similar fate to Madrid.

“It is a different game against a different team but we need to try and play the same way and with the same concentration,” he said.

“Of course it was amazing to win against Madrid but now we must focus on our next game because Middlesbrough need points as well and it will be a tough match for us. “But we are showing that we are a good team and the important thing now is to do it again.

“What happened on Wednesday night was great news for Liverpool and for all the Liverpool supporters – the ones who were in Madrid for the game and the ones who were watching at home – because it showed that Liverpool can fight.

“I do not know if it will mean that we will go through to the quarter finals of the Champions League, we will see what happens.

“But we were playing at the same level as Real and that is good news for us.”

The victory over Madrid was far from being the first time that Liverpool have come up with a positive result on their European travels following a domestic setback.

Last weekend’s disappointing home draw against Manchester City left Benitez’s side trailing United by seven points and led to increased questioning about their ability to go the distance in this season’s title race.

Though Mascherano concedes that suffering such a disappointment just days before they came up against the nine time European champions was far from being ideal preparation, he insists the character within the ranks at Anfield will always stand them in good stead even when the chips are down.

He said: “Obviously when you draw like we did against City on Sunday it is difficult because we wanted to win that game before we went to Madrid to play against a good team.

“Unfortunately we could not do that but the important thing after this was that we responded in the right way and I think that we did that.” As far as the 24-year-old midfielder is concerned, few Liverpool players epitomise this spirit more at present than hero of the hour Yossi Benayoun.

When the Israeli international rose highest in a packed penalty area to send the winning header soaring past Iker Casillas, Mascherano was one of a number of Reds stars who had to do a bit of a double take due to the identity of the scorer.

But Mascherano insists he is not in the least bit surprised that Benayoun was Liverpool’s matchwinner – even if the manner in which his goal arrived was a bit of a stunner.

“It was amazing and I could not believe it,” laughed Mascherano.

“But I am really delighted for him because he is a good team mate and I know how hard he works all the time.

“He deserved this goal and like I said I am really happy for him.”

Should Benayoun manage to repeat the trick at the Riverside Stadium tomorrow afternoon, then the distance between Madrid and Middlesbrough will have been well and truly bridged.

Liverpool Suffer Injury Blow As Fernando Torres Is Ruled Out

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres looks set to be ruled out of playing against Middlesbrough at the weekend because of an ankle injury picked up against Real Madrid in the Champions League.

The Spaniard lasted for just an hour at the Bernabeu in midweek, before limping off, delivering yet another blow to manager Rafael Benitez's Premier League title campaign.

The injury was assessed after the side returned from Madrid, and while they wait to find out the extent of the damage, Torres looks set to miss out on the weekend's must-win clash at the Riverside.

"The ankle was bad but it maybe wasn’t the worst injury," Benitez said. “He was limping and uncomfortable and we decided to bring on Ryan Babel.

“We don’t know yet how bad it is. Probably he will miss some games. We have a game on Saturday and it will be difficult for him to be ready."

Already seven points behind Manchester United in the league, Benitez will not want to rush his striker and so could sit him out next week when Liverpool host Sunderland.

Should this be the case, along with the FA Cup giving the club a rest next weekend, Torres stands to return for the second leg against Real and the potentially title-deciding match at Old Trafford four days later.

The injury will frustrate Torres who has struggled for fitness all season with a series of hamstring injuries.

Liverpool Make A Special Request For Jose Mourinho If Rafa Benitez Goes

Jose Mourinho is being lined up as the next manager of Liverpool if Rafa Benitez refuses to sign his new contract.

The former Chelsea manager, now at Inter Milan, is top of an Anfield shortlist in case Benitez’s dispute with the club leads to him walking out.

Liverpool’s American owners are increasingly alarmed at the refusal of the Spaniard to sign a new deal after months of negotiations.

And associates of co-owner Tom Hicks have made contact, through a third party, with Mourinho’s agent Jorge Mendes to explore the possibility of a summer move. Frank Rijkaard, AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti and former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson are also being checked out.

Benitez has consistently moved the goalposts during negotiations even though the Americans have met most of his demands.

That has led to a frenzy of speculation which reached its peak this week, with bookies making him favourite to be the next boss to leave a Premier League club.

It is thought that Benitez is keen to see chief executive Rick Parry moved aside, and the manager has also indicated that he finds it difficult working with co-owner George Gillett.

He also wants assurances in the event of the club being sold.

Hicks is a staunch supporter of the Spaniard but Gillett is less committed and questioned if Benitez should be offered a deal that runs until 2013.

Both men are standing by their offer but they also realise they could be left in a desperate position if Benitez stalls until the end of the season and then decides not to renew - paving the way for his departure.

That is a position that becomes more likely with each day that passes without agreement.

And the owners have acted in the past, interviewing Jurgen Klinsmann for the manager’s job a year ago.

Mourinho clearly fits the bill if a replacement is needed. He has repeatedly stated in recent weeks that, despite success in taking Inter Milan to the top of the Italian League, he would love a return to England.

And he makes no secret of his admiration for Liverpool and the history of the club.

Javier Mascherano: Liverpool FC Players Glad Rafa Benitez Wants To Stay

Javier Mascherano has led the declarations of delight from Liverpool players that Rafael Benitez wants to stay on as manager at Anfield.

Benitez’s future was the subject of intense speculation ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League clash at Real Madrid, with some bookmakers stopping taking bets on the Spaniard being in charge by the end of the week.

Liverpool’s players shrugged off the rumours to earn a famous 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu to take a stranglehold in their first knockout round first leg tie.

Afterwards, Benitez reiterated his desire to stay and dismissed the suggestion of an imminent resignation by revealing further negotiations over his proposed four-year contract are expected in the coming days. And Mascherano believes the Liverpool squad are firmly behind their manager, who signed 15 of the 18 players on show at the Bernabeu.

“Rafa is doing a great job,” said the Argentina midfielder. “We are a top side and he has got us playing at this level. We have shown it against Barcelona, Inter last season and now Real Madrid.

“We know we are a team that works really hard and the manager has to take credit for that. Every single player gives 100% for him.

“It is hard to explain exactly how much he means and how much he has done for me.

“When I came to Liverpool I did not have any confidence left at all because I hadn’t been playing at all for West Ham.

“But now I find that I am always calm when I am playing because he has put such trust in me.

“All I can say to Rafa is thank you.

“He has taken me from the lowest point in my career to this. Now, everything I do is not only for the team but for Rafa too.

“Obviously I am delighted he has said he is staying. I haven’t spoken to him about his situation but Liverpool are doing a great job in the Champions League and Premier League and he is the main reason for that.”

Albert Riera, another player Benitez brought to Anfield, echoed the sentiments of Mascherano and believes the whole of the Liverpool squad feels the same.

“Of course I am happy to hear he will stay,” said Riera.

“He was very important in helping bring me to Liverpool and it is the same for a lot of players at this club.

