Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rafa Benitez: How We'll Revive Title Charge

Rafa Benitez reckons the ongoing return to form and fitness of three of his biggest stars is just the shot in the arm Liverpool need as they bid to get back to their best.

The disappointment of Wednesday night's draw with Wigan was only eased in the eyes of the Reds boss by the fact the game allowed Martin Skrtel, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano to get more playing time under their belts.

Incredibly, before last week the trio had not appeared in the same consecutive games all season.

Skrtel was out for three months with a knee ligament injury, Torres has been in an out of the side because of hamstring problems and Mascherano has not figured as regularly as expected because of struggles with his form and fitness following his participation in the Olympic Games in Beijing.

But, having seen them all start against Wigan and Everton, Benitez now believes it won't be long before all three are back to their best.

"We have some good options now," said the Reds boss.

"We have Skrtel and Mascherano, who have been much better, Agger who is fit again and Torres who is coming back.

"These are good options for us because they are good players who can play at a very good level and if they are fit we will have a strong squad for the rest of the season.

"Skrtel was a very nice surprise for us because in only his second game back against Everton he was playing at the same level as he was before."

Benitez believes the Olympics took a heavy toll on Mascherano, who has struggled to repeat his excellent form of last season in the current campaign.

But in recent weeks the Reds boss has seen indications that the Argentinian is about to get back to his best, something Benitez believes would be a massive boost to his team as Liverpool look to get back to winning ways.

He said: "Mascherano has shown in every training session that he has commitment, passion and is a good worker. Now, if he is feeling better, it will be a good addition for us.”

Benitez knows that Liverpool need to start winning games after a run of four consecutive draws and, with Chelsea set to visit Anfield on Sunday, is aware a victory over the London side is exactly what is needed to get back on track.

"We would like to start winning right now," he added.

Fernando Torres Out To Repeat Last Season's Heroics

HAVING been presented with a beautiful watch to commemorate his status as Liverpool's player of the year, Fernando Torres could not have picked a better moment to talk about his desire to make up for lost time.

Torres cuts a frustrated figure at present as he bids to shake off the fitness problems which have restricted his impact on Liverpool's season so far but he firmly believes he is edging closer to the level he wants to be at.

"It's been a strange season for me because I have never really had injuries before and I have had three on the run," he said.

"This has meant I have not always felt 100% but now I am feeling very good and every day I am feeling better.

"Now I just want to look ahead because there is still a lot to play for this season and hopefully I can play my part."

There would be no better time – and perhaps no better opponents – for Torres to announce his re-emergence from the sidelines than in Sunday's game against Chelsea. The London club have the dubious distinctionof being the first in the League to be on the receiving end of the Spanish striker's finishing skills.

In a moment that will never be forgotten by the 43,924 people at Anfield lucky enough to see it, Torres surged clear of Tal Ben Haim with a burst of electrifying pace before opening his body and stroking the ball into the net past a powerless Petr Cech. Mere mention of that game is enough to make Torres' face light up.

"It was my first game at Anfield in front of the Liverpool fans so it is a very special memory for me," he said.

"I also scored my first goal in that game so it was the beginning of everything for me. "Because of this there would be no game that would be better for me to score again at Anfield. "I know there will be so many people watching the game and our fans will be really wanting us to win so hopefully I can play at my best and score a goal.

"It is a special stadium for me and I would love to score there in every game we play."

Incredibly, scoring at Anfield is something the 24-year-old has not done since last May when he got the winner against Man City. That startling statistic is partially explained by the fact that injuries have meant Torres has started only a handful of games there since then. But it is a record he longs to put right.

He said: "It is something I want to change – for me, for my team and for the fans.

"Like I said, this has been a strange season for me and I have not been able to play in as many games or score as many goals as I would have liked but hopefully this will change.

"But more than anything I want to win a trophy with Liverpool and for this to happen we have to start winning more games.

