Friday, January 30, 2009

Marin Skrtel: Liverpool FC Can Win Premier League

Martin Skrtel is convinced Liverpool can still follow the example of his former club Zenit St Petersburg by ending their long wait for the championship.

Skrtel was part of the Zenit side that won the Russian title in 2007 for the first time in 23 years.

Liverpool have slipped down to third in the Premier League table after their damaging 1-1 draw at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night.

But Skrtel said: “Titles are not won in January. Whether we are first, second or whatever position, the pressure is still the same.

“There is still a long way to go and a lot of games until the end of the season.

“We still have to play Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa – all the teams up around the top of the table.

“We know we can beat these teams and it is far from over yet.

“We’ve already beaten United this season so we know we are capable of doing that again. But it’s not just them we have to beat, though. If we want to win the league, we have to try and beat everyone we come up against.”

Of his experience in Russia, Skrtel added: “Zenit hadn’t won the league since 1984 and it was such a long time to go without being champions. In that respect it was even better when we won it.

“There is only one club in St Petersburg so all the people in the city support the club. It was great to win the title for them after so long.

“It would be great to experience that feeling again here with Liverpool. Nineteen years is a long time to wait for another league title. It would be brilliant to help Liverpool win it again after all this time.”

Despite losing only one league game this season, Liverpool’s main problem has been an inability to kill off teams.

Wednesday’s result was their seventh draw in their last 10 top-flight games, and Skrtel admitted: “We need to start winning again after a couple of draws in the league.

“We’re not losing, though, and we’ve lost just once in the league all season. If we can start winning again, we can keep up our challenge at the top of the table. That is where we want to be as we get towards the end of the season.”

Yossi Benayoun, who opened the scoring just before half-time at the JJB Stadium, denied the players were struggling to cope with the pressure of a title challenge.

Chelsea, who overtook Liverpool in the table on goal difference, are their next opponents at Anfield on Sunday and the Israel midfielder believes they are up to the test.

“There is always pressure to win games. I think we can cope with this pressure and hopefully we will prove it on Sunday,” said Benayoun.

“We have to keep working hard to turn it around because we have drawn four games in a row (including the FA Cup tie against Everton).

“We have to try to play better and finish games. We have creative players on the pitch and we try to do our best and make sure everyone gives 100% but sometimes it is not enough.

“We expected to win those (drawn) games and be top of the league. Now we have made it a bit more difficult as Manchester United could be five points ahead if they win their game in hand.

“We have to start winning games soon. We have a very important game against Chelsea on Sunday and we have to win games if we want to try to win the league.”

What Rafa Benitez Has To Do To Win Liverpool The Title: Darren Lewis

It pains me to say this as a Liverpool fan, but I'm rapidly coming to terms with the fact that, yet again, this is not going to be our year.

The same old politics, the same old frailties and the same old ludicrous tactical decisions are weighing us down like an anvil.

And all the while the well-oiled machine that is Manchester United is gathering pace. Sir Alex Ferguson's men are gearing up for the momentum in the second half of the season that traditionally powers them to the title.

To be fair, Chelsea and Arsenal have had similar nightmares inside the boardroom and on the pitch this season.

But as a Liverpool fan I felt a real tinge of excitement when Robbie Keane - who had scored 100 goals over six years at Tottenham - was captured last summer.

When we powered our way to victory over United without Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres there was, again, a real sense that we had the squad rather than the team to do the business.

Yet Rafa the Gaffer has allowed the pressure to get to him. Since Raf Rant early in January the Reds have not won a single League match. It has been an implosion of Kevin Keegan-esque proportions.

In mid-December, when United boarded the plan for Japan and a World Club Cup they clinched to global indifference, Liverpool had 37 points and United just 31.

That six-point deficit, however, has turned into a two point lead for Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

After just ten goals away from home in the League up until last Tuesday night, United unloaded on West Brom to give further evidence of why only a fool would bet against them to retain the title.

Liverpool, no, sorry Rafa, by comparison is way too negative. United would never have taken off Gerrard - the hero of Istanbul, Olympiakos and the FA Cup Final against West Ham - with the game in the balance against lowly Wigan.

Rafa did.

United would never have left Keane on the bench against Wigan with Chelsea to come at the weekend.

Rafa did.

United would never have left Keane on the bench against Stoke with Torres not fit to play.

And United would never have left Keane on the bench against Hull with the Tigers proving ultimately too difficult to break down.