“I am sure if you asked all the players if they wanted Rafa to stay with us, 100% would say yes.”

Benitez is confident the obstacles that have prevented a deal being brokered with Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett can be overcome.

However, the longer the impasse continues, the more likely it is the American owners will start to investigate an insurance policy in the event of Benitez failing to agree terms, with Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho likely to be one manager sounded out.

Liverpool’s victory over Real was all the more impressive given it was achieved largely without talismanic duo Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

Torres suffered a twisted ankle in the opening minute of the match and was clearly hampered by the injury before finally forced to concede defeat by hobbling off shortly after the hour mark.

The striker is now almost certain to miss tomorrow’s Premier League trip to Middlesbrough, with a bulletin expected on his fitness later today.

Gerrard failed to fully recover from the hamstring tear that sidelined him for three weeks, appearing only as a substitute for the final two minutes.

And Benitez revealed Liverpool’s players were always aware the skipper would not start in the Bernabeu.

“The team was always thinking about playing the game without Steven Gerrard because they could see he was not fully fit,” said the Liverpool manager.

“We delayed the decision until the very last, and in the end we decided it was not right for him to start.

“But the team already knew that from what they had seen.”

Liverpool Release Statement Confirming Rick Parry Departure

Liverpool have confirmed chief executive Rick Parry will leave his position at the end of the season.

Parry's position has become increasingly unstable in the last few months as a result of boardroom divides between American co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

A statement from Hicks on the club's website read: "Rick's commitment to Liverpool Football Club is epitomised by his desire to ensure that this transitional period is managed efficiently and we are grateful to him for his help. He will always remain a friend of the football club."

Parry, 54, made no mention of the ongoing feuds as he confirmed the end of his long association with the club.

Last April he was asked to resign by Hicks in a move he branded "offensive" and has had to compete with the American forming a 'shadow executive' led by commercial director Ian Ayre and finance director Steve Nash, who operates out of a city centre office away from Anfield.

"I have had 12 very exciting years at Liverpool and am extremely proud of what has been achieved by the club over that period," Parry said.

"The victory in Madrid was a wonderful reminder of the many high points we have experienced and adds to the moments that make Liverpool and its magnificent fans so special.

"It has been a privilege to serve the club and as a lifelong supporter I wish the owners, Rafa (Benitez), the players and the wonderful staff all the very best for the future.

"I will be leaving at the end of the season knowing that the club remains strong and with a set of supporters who deserve success in all that Liverpool does."

Gillett added: "I would like to thank Rick for his significant service to the club and the assistance he has given us since we joined Liverpool. He has been integral to the club's success over the past decade and leaves with our best wishes for the future."

Ironically, Parry facilitated Hicks' and Gillett's purchase of the club in February 2007 after Dubai Investment Capital's bid fell through and he was understood to have received a £500,000 bonus when the deal was completed.

But the relationship between the trio gradually disintegrated, leaving Parry allied with Gillett and Hicks to side with manager Rafael Benitez.

Rumours of boardroom discontent and instability have blighted Liverpool's last two seasons, and rumours that Benitez was on the verge of quitting earlier this week threatened to overshadow the crucial 1-0 defeat of Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

Parry has already considered resigning this season when he was touted to be chief executive of England's 2018 World Cup bid but opted to remain at Anfield and stand his ground.

Having been born and raised on Merseyside, Parry studied at the University of Liverpool before becoming a management consultant.

He was chief executive of the Manchester 1992 Olympic bid and director of the 1996 bid, and was consulted about plans to found the Premier League in 1992 before becoming its first chief executive.

Liverpool confirmed they will begin their search for Parry's replacement and will "update supporters and other stakeholders when appropriate".

Benitez Must Not Leave Us, Warn Loyal Liverpool Stars

Liverpool players have given their full backing to manager Rafael Benitez and urged him to stay at the club.

The Champions League win at Real Madrid was overshadowed by pre-match rumours Benitez was on his way out of Anfield over the stalemate that has developed over his new contract.

After the 1-0 win, Benitez made it clear he had no intention of resigning, with further talks on his future due with owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks this weekend.

But this did little to allay the concerns of the Spaniard's players.

Midfielder Javier Mascherano said: 'The manager brought me to Anfield, he has done a very good job here.

'He is important for me. When I came to Liverpool I did not have any confidence after being at West Ham. The manager gave me that confidence.

'I cannot say what is going to happen but with him here, Liverpool is doing a great job.

'If we want to keep going in both the Champions League and Premier League it's important to have him with us.'

Spain full-back Alvaro Arbeloa agreed, adding: 'I do not really know what the problem is but people must know how important Benitez is for us. I hope he will continue with us for many years but in these things you never know.'

Winger Albert Riera said: 'Of course we want Rafa to stay. He is very important, not only for me but for the other players too, we all want Rafa to be here at this club.

'If you asked everyone, 100 per cent they would say they want Rafa to stay with us.'

Liverpool FC Are Top Ranked Club In Europe

Liverpool are officially the top ranked club in Europe.

Wednesday night's famous victory in the Bernabeu has sent the Reds to the top of UEFA's ranking system for the first time since 1985.

Based on performances in European competition over the past five years, the complicated system awards points for matches won and quality of opposition.

The victory in the Bernabeu has seen the Reds overtake Chelsea at the top of the table, with Barcelona third and AC Milan fourth.

Liverpool's five year record under Rafa Benitez – who arrived at the club in the summer of 2004 – has been phenomenal.

In his five years the Spanish coach has won the Champions League, taken his team to another final, reached last season's semi-final and got to the last 16 in 2006.

It's a record of unparalleled consistency in recent times.

Even when the Reds won the Champions League in 2005, their ranking for the season put them second behind AC Milan, while their five year record left them in fifth behind Barcelona, AC Milan, Valencia and Real Madrid.

This is the first time the Reds have topped the co-efficient rankings since 1985 when the European ban was imposed, effectively asking them to start their ranking points tally from scratch.

Liverpool also have the highest ranking for this present season with (18.1775 points) closely followed by Bayern Munich, who handed out a 5-0 demolition at Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday night.

UEFA's latest rankings:

1 Liverpool FC (114.077)
2 Chelsea FC (110.077)
3 Barcelona (109.403)
4 AC Milan (109.306)
5 Arsenal (101.077)
6 Sevilla (100.403)
7 Man Utd (99.077)
8 Bayern Munich (93.664)
9 Lyon (90.576)
10 Inter Milan (87.306).

Liverpool Aim To Beat Bolton And Reach FA Youth Cup Semi-Finals

Showing they have something to offer is just as key to the Liverpool Youth team players as reaching a third FA Youth Cup semi-final in four years tonight.

Hugh McAuley sends his young stars into tonight’s quarter-final clash with Bolton Wanderers at Anfield (kick-off 7pm), hoping they can make the most of another opportunity in front of a wider audience.