"It's not just in the league either, we also have the FA Cup and the Champions League to aim for so there are a lot of big games coming up.

"But we are in a good position in all of these competitions and we have to be positive and I hope that this season will turn out to be a good one for Liverpool and for me."

Like everyone else at Anfield, Torres was hugely disappointed to see another two points go begging after being pegged back by Wigan on Wednesday night.

But he believes the meeting with Chelsea's line up of stars is the perfect motivation for Liverpool to get any such negative feelings out of their system and continue their involvement in the title race.

"We are in the race for the title and we will see what happens.

"Obviously, it was disappointing that we were not able to win against Wigan on Wednesday night.

"It was two points dropped at a time when Man United are two points ahead of us having played a game less.

"So we know that it is difficult for us but we also know that there are many more important games to come, starting with Sunday's against Chelsea, and we will have more chances to pick up important points.

"We must be positive because we are in a good position even though we have not been at our very best in recent weeks.

"If we can beat Chelsea then everything will change and that means this game is a big opportunity for us.

"Chelsea are fighting for the title with us and Man United so a win against them would boost our confidence for the rest of the season, that is why this is such a massive game.

"We are Liverpool and we are not scared of anyone. I know that Chelsea have some fantastic players and we respect them a lot but we have shown that we can beat them. Hopefully we can do that again.”

Masherano: Liverpool FC Will Make Chelsea Pay

Javier Mascherano is angry and now the Argentine wants to make Chelsea pay for Liverpool’s growing frustrations.

Mascherano has revealed Rafael Benitez’s squad are seething at being knocked off the top of the Premier League table.

Liverpool have let slip winning positions to draw successive top-flight games against Everton and, on Wednesday, at Wigan.

It means they have fallen two points adrift of leaders Manchester United and are also behind tomorrow’s Anfield opponents Chelsea on goal difference.

A month ago it was supposedly the Londoners who were the club in crisis. Now it is the turn of Liverpool to be scrutinised, despite having constructed a 15-game unbeaten run.

The problem for Benitez’s men is more than half of those games have ended in draws. And that inability to kill off teams that should have been beaten has forced a fuming Mascherano to admit Liverpool have no option to reinforce their title credentials by beating Chelsea.

“The players are very angry about the draws against Everton and Wigan,” says Mascherano. “These points are always crucial and, after a great season, it’s a shame to drop off.

“The road to the title is not lost, but certainly we have given chances to United to take advantage.

“The game on Sunday against Chelsea will be like a final for us. It’s win or nothing.

“A draw would be a disaster because, to offer United a four or seven points’ advantage, it’s almost the title for them.”

Liverpool must also welcome Arsenal and Aston Villa during the final third of the season, as well as make a potentially pivotal trip to Old Trafford in March.

Despite United being the only away team to win at Anfield in the last 65 league games, Benitez’s side have been hampered by five home draws already this season.

And Mascherano has called for a return of the “Anfield magic” and says: “I am an ambitious player and a fighter and I never give a chance to the opposition. From Sunday onwards, we must win all of our games to put fear into United and improve our chances of the title.

“This match won’t be at all easy because it is also a final for Chelsea. Chelsea are aiming for the title too and a point is nothing because the only beneficiaries would be Manchester United.

“I expect a difficult game, but I am optimistic and I want a return to the Anfield magic to claim three vital points in the season.

“Rafa Benitez ended the game against Wigan very angry and that’s normal because we have lost a lot of points when victory was in our grasp.

“It’s necessary to work as hard as possible now and get a great victory against Chelsea. Psychologically, it would be a massive injection ahead of the following games.”

Liverpool ended Chelsea’s 86-match home domestic unbeaten record with a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge in October.

The last time they recorded a league double against the Londoners, Liverpool went on to win the league in 1990.

And striker Dirk Kuyt says: “We know we can talk all day but at the end of the day we have to beat Chelsea. But we have beaten them before and we know we can do it. It’s a big team, a big game, and we just need to win it.