Rafa did.

The former Valencia boss stubbornly sticks to his insistence of playing two strikers at home and one away.

It has brought seven draws from Liverpool's last ten games and after the latest draw against Wigan it was particularly annoying to see Benitez branding the game 'crazy', but not saying why. We all had to guess.

It was simply an attempt to distract attention from yet another shocker.

Rafa still has his supporters, and has managed to convince them it is everyone's fault but his.

But if he doesn't win the Premier League this season, it will be five years and a small fortune that he has wasted in trying to prove he is not much of a muchness.

He won the Champions League with Gerard Houllier's team. Gerrard pulled that FA Cup victory from the jaws of defeat and all the while the trophy that Reds fans really want to win has eluded us.

It's now time for Rafa to prove he is worth this new megabucks contract he is trying to get out of the Anfield board.

It's time for him to start fighting for this title and stop trying to blind us all with science.

It's time for Rafa to either play Robbie Keane regularly or give the guy a break and just sell him.

It's time for Rafa to put his petty spats within the boardroom to one side and focus on the job in hand.

In short, it's time for Rafa to strap on a pair and prove he IS all he is cracked up to be and not simply cracking up.

Liverpool Buckling Under Title Pressure Fear Past Champions Aldridge And Hysen

Rafa Benitez's "crazy, crazy" rant was pinpointed last night as the most obvious symptom of the infection that threatens to kill off Liverpool’s title dream.

The Anfield boss appeared to be losing his marbles as he launched into his meandering and bizarre explanation for Liverpool’s third successive draw which saw them overtaken by Chelsea and drop into third behind leaders Manchester United.

It followed his needless verbal rucks with Sir Alex Ferguson and the act of public contract brinkmanship with his own board, coinciding with the slump that has left the Kop fearing their worst nightmares - of gift-wrapping the title to old Trafford - coming true.

And two of the members of the last Liverpool side to conquer the country believe Benitez and his players are simply succumbing to the pressure of expectations.

John Aldridge and Glenn Hysen played for Kenny Dalglish in the 1989-90 campaign, which ended with Liverpool crowned for the 18th time in all and 10th occasion in 15 seasons.

And while the pair are both desperate to see their former side satisfy the cravings of the red half of Merseyside, both of them fear the Spaniard is exhibiting the distress signals of a drowning man.

Aldridge, who scored 50 goals in 83 league appearances before leaving at the start of that last title campaign, insisted the seeds of disappointment were sown before the New Year slump - but that Benitez has done himself few favours.

The former Republic of Ireland striker said: "I honestly don’t know what all that was about on Wednesday but after dominating the first half they lost control completely and I’ve never seen them give the ball away so much.

"You can’t blame the rant he had at Fergie. That’s nothing to do with it. In fact, what Rafa said about Fergie was right but it put him under pressure if things went wrong, and they have.

"After the Newcastle game over Christmas I was really hopeful, although perhaps we all failed to see how bad Newcastle were.

"But since then the problems have become more obvious and it looks as if it’s started to fall away."

He added: "People will draw their own conclusions and look at the team selections and the substitutions. He knew Stoke would be a physical game but went with Yossi Benayoun and Lucas.

"Too many draws all season have cost them, not just the last three games.

"Before Christmas there was Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull. That’s eight points dropped at home, points that would’ve put the side six clear of United even though they’d still have a game in hand.

"What Rafa has to do now is show his character and get things back on track. United have had the sort of run everybody feared and expected and Chelsea on Sunday is a massive, massive game.

"If things don’t improve soon, then it’s really possible to see Villa breaking in and that would make it a real danger for Liverpool to not be in the top four at all and we all know what that would mean on the money side."

Benitez’ post-game gibberish has already drawn parallels with Kevin Keegan’s "I would love it" blast at Fergie in 1996, while Arsene Wenger also lost control as the title slipped from his side’s grasp to the Scot in 2003.
And Hysen, who joined Liverpool at the start of that glory season, is even more convinced that Benitez and his players cannot cope with the burden of giving the fans what they want.

The Swede said: "They shouldn’t be fixating on the league so much but they are and it’s something that is now stuck in the heads of the players.

"They’re reminded that it’s 19 years and counting every day, in training, after games, hearing "you’ve dropped two more points again" and if that is inside your heads it’s hard to shift it.