During the competition several attacking players like Lauri Dalla Valle, David Amoo, Nathan Eccleston, and Tom Ince have been key, while at the back Aussie keeper Dean Bouzanis and the central defensive pairing of Joe Kennedy and Daniel Ayala has looked particularly solid.

Liverpool had the perfect build-up with an impressive 3-1 win over Crewe in the Academy League last weekend and McAuley is looking for the same tonight. McAuley said: “They had a good attitude and played some good football and created good chances. And they defended well when they needed to.

“We have to build upon that and look forward to playing at Anfield again and hopefully taking advantage of a good situation for ourselves.”

He added: “It is a second time for a lot of them and a third for some of playing at Anfield. It does get easier – there shouldn’t be the same nerves – but at the same time it should give them a buzz playing on the first-team ground. For me you can’t play on that ground enough.

“It is another fantastic opportunity for the players to prove to themselves, their family and friends, the senior management and the supporters that they are good players and they have something to offer. Hopefully our better players who we think can move up and perform at a higher level can perform on the night.”

Liverpool know Bolton will be tough opponents. McAuley’s side scored a 5-0 win over the Trotters at the Kirkby Academy in the league earlier in the season. But the Liverpool coach doesn’t feel that result will have any bearing.

He said: “Bolton are a team we know well. They will have different players who have played for the reserves this year, like ourselves, and don’t play week-in, week-out for the Academy team.

“We will give Bolton the respect they deserve, because they are a good team. But at the same time we have the confidence in our own ability and the confidence from how we have performed in the previous rounds to play our own game.

Forward James Ellison is unlikely to feature due to a back injury, but left-back Christopher Buchtmann is expected to shake off a knock picked up on international duty with Germany against Scotland.

Attacking midfielder Tom Ince is also likely to return after being away with England under-17s at the Algarve Tournament for the past week.

LIVERPOOL YOUTH (from): Bouzanis; Scott, Metcalf, Ayala, Kennedy, Buchtmann, Ince, Kacaniklic, Amoo, Pepper, Roberts, Irwin, Eccleston, Dalla Valle, Cooper, Chamberlain, O’Connor.

Liverpool Won't Be Defensive When Hosting Real Madrid - Benitez

After returning from Madrid with a crucial away goal, Rafa Benitez has declared that his side will still be aiming for a win in the second leg at Anfield, and won't be employing defensive tactics.

Primera Division heavyweights Real Madrid have an arduous task on their hands when they travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool in the second leg of their Champions League clash in two weeks' time.

The Reds have a formidable reputation at home in Europe, bolstered even further by their vocal fans who have often been described as the club's 12th man.

Due to Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun's match-winning goal in the Santiago Bernabeu, it would not have been absurd to assume that Liverpool - who still harbour hopes of a memorable domestic and European double - would be looking to protect that lead with a defensive display at home.

Rafael Benitez though is adamant that the best form of defence is attack, and that his side will do all they can to ruin any chance of a Real Madrid comeback by going for the win.

"The away goal could be crucial but playing against Real Madrid is always difficult, so we have to approach the game at Anfield trying to win," he told the club's official website.

"I think with the fans behind the team we can beat anyone, so now we have to go forward. If we can work as hard as on Wednesday and play a little bit better at times I think we will have our chances."

Regarding the manner in which the club battled to a 1-0 win in their first ever game at Real Madrid's home ground, Benitez said, "I am really pleased - pleased for the players, the team, the club and for the fans. To win here in Madrid is very difficult and I think we did a very good job. The players were working so hard - they deserved to win."

On the injury to Fernando Torres, who is expected to be sidelined for the club's weekend Premier League tie with Teesside club Middlesbrough, the Spaniard added, "The ankle was swelling so we needed to protect him."

Regarding the manager's own future, most Reds' fans will be pleased to hear that the flurry of activity that prompted bookmakers to suspend betting temporarily yesterday morning was, in fact, founded on hearsay, as Benitez said, "I was not thinking about resigning, I was thinking about trying to win. Concentrating on the game was my idea, clearly."

Albert Riera: I Let Benayoun Hit Liverpool's Winner

The Reds' Spanish winger has told of his part in the winning goal at the Bernabeu, heaping praise upon the man who put it away.

Liverpool are in the box seat to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League after beating Real Madrid 1-0 in the first leg of their last-16 tie in Spain.

It was the diminutive Yossi Benayoun who rose late in the game to head home Fabio Aurelio's free kick, but Albert Riera was also lurking beneath the Brazilian's sumptuous ball.

"I was just in front of Yossi," Riera told the club's official website. "I think [Gonzalo] Higuain touched me and that made a bit of space for Yossi, so I left the ball for him and he made a great contact.

"It was a great header and a really important goal for us so you have to give Yossi a lot of credit for that. It was really good to see the ball hit the back of the net because we know how important away goals can be.

"It was the most important moment and it was a big victory for us because it means that maybe now we have a little bit of an advantage – but it is not a massive advantage."

Liverpool were made to work hard at the Santiago Bernabeu, but they came away with the spoils thanks to a ruthless display of defensive organisation.

Riera continued, "We made the game uncomfortable for Real Madrid because we knew that was what we had to do if we were to give ourselves a good chance.

"We always feel that we have a chance because we have some great players and we were waiting for the big moment to come and when it did we were delighted."

Statistically, the tie is well and truly in the Merseysiders' favour, considering they have never a lost a European Cup knock-out clash after winning the away leg.

But Riera said, "In big games like this no-one is ever the favourite – it comes down to what happens on the pitch on the night," he added.

"But we were not just thinking about what happened in this game at the Bernabeu, we were looking upon it more as a game over 180 minutes.

"At 0-0 we were thinking that maybe it could be a good score but to win the game 1-0 is an unbelievable result for us.

"Now we have to come up with another big performance in the second leg at home. But I am confident that we will go through to the next stage."

Carragher Hails Well-Oiled Liverpool Machine

Jamie Carragher insists Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool will know exactly how to finish the job against Real Madrid at Anfield.

The difficulty may come in the execution of Benitez’s plans, but Carragher knows the manager will have Liverpool fully prepared for everything Madrid can throw at them as the Spaniards look to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit.

With a place in the Champions League quarter-finals firmly in Liverpool’s sights after captain-for-the-night Carragher led them to victory in Spain, they are determined to complete their last-16 task.

Carragher said: “Away goals are massive in Europe and that means they have got to get one now in the second leg. Hopefully if they come at us it will give us more space and make it easier to reach the last eight.

“We have done well in this competition by being organised. We are one of the best organised teams in this competition. That is why we have done well in the last few years and we have done it again in Madrid. We got what we came for, a clean sheet and an away goal.

“But it is only half-time, they know what they have got to do and that is come to Anfield and score, so it’s still game on.”

Brazilian defender Fabio Aurelio supplied the free-kick to set up the winner for Yossi Benayoun against Real at the Bernabeu.

Aurelio said: “It was never easy out there, we had to work very hard together on defence to stop them, but that still meant we could and should have had more goals because we had the clearer chances.