“We’re still right in it. The players are probably more disappointed than anyone at losing points against sides like Wigan and Stoke.

“But that’s how it goes, and sometimes you need that bit of luck to go with it. But there are 38 matches so we will see. We just want to do our talking out there on the pitch.

“We’re not bothered what anyone else is saying. We have just got to win this game know and show we can beat our big rivals again. We’ve done it once and of course we know that would send out a message to everyone – but we are out to win every game really.
“We’re obviously very disappointed at the result against Wigan. We have had too many draws at the start of the second half of the season, and now the only message we can send out is by beating Chelsea.

“But the Wigan draw is not going to knock our confidence, it’s just a real disappointment because we know we can win these type of games. There are only a few little things we have to change, not too much, and we will be there again.”

Injuries have meant that Fernando Torres has played just 30 minutes in games against the other top five teams so far.

However, the Spaniard is expected to again lead the attack tomorrow against the team he scored his first-ever Liverpool goal back in August 2007.

And Kuyt adds: “Fernando Torres is back now after a bad hamstring injury, and you can see every week how he is getting better. It’s only a matter of time before he’s back scoring goals for us again.

“I think we showed in the first half of the season what can happen when we click. Sometimes we were missing players like Stevie and Fernando but were still winning.

“Now everyone’s coming back and we’ve been dropping points with draws, so we know we’ve got to start picking up wins again – starting with Sunday.”

Rafa Pleads For Trust Of Supporters

Rafael Benitez has urged Liverpool supporters to “trust” him as he dismissed suggestions his team are too cautious to win the title.

The Anfield outfit entertains fellow championship contenders Chelsea tomorrow afternoon having slipped below the Londoners to third place in the Premier League, with both teams two points adrift of leaders Manchester United.

Liverpool have been hampered by a run of form that has seen them draw seven of their last 10 top-flight fixtures, including successive draws in their last three outings against Stoke City, Everton and Wigan Athletic.

Many supporters were critical of Benitez’s team selection and substitutions as they surrendered a one-goal lead late on at the JJB Stadium on Wednesday.

But the Spaniard has urged fans to keep the faith and believes victory over Chelsea would “change everything” for his team.

“The supporters need to trust the team, the team is doing well,” said Benitez.

“I am the manager and I will make the decisions and if the team can continue winning everyone will be happy, if not we will be disappointed.

“This year we have a very good problem. Expectation has gone high. Now we need to manage the situation. We have to keep going whether we win or cannot.

“Clearly this kind of game can change everything. If we win everyone will be talking about us being back in the title race, we are fantastic, we have an opportunity.

“The draws have been disappointing. If we win against Chelsea everything will change.”

Responding to accusations his tactics are too safety-first, Benitez said: “119 goals last season, 82 points record in history of club, four trophies, seven finals, 14 trophies, you cannot be cautious and have all this.

“We scored more goals last season than any team in England. The problem is we are well organised as a team and when a team is like this it is seen as being less offensive.

“We have a very good balance. But you see the difference between Torres being fit and scoring goals like last season and being injured for three months.”

Benitez has been taunted in the past fortnight by rival supporters chanting “Rafa’s cracking up” but the Spaniard insists he is delighted Liverpool are competing for the title.

“When you play to avoid relegation you are under pressure, but when you play to win the Premier League, or to progress in the Champions League or FA Cup, I am pleased to be in this position,” he said.

“I don’t feel under any more pressure than when I was at Valencia trying to take on Real Madrid and Barcelona.”

Liverpool’s American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are both due to attend tomorrow’s game, but Benitez refused to be drawn on whether a possible new contract will be discussed.

“If the owners want to meet me, I have no problem with that,” he said. “It will be a private conversation. If we have to talk I don’t have any problem.”

Xabi Alonso and Albert Riera are likely to return to the starting line-up.