"Benitez doesn’t want to be affected by it but something is obviously not right and hasn’t been for a couple of months.

"I thought before Christmas that this was going to be the year they’d make it. But it’s all about the league. That’s the only thing anybody in Liverpool is talking about and it’s got to them, including Benitez.

"When I spoke to him on Tuesday he wouldn’t give me any real answers, just 'yes/no'. When you see that you have to say he is a big part of what’s gone wrong and the way he’s behaved recently proves it."

Israeli midfielder Benayoun, whose first half goal looked to have been enough to secure the points at the JJB Stadium, admitted that Liverpool are paying the price for becoming their own worst enemies.

"We have drawn four in a row so we have to try and play better and also try to finish games off when we are winning 1-0," said Benayoun.

"Again we were ahead and we wanted to get a second but the goal didn’t come. We expected to win these games and to be on top of the league but we have made things more difficult for ourselves.

"All we can do is remain working hard to try and turn things round. We will do it, I’m sure but Chelsea is a very important game for us. We have to start winning if we want to have a chance of taking the league."

Hysen, however, fears the lack of title-winning experience in Benitez’ ranks will prove the final nail in their coffin.

"Between them they don’t know what it takes to win the league because they haven’t done it," he added. "You have to be consistent over the long trip.

"When we won it in my first year, most of the other players had been at the club long enough to have already won five or six titles. They knew what they had to do.

"If someone had told me in 1990 that it would be the last title Liverpool would win for two decades, I wouldn’t have believed them. It seems amazing still and I don’t understand it.

"But this season it’s obvious they don’t know how to finish games off. Against Everton and Wigan they’ve been 1-0 up and not been able to put the second one away, or keep it tight at the other end. And then you look at United and that consistency is frightening."

And Aldridge was equally pessimistic. "Looking at it now, I can’t see Liverpool winning the league unless they can beat Chelsea, Villa and Arsenal at home and United away," he added. "And that’s a big task.

The Worst Decision Ever Made?

That was the statement made by John Aldridge in reference to Gerrard's withdrawal from the action against Wigan on Wednesday.

There have been several defining moments looking back through previous seasons, and I'm afraid we all witnessed another Wednesday night at the JJB in the aftermath of Wigan's late equaliser. I had to rub my eyes in the stands as I saw Gerrard starting to walk over to the touchline.

Is he going over to take instructions from Benitez? Taking on some fluids for the final few minutes? He then walks off, sits in the dugout and is replaced by Robbie Keane. My jaw hit the floor, and while others around me vented their frustrations, I just stood there in shock. We'd just conceded with less than 10 minutes to go in a game we simply had to win, had already removed Torres through tiredness, taken off our goal scorer Benayoun, and we're now taking off our captain and only remaining goal scoring threat as he was apparently tired. I'm still in shock today.

The worst decision the manager has ever made? I'm finding it hard to disagree with that statement, and it could certainly turn out to be a defining decision in the future of this club and his position as manager.

In the past few weeks, we've drawn 4 games back to back. In each of those games, there has been next to no urgency to win the game late on. For a side that is supposedly hungry for that league title, you'd expect to see men pouring forward in search of a winner; yet last night we witnessed our saviour on so many occasions being taken off and practically accepting the point. Is that good enough if we want to win the league? No.

I've been labelled as a Rafa apologist on a number of occasions. I've defended him time and time again in the face of fierce criticism, but this time, I can't defend the indefensible. There was no excuse for taking off Gerrard last night. Benitez claimed he was tired in his post match interview, but surely he had enough energy to play out the remaining 7 minutes in search of a much needed winner? This is the man that has rescued us time and time again late in the game. The only player left on that pitch capable of creating a goal out of nothing. How can anyone defend taking him off? It was accepting a point, which is nowhere near good enough.

When he came to this club, Benitex inherited a squad in disarray. I've covered my thoughts on his rebuilding in previous articles, and I stand by those. He's worked wonders in his 4 years in charge and given us some of the greatest nights of our lives, as well as presenting us with a realistic chance of winning the league; something that was unimaginable when he first came to the club.

In that first season, we may have won the European Cup through some act of god, but we finished the season a massive 37 points behind the champions, Chelsea. The fact we're now up there and within a few points of the leaders is a testament to the work he's done at the club. But the man responsible for getting us into this position, is now the man responsible for ensuring we go no further. He is costing us all chance of winning this league title, and I never thought I'd see the day I said that. It hurts to say it, but last night was a slap in the face for the likes of myself that defended him and believed in him.