“But now we still go forward to the second leg with a very good feeling that we get to the next stage.

“We know how important the away goal was and we hope now we can finish the job at Anfield.”

Reds Trio Back Benitez

Liverpool trio Javier Mascherano, Alvaro Arbeloa and Albert Riera have added their voices to calls for boss Rafa Benitez to stay at the club.

There is on-going speculation concerning the Spaniard's future at Anfield as his contract talks have floundered.

But he again showed what the Reds would be missing if he does go when masterminding Liverpool's 1-0 victory at Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday.

In total, 15 of the 18-man squad on show in the Bernabeu were signed by the Spaniard, with Mascherano, Arbeloa and Riera among those players.

The trio started against Real and are in no doubt of Benitez's importance to both them and the club.

Mascherano said: "The manager brought me to Anfield, he has done a very good job here.

"We can get to the quarter-finals again and he has shown that against the top sides like in Barcelona, at Inter Milan last season and now at Real Madrid that he is a very good coach for us.

"We are always a team who works very hard and every Liverpool supporter has to be very happy with this. Every player gives everything for the club.

"He is important for me. When I came to Liverpool I did not have any confidence after being at West Ham.

"The manager gave me that confidence. The only thing I can say to Rafa is thank you, he helped me during a bad moment in my career and now I try to do everything for my team and for him.

"I cannot say what is going to happen, but with him Liverpool is doing a great job. If we want to keep going in the Champions League and Premier League it is important to have him with us."

Riera also backed Benitez, saying: "As for the situation regarding the manager, we are aware of the dispute over his contract. But it is not something we were talking about in the dressing room, the match took up all our thoughts.

"Of course we want Rafa to stay. I wanted to play for Liverpool and he was a very important person in achieving that for me.

"Not only for me but for the other players too, we all want Rafa to be with us. If you asked everyone, 100 per cent they would say they want Rafa to stay with us."

Arbeloa also backs the Liverpool boss but knows that, in football, you can never say never.

He said: "As for the manager and all the talk about him, I do not really know what the problem is but people must know how important he is for us.

"I hope he will continue with us for many years, but in these things you never know."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Match Report: Real Madrid 0 - 1 LiverpooL

Rafael Benitez masterminded another magnificent European away triumph as Liverpool confounded the odds with a stunning victory in the Bernabeu.

Whatever the Liverpool manager's future is after months of rumours, he did his cause no harm at all thanks to Yossi Benayoun's headed winner.

Benitez has coached Liverpool to remarkable performances away to Juventus, Barcelona, Arsenal, Inter Milan and Chelsea in recent seasons in the Champions League, but this was by far the most impressive.

Real have been rampant of late and unbeaten this year, but Liverpool dug deep and Benayoun headed the late winner to give his side every chance of progressing to the quarter-finals.

Despite days of intensive treatment, Steven Gerrard did not make the starting XI, the midfielder initially left on the bench.

It meant Jamie Carragher captained the side with Benayoun on the right of midfield and Dirk Kuyt pushed forward in support of Fernando Torres.

Gerrard's absence was a bad blow but confirmed how Benitez would play the first leg. Contained defence, a combative and mobile midfield and hard running were the order of the day.

In the opening exchanges there was a calmness about Liverpool in this intimidating arena, five tiers of fervent passion pouring down in support of Real.

They defended with discipline and long before the break Real were trying their luck from distance.

The Spanish champions, who had scored 10 goals in their last two games, still had their moments.

Arjen Robben's pass gave Raul the chance of a shot on the turn held by Jose Reina, while Brazilian Marcelo also tested the goalkeeper.

And it took a fine saving tackle by Carragher on Gonzalo Higuain to snuff out another dangerous moment.

But the longer the game went on, the more Liverpool seemed in control defensively.

It also saw them coming out on the break and Torres should have done better after 20 minutes as he was allowed to run onto a Reina long clearance, but Iker Casillas palmed away a shot across the face of the goal.

Casillas then got a firm block on Benayoun's close-range shot as Liverpool sought to snatch something from a period of growing confidence.

Higuain thought he had scored with a close-range header, only to be rightly penalised for offside, before Marcelo and Robben, twice, tried their luck unsuccessfully from outside the box.

Real had most of the possession but it was Spain international Xabi Alonso who almost broke the deadlock with an audacious shot from inside his own half.

The midfielder is famous for such effrontery, once scoring a similar goal at Luton, but this time Casillas had to scramble back to touch the effort over the bar.

Madrid sent on Guti for Marcelo at the break, with Fabio Cannavaro booked for a foul on Dirk Kuyt soon after the restart.

Liverpool had not allowed Real to indulge themselves with the expansive game that has swept so many aside of late. Javier Mascherano's snap and drive in midfield was the yardstick for others to follow.

Torres, kept under close control by Cannavaro, was booked for a swipe at Lassana Diarra's ankles, the game now stretched as both sides searched for the vital breakthrough.

Benitez, never one to be bothered about reputations, then replaced a disappointing Torres with Ryan Babel after 62 minutes, to predictable derision from the home fans at the former Atletico Madrid man.

Mascherano was next into the book for a foul on Fernando Gago, Reina yet to have a serious shot to save in the half.

That was to come after 70 minutes when Reina touched over a dipping drive from Robben, Madrid starting to show more urgency as the minutes ticked away.

However, Liverpool were still comfortable and things got even better with eight minutes left.

Gabriel Heinze's foul on Kuyt gave Fabio Aurelio the opportunity to curl in a free-kick that Benayoun headed past Casillas from six yards.

Benayoun was engulfed by his jubilant team-mates and way up above them, 3,000 Liverpool fans erupted.

Albert Riera was booked, and then taken off injured, allowing Gerrard into the fray with three minutes left and Lucas replaced Kuyt in the final seconds, the game now won.

Real Madrid's Juande Ramos Makes Case For Liverpool's Defence

Juande Ramos has claimed Liverpool's defence was the difference in Real Madrid's surprise 1-0 defeat at the Bernabeu.

Madrid went into last night's first leg against Rafa Benitez's men having won their last nine Primera Liga matches and having netted 10 goals in their previous two outings.

But the Spanish giants could not find a way though a well-marshalled Liverpool backline and barely even had a chance of note as the visiting 2005 Champions League winners claimed a 1-0 victory thanks to Yossi Benayoun's late headed goal.

Ramos said: "Liverpool have to be credited for their defensive work. Our intention was to score a goal at home and record a good advantage to go into the second leg, and they haven't given us any space. Liverpool were very well organised in defence tonight.

"There were hardly any chances and at the end it has been a set-piece that they took advantage of that separates the teams."

The former Spurs manager admits Liverpool's tactics came as no surprise to him.

"I think that Liverpool played how we expected," he added. "They've tried to keep a clean sheet and it's us who had to take risks.

"We've tried to create chances, but they've defended well. We brought on Guti to try and open them up. The game was developing how we thought but we couldn't find the breakthrough."