Chelsea Manager Scolari Lends Backing To Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez

Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has leapt to the defence of Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez following his attack on Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson earlier this month.

The Brazilian insists he has some sympathy with Benitez as the two clubs prepare for their crucial Barclays Premier League showdown at Anfield tomorrow, where a draw would give United a clear edge in the title race.

Benitez accused Ferguson and his staff of putting referees under pressure, especially at Old Trafford, and of consistently showing them little respect.

Now Scolari, who takes his side to Anfield on Sunday for their first away league fixture since a 3-0 drubbing at United, says he can understand the reasons behind Benitez’s controversial rant.

“It’s one of his ideas and I haven’t spoken to him about it,” said Scolari.

“Maybe I will at the weekend. I understand. I understand very well.

“I understand that, sometimes, when we play there (at Old Trafford) and at Stamford Bridge, I know what happens.”

Liverpool have drawn four out of their last five home games in the league but Scolari is reticent to boast that it is the perfect time to play them.

Benitez is under pressure as his contract dispute continues while he has also been criticised for his handling of striker Robbie Keane.

But while Scolari accepts the Spaniard has problems, the Brazilian still expects a difficult game.

“He may have more problems at the moment, but if you work in the same place for three years or so, you know how to react to that,” said Scolari.

“I don’t know what’s happened there. I don’t know what’s happened with Benitez. I know when we’ve drawn or lost at home, we’ve needed to change something but I don’t know what’s happened there.

“Benitez is a fantastic coach with good players. We’ll need more ’adaptation’ than in the other games for this match.

“I think about my job, not his. I’ve lost 14 points at Stamford Bridge and I’m not a bad coach because of that. I like Benitez so much and I wish for him all the best. Not in our game, sure, but all the best in his life, in the rest of his career.

“He’s a very good coach who knows the Premier League more than me because he’s been here four or five years.”

Chelsea have yet to beat any of the other recognised members of the ’big four’ this season but Scolari is unconcerned.

He insists his side have a psychological edge after their victory over Middlesbrough in midweek lifted them above Liverpool into second place on goal difference.

“We started the Middlesbrough game under pressure because we were in fourth position,” said Scolari.

“(Aston) Villa had won and the other teams were in front of us.

“For confidence it’s very good, but we know we are behind Manchester United and level with Liverpool.

“We are not better than these two teams. But, for confidence, it’s very good. We’ve played better in the last four or five games.

“We’ve won games, played better than before, and have shown more heart.”

Liverpool also ended Chelsea’s 86-match unbeaten home league run earlier in the season but the Brazilian refuses to crank up talk of a revenge mission for his side.

“Any victory is very good for me,” Scolari added.

“Here at Stamford Bridge or away. It’s a game that, maybe, maybe, will decide the direction of winning or not winning the championship.”

Tottenham Hotspur End Interest In Liverpool's Robbie Keane

Tottenham Hotspur have abandoned their pursuit of Robbie Keane after initial talks, according to reports form several sources, including broadsheet newspaper The Independent.

Liverpool are said to have wanted the bulk of the £20.3 million they paid the White Hart Lane club in the summer for the 28-year-old Irishman's services. Spurs, of course, wanted him at a cut price.

Keane has flitted in and out of the Reds’ setup over the last few weeks and Spurs boss Harry Redknapp expressed his admiration of the player before sounding out the Merseyside men.

Other proposed transfer structures are thought to have been offered, such as a part-exchange deal involving unsettled Lilywhites Aaron Lennon and Jermaine Jenas, or having existing the £11m debt wiped clean. Liverpool, though, wanted hard cash.

Now, Keane is expected to fight for his place at Anfield, while Spurs will turn their attention to challenging Manchester City for the signature of Blackburn Rovers hitman Roque Santa Cruz.

We may not have heard the end of the matter, though, as Liverpool are said to be pointing the finger at Spurs, accusing them of tapping-up their former charge.