If we want to win this league we need winners. We need a manager that wants to win every game, and a set of players that will go out there and give their all in search of 3 points every single week.

At the start of the season we had that. We fell behind in numerous games, but responded with late winners time and time again. At home to Middlesbrough, Benitez took off the full backs, threw on an extra couple of forwards and went for it. We turned the game around and rescued another 3 points. That approach gave us all the belief we could go on and win it.

Against Hull, we soon fell 2 goals behind, and the reaction was immediate. We poured forward, scored 2 goals to get ourselves back into the game, and could have been 5-2 in front by the time the half time whistle blew. Yet during half time, the manager decided the game was too open and changed things around in order to "control the game". As a result, we did have a lot of the ball, but slowed the game down to snail pace, and the result was a 2-2 draw. Hull were there for the taking and feared an onslaught; yet we let them off the hook in a big way. All through the manager's fear of not controlling a game.

But the game in this country isn't a game of chess. It's a game of football against 19 others sides, all of whom play different styles of football. A different approach is needed in the games against lesser sides that will put men behind the ball, yet Benitez still hasn't seemed to grasp that concept. He's a genius in the big games, where his tactical chess moves seem to work. But against the lesser sides, throw caution to the wind, and 9 times out of 10 the better side will succeed. Not draw.

If we want to have any chance of getting back into this title race, then I'm sorry Benitez, but you need to throw that cautious approach out of the window and release the shackles. Stop playing the likes of Lucas and Babel that are just not good enough and offer nothing to the side, play your best 11 and go for it. We've got nothing to lose anymore. Our support is now accepting defeat and facing up to the reality of United drawing level on 18 titles come May. The only way to stop that is to respond on Sunday with a new approach, and continue with it for the rest of the season.

Play your best 11 and attack, attack, attack attack attack!

Benitez still seems to think he's untouchable and loved by the fans. The majority of the press also seem to have this belief, and maybe the owners of the club as well, with Tom Hicks recently backing him in a bid to get fans onside (sorry fat head, you'll never do that no matter what you do). But let me give all of the above a reality check; the time when he was untouchable has long since passed.

Every single fan walked out of that away end last night dejected and distraught. Everyone questioning the decision to take Gerrard off when we needed that winner. He did the same at Goodison last season, replacing Gerrard with Lucas, and got away with it when Kuyt put away a late penalty to win the game. Without that winner, the backlash from the fans may have come sooner. But make no mistake, it's been brewing for a while and last night it surfaced in a big way.

People have been questioning why our away support has been so poor in recent months. Some have blamed Thomas Cook getting tickets, day-trippers getting tickets and other such excuses that pop up all the time. But the reality is our support at Stoke and Wigan was 90% scouse and full of the regular faces. It wasn't an end full of "new fans" demanding instant success. The away sections were full of the faces you've seen everywhere for years, our proper support. The lads that have followed us everywhere. Yet we now turn up at games knowing exactly what to expect and it deflates us before we even reach our seats.

When the team was announced last night, the wind was knocked out of the sails of anyone who had even the slightest bit of optimism that we might go there and have a go at them. We all knew what was to come and it proved to be true.

He's losing the support fast, and unless there is a change in his approach, he's going to lose it completely.

There are signs appearing of Gerard Houllier Mark II. Post match interviews where he treats us all like idiots. Gerrard being tired and controlling the game. Both complete rubbish, and does nothing but infuriate the travelling fans even further.

I'm off to drown my sorrows and hope these acts as a wake up call. But sadly, I very much doubt it will.

Some leopards never change their spots.

Barnes: Keane Is On Borrowed Time

Former Liverpool midfielder John Barnes believes Robbie Keane's days at Anfield are numbered.

Keane has failed to make any impact following his £20million move from Tottenham last summer and was left out of Rafael Benitez's squad for the FA Cup game against Everton last Sunday.

The Republic of Ireland international has struggled to find the form which saw him become one of the best forwards in the Premier League with Tottenham.

Keane was left out of the team once again for the 1-1 draw against Wigan on Wednesday night and Barnes cannot see how he will fit into the team alongside Fernando Torres while Benitez is in charge.

Barnes, a pundit for, said: "Robbie is struggling to find a place. Whatever the reason, it's plain to see the move hasn't worked out for either the player or club.