Despite suffering only his second defeat since replacing Bernd Schuster in the Bernabeu hot seat before Christmas, Ramos still felt his team could turn things around at Anfield and progress through to the quarter-finals.

"We are going to fight and work hard in the return match to see if we are capable of winning at Anfield. It's a bad result but we are confident for the return leg," he said.

"We are only halfway through the tie and we have the desire and hope to win at Anfield and we are going to fight with all our strength to achieve it."

Mascherano: Liverpool Cannot Relax At Anfield Against Real Madrid

After helping the Merseysiders to a priceless first leg win at the Bernabeu, Mascherano gave an exclusive analysis of the game to’s Spanish reporter.

Liverpool continued their excellent run in the Champions League after a resilient 1-0 win at Real Madrid in last night’s round of 16 encounter put them one step closer to a quarter-final berth.

The Reds’ combative midfielder, Javier Mascherano was instrumental in the victory, marshalling his defensive lines to perfection to stifle the Spanish onslaught. But the Argentine refused to get carried away with the vital result ahead of the return clash.

“This win will not change how we approach the second leg, at least that’s the mentality we must have. We must confront that game in the same manner with the same intensity,” he cautioned.

“But we are happy with how we played tonight, and especially with the way we reacted after hearing news that Steven Gerrard would not start the match and after Fernando Torres had to leave with an injury,” the 24-year-old added.

Mascherano then quickly turned his attention back to the reverse leg at Anfield as he reiterated his previous warning: “It’s never possible to relax against Real Madrid.

“There’s still another 90 minutes to play and it is going to be very intense. But for now, we are very happy and we can celebrate this away win,” he concluded.

The Merseysiders will use their next two Premier League games, against Middlesbrough and Sunderland, to fine-tune their performance before welcoming Los Merengues to the Kop on March 10.

Robben: It Will Be Difficult For Real Madrid To Win At Liverpool

The Oranje wing-wizard has acknowledged that Los Merengues will have an uphill battle on their hands to overturn the 1-0 deficit against Liverpool.

Real Madrid conceded a late 82nd-minute goal to Yossi Benayoun in last night’s Champions League round of 16 tussle with Liverpool.

It was a bitter defeat to swallow for the Men In White and although the Bernabeu camp have largely remained positive, winger Arjen Robben has offered a bleaker but more realistic take on his team’s chances of making it through to the quarter-finals.

“It was a very tactical game and there weren’t a lot of chances to create any real danger. But conceding the late goal has now made qualification very difficult for us,” he said during the post-match interview.

“Both teams tried to settle for a 0-0 score. That was certainly our objective towards the end of the game. But in the end, their goal stunned us.

“Now, we have to obtain a positive result at Anfield and that will be extremely complicated. The only way to win there is to move quickly with the ball and not waste any goalscoring chances.

“There wouldn’t be many to begin with because Liverpool are very good when it comes to closing down their opponents.”

The return leg at Anfield will be played on March 10.

Torres Exits Early And Allows Benayoun To Take Centre Stage For Reds

Now for the trip to Middlesbrough. Liverpool, or the Two Liverpools as they should be known, exist in parallel universes where Rafa Benítez's men can come to the Bernabéu and defeat a Real Madrid side who had won nine consecutive league matches but then motor across northern England to the Riverside with their cherished Premier League ambitions unravelling.

Maybe they should stop caring about domestic power. Last night a wedge of their Euro-centric followers brought The Kop to the home of football's greatest superpower and roared their approval for a warm-down. The Liverpool squad jogged around a pitch that was meant to serve as the stage for an ambush by a Madrid whose manager, Juande Ramos, was swiftly reacquainted with the obduracy and spirit of Premier League football.

It grows ever more curious. Liverpool bring that tenacity to European action but cannot find a consistent winning formula in a league they dominated for two decades before Manchester United ran off with the ball. People say they lack the depth of talent to end their 19-year wait for a domestic title and yet up pops a support act, Yossi Benayoun, to strike eight minutes from the end of a game Liverpool had smothered through sheer tactical forethought.

Benayoun played only because Steven Gerrard was unable to start. Fernando Torres, their gliding assassin, departed with an injured foot. And yet Liverpool still found a path to the honey-pot of a 1–0 first-leg away win. Can anyone figure this team out? Real, certainly, could not, and as Benítez waved to acknowledge the crowd's affectionate singing in the dying moments he was also raising his hand to the possibility that he will one day stand in the next dug-out as Real Madrid manager.

For Liverpool to prevail without Gerrard for the first 87 minutes and Torres for the last 28 is testimony to the deep reserves of know-how that manifest themselves on the continent. "Liverpool FC – European Royalty", announced one banner. A familiar delirium swept through supporters who will board coaches and trains to be at Boro on Saturday afternoon.

It was no disgrace to seek to nullify Real's attacking threat here. Granted, United had played with greater ambition at Internazionale on Tuesday, but only one English side went home with a win.

This was a classic chalkboard triumph. While Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso threw a blanket over Raúl, Fernando Gago and Lassana Diarra, their more attack-minded colleagues waited for the opportunity to score from a breakaway or set piece. The chance came when Fabio Aurelio curled a free-kick on to the head of Benayoun, who was in more space than a Real Madrid defence should allow. The revenge of the understudy. Gerrard's cameo was hardly required.

The chief threat was Arjen Robben, once of Chelsea, who displayed all his best and most infuriating traits in one parade of thwarted endeavour. Each time he was touched, he jumped like a scalded cat and then hobbled. Every time football's status as a contact sport was reaffirmed by Liverpool's tacklers, Robben turned it into a street crime. But at least he carried the ball and the fight to Liverpool.

The game's main sub-plot was meant to be Torres's return to the half of Madrid that loathes him. To the outside eye Torres was born on the wrong side of the tracks. By posting his allegiance to the less celebrated inhabitants of the Vicénte Calderon stadium on the banks of the Rio Manzanares, El Nino turned his back on the opportunity to join the great Real goalscoring lineage of Di Stefano, Puskas, Hugo Sanchez and now Raúl.

Torres would have looked a picture in the crisp white of the King's club but his boyhood love was for Atlético, who trail Real 9–0 on the list of European titles won. To swoon for Atlético in the city where the world's most illustrious club parade their majesty must have felt like walking past the Prado to take in the pavement art outside the train station.

Fortunately, though, success is not the only force to which the human heart responds and Torres was to become to Atlético what Raúl is to Real: a Madrileno sent down from the stands to the pitch as an emissary of the people. Before the kick-off Liverpool's record signing at £26.5m went down on his haunches and stared at the ranks of white like a skier studying an arrangement of slalom poles.

But it was not his night. There were intimations of his increasing frailty when a first-half bang to the foot sent him to the touchline for treatment and he was withdrawn after just over an hour.

The pursuit of a first league title since 1990 has assumed greater emotional importance in this year of the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and the game at Manchester United on 14 March remains the season's biggest. But so much joy flows in Liverpool's European universe that England must seem another country, remote and unconquerable.