Atletico Want The Liverpool Trio Of Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa And Xabi Alonso

Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso are all being monitored by Atletico de Madrid as the Spanish outfit are keen to make a triple bid in the summer to land them all.

Atletico de Madrid are considering making an approach for Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso from Liverpool, but may wait to see what happens to Rafael Benitez, according to a report in AS.

Los Colchoneros are already drawing up plans for next season's squad and the Anfield trio are the main players that the club believe can bolster their squad.

Last summer Atletico coach Javier Aguirre wanted a playmaking midfielder and pinpointed Alonso only for him to appear to be ready to go to Juventus, before the Italian outfit opted to Christian Poulsen instead.

Now the Mexican trainer is intent on attracting Alonso to compliment the impressive forward line of Sergio Ag├╝ero, Diego Forlan, Mai and Simao.

Benitez would probably not want all three of the Spanish players to leave Liverpool if he were to stay but a new manager may allow them to go to raise funds.

That may be the only way that Atletico could prise Reina away as they are desperate to land the son of goalkeeper, Miguel Reina, who played in the 1974 European Cup Final.

Arbeloa may prove to be an easier proposition, but even the Spanish international defender is seen as a vital squad member by the Merseyside outfit.

One way that the club could be assured to having a chance of signing the trio would be to make Benitez the coach and that could be a realistic proposition towards the end of the season.

Wenger Considering Joining Atletico In Alonso Bid

Atletico Madrid are set to bid for Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso according to reports in Spain, and sources have revealed that Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is monitoring the situation and could be tempted with an offer for the Anfield talisman.

Wenger had a last minute deadline day offer rejected in the last transfer window and has been honest and open in his admiration for the former Real Sociedad playmaker.

Atletico see Alonso as the perfect addition in their pursuit of Barcelona at the top of the La Liga. The Spanish international was the first player this season to reach over a 1,000 completed passes in the Premiership.

The speculation surrounding Alonso is the next chapter in a difficult for Rafa Benitez and the Liverpool board.

Fernando Torres: 'Father Figure' Rafa Benitez Must Stay At Liverpool

Fernando Torres remains confident that Rafa Benitez - the man he describes as a father figure - will sign a new contract with Liverpool.

Benitez recently rejected Liverpool's offer of a new deal on the grounds that the contract put forward by club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett did not give him the control over transfers and influence over the academy that he had been seeking.

The future of the Reds boss remains up in the air although Hicks has pledged to thrash out a deal during his visit to Merseyside this weekend,

Torres is hopeful that a deal can finally be tied up and warned it would be "a mistake and a great pity" if the impasse continued and Benitez ended up quitting Anfield.

"Negotiations always take time and there's a lot to sort out but I'm sure he'll end up renewing his contract," said Torres.

"Sooner or later they'll come to an agreement. Rafa wants the best for him and for the club, so I'm not worried.

"He's been like a father to me and I hope and trust that he continues.

"He's been very important for me: he gave me confidence and taught me so much. He's one of the coaches you learn the most from.

"He's given a lot to the club and brought in some great players. Some of us wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. If you ask the other players, they'd tell you the same thing.

"Letting Rafa go would be a mistake and a great pity."

Reds Starlet In Demand

Liverpool starlet Ryan Flynn is a target for a host of clubs before the close of the transfer window, understands.

Flynn is currently on loan at Wrexham, but his deal is due to expire at the weekend.

The 20-year-old has impressed at the Racecourse Ground, scoring one goal in five games and his performances have not gone unnoticed.

A number of League One and League Two clubs are believed to be exploring the option of signing the talented winger once his deal at Wrexham comes to an end.

Flynn is a regular in the Liverpool reserves after coming through the club's academy and helping them win the FA Youth Cup in successive seasons in 2006 and 2007.

The young Scot is well down the pecking order at Anfield and Reds boss Rafa Benitez could decide to loan him out again in order to get more first-team experience under his belt.