"We can only speculate but there is obviously a problem there as to why he hasn't made the impact we all expected him to.

"I'm as surprised as to why he's struggled. It may well be a case that the player hasn't quite managed to integrate into Liverpool's pattern of play and doesn't suit the tactical style that Rafa Benitez's team operates."

Barnes, who made more than 400 appearances for the Merseyside club, refuses to criticise Benitez over paying so much money for a player who cannot get into the team.

Barnes added: "Every club has signed good quality players that haven't proven to be a success for one reason or another.

"It doesn't necessarily mean the manager made a mistake. Take Sir Alex Fereguson signing Diego Forlan and Juan Sebastian Veron. Were they bad players before he signed them? No. Sometimes transfers unfortunately just don't work out."

Liverpool Accuse Tottenham Of Tapping-Up Robbie Keane

According to UK tabloid The Sun, Liverpool will lodge an official complaint over Tottenham Hotspur's behaviour with regard to Robbie Keane.

The Irish striker has struggled to settle at Anfield since his £20 million move from White Hart Lane last year, and it is rumoured that he could be on his way back to north London in the near future.

The Lilywhites have made no secret of their interest in re-signing the 28-year-old, but the Reds are less than happy with their fellow Premier League club's conduct.

Harry Redknapp said recently, “I won’t sit here and say I wouldn’t like to have Robbie Keane at my club because I would be a liar if I did.

“I have a lot of time for Robbie as a player and as a person, he’s fantastic. But he belongs to Liverpool so unfortunately it’s not an option.”

Liverpool view the Tottenham manager's comments as an illegal and unauthorised declaration of his intention to sign Keane, and Kop chief Rick Parry will demand that the Premier League investigate the matter.

This could be seen as payback for Spurs' complaints over the manner in which the Merseyside giants landed the former Inter forward in the first place.

Liverpool Enter Race For Arsenal's New Henry

Rafa Benitez has entered the race for Henri Saivet, the youngest player to play for Bordeaux in their history.

Arsene Wenger has tracked the player for the last two years, inviting Saivet to visit Arsenal's North London training ground as well as sending chief scout Steve Rowley to watch the player on a number of occasions. As it turned out, Saivet signed a professional deal with Bordeaux having previously been subject to a youth contract at St Etienne.

The 18 year-old has only made a handful of appearances for Bordeaux since moving from St Etienne and according to reports in France, Benitez has entered the race to sign the player dubbed the 'new Thierry Henry.'

Bordeaux are reluctant to sell their prized asset with any talk of a move away from France pure speculation at the moment.

The club refused to provide any comment on the rumours linking Saivet with two of England's top clubs.

Spurs Sound Out Keane

Sky Sports News sources understand Tottenham have enquired about Robbie Keane's availability at Liverpool.

Keane's future at Anfield has been the subject of intense speculation after he was left out of the squad for last weekend's FA Cup clash with Everton.

The Republic of Ireland international has endured a difficult time at Liverpool since his summer arrival from Tottenham struggling to establish himself in Rafa Benitez's plans.

Benitez has refused to confirm Keane's future and the player was only given a late run-out in Wednesday's draw with Wigan.

Spurs boss Harry Redknapp is thought to be in the market for a new striker and he has never hidden his admiration for Keane.

Sky Sports News sources claim Spurs have made an informal enquiry for Keane, but no bid has been tabled for the former Leeds ace.

Liverpool's Treatment Of Keane Is Baffling, Admits Redknapp

Former Liverpool star Jamie Redknapp has admitted he is baffled by boss Rafael Benitez's tactics and treatment of Robbie Keane.

In an interview with METRO, the Sky Sports pundit admits Benitez's outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson has not helped and how he was shocked by the decision to take Steven Gerrard off on Wednesday with Wigan holding the Reds.

Redknapp also wrote in today's Daily Mail: 'Liverpool are going backwards.

'The decision to take off Steven Gerrard - who was not injured - at Wigan is confusing. What message does it send out? Gerrard will win you a game standing on one leg, so I don't understand what was behind the change.

'The manager has started tinkering with the team again and the body language of the players is not good.

'The destabilising of Robbie Keane is bizarre. He has not performed as well as many expected - me included - but he is better than he is being treated.

'Many clubs would like to have a player of his ability. Keane is a strong personality and a popular player in the dressing room, so the management of the Irishman can only have a negative impact on the squad.'