If Money Talks, Then Rafa Benitez Is A Goner As Liverpool Boss

If money talks, then Rafa Benitez is a goner as Liverpool boss - despite the denials yesterday from Anfield.

A 20-1 chance for the Sack Race on Tuesday evening, the Spaniard was backed down to evens in the space of a few hours before Hills shut up shop.

Other bookmakers who preferred to believe that this was just another unreliable chapter in the long-running Liverpool saga kept their books open - and watched punters steam in again and again yesterday to back the Spaniard to bid Anfield adios.

Last night he was anything from 1-4 to 2-5 to be gone by the end of the season. That's bookmakers' shorthand for 'farewell Rafa'.

We've trodden this road before of course. Benitez was reported to be clearing his desk earlier this season after one too many bust-ups with his American owners, only to somehow retain control.

But you suspect these latest rumours - and the market moves they have triggered - are more than Merseyside hot air.

The 'faces' involved and sums wagered tell you this is not mug money.

And it's the timing of the betting plunge that's so significant - hours before Liverpool tackled Real Madrid, who have made no secret of their admiration for the Kop chief, and in his Spanish homeland to boot.

It's almost as if he's stage-managed the whole episode.

There's talk Benitez was issued an ultimatum this week - sign a new deal or go - but ultimately the issue is over control of Anfield transfer policy.

Rafa wants it, but he ain't gonna get it.

What he'll get instead, the clever money says, is the boot.

Duo Want Benitez Resolution

Liverpool duo Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt are hoping the Rafa Benitez contract saga will soon be resolved.

Benitez remains in talks with the Anfield hierarchy over extending his stay on Merseyside, but has so far rejected the initial drafts of a four-year contract offer which is on the table.

The Spaniard is keen to secure greater control over the club's transfer policy and widespread rumours prior to their UEFA Champions League clash with Real Madrid suggested he was ready to walk away from the club.

Benitez insisted after the 1-0 victory over Real in the first leg of their last 16 clash that discussions are ongoing and that he has no plans to quit his post.

Babel and Kuyt claimed the players have not been affected by the speculation over their manager's future, but believes that the best way to end the conjecture would be for a deal to be reached.

Dutch winger Babel told Sky Sports: "I think if he signs a new contract then the rumours will finish.

"It's best if it is done quickly and then we can concentrate on football.

"I was not busy with it and I'm sure the other players weren't either."

And Kuyt added: "The only thing we did was focus on the game. I don't know what is happening with the manager.

"As far as I could see he was really focused on the game as well.

"It would be great if things were made clear, but it is something which you will have to ask the boss."

Tom Hicks Camp Denies Rafael Benitez Is On The Brink Of Leaving Liverpool

Sources close to Tom Hicks, the Liverpool co-owner, have responded with dismay to suggestions that Rafael Benitez is on the brink of leaving the club.

The Spaniard's future as manager appeared more uncertain than ever this morning, as rumours swept Madrid and Liverpool suggesting he was about to leave Anfield. Leading bookmakers suspended all bets on his future at the club, however the Hicks camp has moved swiftly to play down the reports, with sources claiming that despite the antagonism between the owners and Benitez, they will not allow the manager to walk away.

Benitez has been locked in talks over a new contract in recent months and surprised the club’s hierarchy by rejecting a fifth draft of the deal over the weekend. The Liverpool manager has less than 18 months left on his contract at Anfield and believes that if he reaches the end of the season without a commitment from Hicks and George Gillett, he would be forced to look for a new job.

The Americans agreed to offer Benitez a new contract before Christmas but the document remains unsigned. Sources close to Benitez have suggested that the Spaniard has reached agreement with the club on a number of occasions, only to find that, when the written contract arrived, it contained different terms than had been agreed verbally.

The owners have bowed to his requests for more control over transfer policy and the youth academy, but sticking points remain about the job security of his backroom staff and his concern at the delays in the decision-making process, given the dysfunctional relationship between the owners.

Benitez began his career in coaching at the Bernabeu in 1986 and the Liverpool manager has been linked with a return to Madrid, where Juande Ramos is the incumbent. However, Ramos is a short-term appointment and is likely to be replaced in the summer.

Speculation has suggested that Kenny Dalglish has been approached to act in a caretaker capacity in the event of Benitez leaving, but the former Liverpool manager has heard nothing from the club. Dalglish has always been an advocate of the Spaniard, but nevertheless it is thought he would be happy to step forward in any emergency to provide a helping hand at Anfield.

The internal politics of Liverpool have been tortuous since the American owners took over and Benitez has endured a difficult relationship with Rick Parry, the chief executive. The pair have been embroiled in a power struggle which has worn down the manager. However, Benitez believes he is right and will not depart without a fight.

Jan Molby, the former Liverpool midfielder, said he expected Benitez to remain in charge despite the rumours.

"I'd be surprised if Rafa were to walk out on Liverpool," he said. "We do know for a while he's been unhappy about certain things, but I still think it would take a big man to walk out on Liverpool at such a crucial stage of the season.

"Whereas some people are quite happy to back Rafael Benitez to be gone by the end of the week, I would rather take the odds on him being Liverpool manager next Monday.

"I heard the rumours myself last night, and they have been gathering pace, everyone's talking about it. I think the people who say it can't happen might just prove to be spot-on."

Rafa Benitez Answers Liverpool FC Quit Rumours

Liverpool FC manager Rafael Benitez has no intention of leaving Liverpool Football Club.

The Reds boss intends to stay put at Anfield - as he has always maintained - and remains hopeful of concluding agreement over the remaining details of his new contract which have yet to be resolved.

The Spaniard has been at the centre of a day of fevered rumour and wild speculation about his future - with some bookmakers announcing they have suspended bets on his imminent alleged 'departure' from Anfield.

But it can be revealed none of it has any foundation whatsoever as far as he is concerned. Benitez wants and intends to remain at the helm.

He insists he has no intention of quitting a club he has managed for almost five years now, leading them to European Cup and FA Cup success in his first two season.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Champions League Preview: Real Madrid vs. Liverpool

Real Madrid and Liverpool have had the most contrasting of fortunes throughout the season so far. Los Blancos could barely string two decent performances together in the early parts of the campaign, while the Reds were cruising along nicely, seemingly on their way to their first league title in almost two decades.

But the two sides have literally swapped places since the turn of the year, so much so that they have remarkably somehow found themselves in an identical position in their own domestic leagues, both occupying second spot in the table and trailing their respective leaders by exactly seven points.

However, at this point in time, it would appear that the Spaniards are the more satisfied of the two hunters.

Real Madrid have now won nine games in succession, scoring 22 goals in the process and leaking just two. Their wretched early-season form has come as a blessing in disguise, as the players simultaneously but quietly clicked into gear just at the right moment while avoiding being slapped with the cursed favourites tag.

Although the Merengues are hitting peak form in the Primera Division, it is the Champions League where they really need to chain together a flawless run if they are to go far. But they still need to take things one step at a time, starting with the first knock-out phase.

Los Blancos will attempt to get past the round of 16 for the first time in five years. The last four seasons have all ended in disaster at this stage of the competition, despite numerous signs of promise and success. What’s even more frustrating is that they’ve always been eliminated by the narrowest of margins: a 2-1 aggregate loss to Juventus in 2005, 1-0 to Arsenal in 2006, exiting on the away-goal rule to Bayern the following year, and 2-1 defeats in each leg to Roma last term.

While their form will give the team and the Bernabeu faithful an immense burst of confidence, it will also increase the pressure on the players significantly to succeed, considering there wasn’t much hope for the side just two months ago. Back then, a last-16 meeting with Liverpool would have seemed like a lost cause.

But the tables have been turned dramatically and the English giants could not have picked a worse time for the Champions League to resume. They have hit, without doubt, their worst patch of form this season, winning just three games in their last nine outings in all competitions.

But amazingly, they have not lost a match in regulation time since early November, when they crashed to a 4-2 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup, just 11 days after losing to the same team in the Barclays Premier League. It remains their only defeat in the league this term, but the ten draws that they have accrued have proven to be their downfall.

While stalemates are rarely beneficial in league play, it can be extremely helpful when it comes to two-legged cup tournaments. Having made the semi-finals of the Champions League three times in the past four years, much of their success can be attributed to their ability to grind out a result when they needed it most; drawing 1-1 with Arsenal in the first leg of last season’s quarter-finals before romping to a 4-2 second leg win; a 1-1 aggregate draw with Chelsea in the semi-finals the year before, which enabled them to win on penalties and the triumphant 2004/05 campaign when they held Juventus and Chelsea to scoreless draws in the away legs of the quarters and semis but emerged victorious at home by the slimmest of margins en route to the final.

This season has been no different, as Atletico Madrid will attest, and they will be looking for a hat-trick of draws against opponents from the Spanish capital, and this one might just be the most valuable.


Real Madrid

Feb 21 Real Madrid 6-1 Real Betis (LA LIGA)

Feb 15 Sporting Gijon 0-4 Real Madrid (LA LIGA)

Feb 07 Real Madrid 1-0 Racing Santander (LA LIGA)

Jan 31 Numancia 0-2 Real Madrid (LA LIGA)

Jan 25 Real Madrid 1-0 Deportivo La Coruna (LA LIGA)


Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (PREMIER LEAGUE)

Feb 07 Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool (PREMIER LEAGUE)

Feb 04 Everton 1-0 Liverpool (FA CUP)

Feb 01 Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea (PREMIER LEAGUE)

Jan 28 Wigan Athletic 1-1 Liverpool (PREMIER LEAGUE)


Real Madrid

Lassana Diarra, Julien Faubert, Dani Parejo and 21-year-old Hungarian striker, Adam Szalai have all been registered to the squad to replace Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ruben de la Red and Mahamadou Diarra, all of whom have been ruled out for the rest of the campaign.

Coach Juande Ramos has no fresh injury concerns. Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder have fully recovered from their muscular niggles and they are expected to be restored to the first XI. Guti has also returned from a calf muscle tear but he may have to settle for a start on the bench.

Defenders Gabriel Heinze and Fabio Cannavaro picked up minor knocks during Saturday’s 6-1 thumping of Real Betis, but both were able to train normally at the start of the week. Michel Salgado has completed rehabilitation on his right thigh injury, although he will not be match-fit.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Casillas – Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, Heinze – Robben, Lass, Gago, Sneijder – Raul (c), Higuain


The biggest news for Rafa Benitez is the return of talismanic captain, Steven Gerrard. The 28-year-old finally returned to training this week after three weeks out with a hamstring injury and he has travelled with the squad to Madrid, although it is still doubtful whether or not he will start.

Veteran centre-back Sami Hyypia has been recalled to the side after being omitted altogether for the group stage. He is expected to replace Daniel Agger, who has been left behind in England to recover from a back problem.

Midfielder Xabi Alonso returns from suspension but fellow Spaniards, Alvaro Arbeloa and Albert Riera will incur a one-match ban if they pick up another yellow card.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Reina – Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher (c), Dossena – Benayoun, Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Riera – Torres, Kuyt


Real Madrid

There’s one man who wants to beat Liverpool more than anyone else and it’s Arjen Robben. The Dutch winger was in the Chelsea side which lost two semi-finals to the Reds and he is desperate to avenge that disappointment. He has been in superlative form for the last two months but not only that, he will be fresh and well rested after missing the last two league games, and he will be fiercely motivated to impress and score against the Anfield outfit.


There’s one man who wants to score at Real Madrid more than anyone else and it’s Fernando Torres. El Nino heartbreakingly missed the trip back to Madrid to face his former club Atletico during the group stage, but returning to the Spanish capital to take on his one-time bitter crosstown rivals is the next best thing. The 24-year-old has also never scored at the Bernabeu with Atleti, but he’ll be hoping that his Merseyside team-mates can help him rectify that.

Ramos Focused On Liverpool, Not Future

Juande Ramos would not be drawn on speculation that his long-term future at Real Madrid could depend on the outcome of their Champions League last 16 showdown with Liverpool.

Since replacing Bernd Schuster in the Bernabeu hotseat in December, Ramos' team has won 10 of his first 11 games, helping the Spanish giants trim Barcelona's lead at the Primera Liga summit back from 12 points to seven.

Ramos was only handed an initial six-month contract when he took over the reins and it remains to be seen what the former Tottenham and Sevilla coach must do to earn an extended tenure, especially with presidential elections scheduled at Madrid for this summer.

With Barca still clear at the top of La Liga and Real no longer in the Copa Del Rey, Ramos insists he is not thinking about what the tie will mean for his own career, only on helping Madrid get beyond the last 16 stage for the first time since 2004.

"The only thing I'm interested in is getting through the tie because that's the only important thing for Real Madrid," he said.

"My personal situation is not important, I'm only thinking of getting through."

Ramos also preferred not to compare his trajectory with that of Harry Redknapp, his successor at Spurs. In the same period of time that Ramos has been at the Bernabeu, Redknapp has managed only two wins in 10 Barclays Premier League matches.

Ramos said: "I don't have to prove my reputation as a coach, I've been a coach for many years and everybody knows about me.

"I'm proud of our good run because it's been very good for Real Madrid. I don't have anything to say about Tottenham."

Real Tell Benitez To Forget Madrid Job

Rafa Benitez has been told to forget about taking charge at Real Madrid - because Juande Ramos is going to win La Liga and the Champions League!

Despite winning nine games in a row and transforming the Spanish giants following his arrival in December, Ramos' position is still under threat and Benitez continues to be linked with his job.Ramos has only signed a contract until the end of the season, but Madrid president Vicente Boluda is adamant they will not be looking for a replacement this summer.

Boluda said: "Ramos is a great coach and I support him completely. As I believe we are going to be champions his contract would be renewed automatically."

Boluda has taunted Liverpool ahead of the Champions League game at the Bernabeu by claiming his team will cruise to victory and win 5-1 over the two legs.

Boluda added: "We will win 3-0 in the Bernabeu which will be a great party. Then we will win 2-1 in Liverpool.'

"We will go on to win the Champions League. We will win the league, too. I have been saying this for weeks and I'll say it again now."

Rafael Benitez Set For Audition At Real Madrid

Ever the professional, Rafael Benitez insists he is looking no further into the future than 8.45pm, Madrid time, on Wednesday night, but the suspicion remains that the Liverpool manager's first return to Real Madrid for five years serves not only as a homecoming but also a job application.

Beat Juande Ramos's resurgent team and Benitez will surely find more than one contract offer at his fingertips come the summer.

Prove, yet again, that he has the magic touch to deliver the 10th European Cup that is Real's obsession and one of the club's presidential hopefuls would surely come calling.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool's joint owners, would no doubt rush to acquiesce to whatever demands Benitez sees fit.

"I am not thinking about the future beyond the game," Benitez said last night. "I am not thinking about the past either. I am a professional, so I am just concentrating on my team and on this match, not on my contract.

"I don't feel I have anything to prove here. I still have a lot of friends from my days as a player and a coach, so it is nice to see them, but I want to win for my team, not for me.

"The game will not have any impact on my contract talks. You should not judge a manager on a single game, you should judge him on his career."

It is a subject Benitez has grown weary with in recent weeks, the constant denials and speculation making him irascible. Yesterday he even suggested he was blamed by some fans for Liverpool's domestic failures of the last 20 years.

But he is clearly relishing being back in his old haunt, effortlessly conducting a press conference in both English and Spanish, correcting his translator and joking with Jamie Carragher.

The Champions League brings out the best in Benitez. Two finals, one won and one lost, plus a semi-final in four years bear testament to that. No wonder he is seen in Madrid as the man to deliver la decima, their 10th European crown.

Never mind that he has never won at the Bernabeu as a manager, or that Fernando Torres has never scored here, or that Pepe Reina has invariably been on the losing side. "There is always a first time," he said.

More importantly, he remains calm despite being faced with having to decide on Steven Gerrard's fitness this morning. Gerrard trained with the rest of the squad but Benitez admitted he would have to assess the risk of playing the England international after three weeks out with a hamstring injury.

Carragher, though, believes Liverpool's chances of progressing do not rest solely on Gerrard's shoulders. "If you look at 2005, there were plenty of games when Steven didn't play and we still won," he said.

"Obviously we're a better team with him in it and we hope he plays. He's one of the best in the world. But he's not our only hope of winning."

The noises emanating from Madrid are appropriately bullish for Europe's form side. The club's president, Vicente Boluda, has confidently predicted a 3-0 home win tonight, followed by a 2-1 triumph at Anfield.

It is a dismissive attitude which pervades the squad. Juande Ramos, the coach whose temporary stay in the hottest seat in world football will become permanent should he lift the Champions League trophy, has been more diplomatic, suggesting he is expecting a tie decided by fine margins, but the message has obviously not reached his players.

The talismanic Raul insisted enough has changed since the draw was made in December, a time when Real were in meltdown and Liverpool in the ascendancy, to suggest it is the Spanish side who are now favourites.

He said: "We are much better than we were when we were first drawn together. Liverpool have lost a little bit."

Arjen Robben, too, is hardly taking a respectful attitude to opponents whose recent record in the competition is better than anyone's. "Yes, I have unfinished business with Liverpool," said the winger, who twice lost semi-finals to Benitez's side as a Chelsea player.

"But when I was in England, I didn't like playing Liverpool. I much preferred the games with Manchester United and Arsenal, because Liverpool are not a team who play good football.

"They run a lot, they work hard and they're tactically well-organised. It is down to us whether we qualify."

No doubt Benitez will take pride in a withering assessment Robben may live to regret should Liverpool progress. After all, he may find himself with a lot of explaining to do to his new manager come summer.

Carragher Confident But Fires Warning Over Revitalised Real

Jamie Carragher believes Liverpool can beat Real Madrid tonight – even if they are without Steven Gerrard.

But the Anfield centre-back has warned his team-mates to beware the threat of a revitalised Raul.

Rafael Benitez will make a late decision over Gerrard’s fitness, with the skipper having only returned to light training this week after three weeks out following a hamstring tear.

Carragher acknowledges the importance of the skipper to Liverpool’s cause, but points to the successful run to Istanbul four years ago, during which Gerrard was absent for a number of games, that the team can win without their talisman.

“We don’t need to have Steven Gerrard in the team to win in Madrid,” said the centre-back. “We’ve done it in the past. He’s a great player and one of the best in the world, and we hope he’s fit.

“But in 2005 there were plenty of games in which he didn’t play. Of course we are a better team when he plays and hopefully he can play.”

Under Juande Ramos, Real have overcome a poor start to the campaign and won their ninth consecutive game at the weekend.

Key to that turnaround has been Raul, who is the leading goalscorer in the history of the Champions League having scored 64 goals in 121 games in the competition.

And Carragher said: “Raul is a legend, one of the best players in the world. To play for Real Madrid, you need a big character and to play for Real that long and be that successful shows the character he has.

“During the last few years, people have been writing him off at times but he keeps coming back. He’s recently broken the goals record of di Stefano, who was one of the best players of all time.

“He is similar to Steven Gerrard.

“When you think of Real Madrid, you think of Raul, and when you think of Liverpool, you think of Steven Gerrard. He is a great player and it will be a privilege to be on the same pitch.”

However, Carragher reckons Liverpool will this evening possess the “best striker in the world” in Fernando Torres, and expects the former Atletico Madrid man to be eager to impress.

“I think Torres will maybe be more motivated because he used to play for Real’s big rivals Atletico, which is like Liverpool-Everton for us,” he said. “But it’s the Champions League and I’m sure he’ll be determined to prove he is still the best striker in the world which we believe he is.”

Should Gerrard fail to make the starting line-up, Carragher will lead Liverpool out at the Bernabeu this evening.

And he added: “It’s fantastic when the draw comes up as I get very excited as you want to experience playing at the great stadiums.

“We’ve never played at Madrid and one of the biggest in world football. Liverpool are alongside Milan and Madrid as the most successful three teams in Europe.

“I think it’s 14 European Cups between the two teams. That’s a fantastic achievement and let’s hope we can win a sixth this season.

“Real are in better form now but I think people forget Real won the league for the last two years ahead of a fantastic Barcelona team. They may not have had a good run but this was always going to be a tough time.

“When you are playing you have more confidence and I’m sure it will help them. That’s something we have to deal with. We didn’t have the best result in our last game, but we’ll go into the game on a level footing.

“The Champions League is always very important for Liverpool, as is the Premier League. And we have to still believe we can still win both competitions.”