Friday, February 20, 2009

Alonso Cautious Over Gerrard

Xabi Alonso has warned Liverpool not to rush Steven Gerrard back from injury into the team.

Gerrard has been pencilled in for a surprise return to the side for this weekend's clash with Manchester City after making a quicker than expected recovery from his hamstring problem.

Alonso, who will miss the meeting with City at Anfield on Sunday through suspension, is wary of rushing Gerrard back too soon in case he suffers a relapse of the injury.

"It is good to see Stevie coming back but we have to wait until he is 100 per cent," warned Alonso.

"It is not intelligent to rush him back. Whenever he feels okay he will be a big part of our squad again."

Alonso admits he will be a frustrated observer on Sunday after picking up five bookings this season.

"It is always frustrating to watch games from the stands but I have known for a while I was likely to miss a match at some point and it has to be this one on Sunday," added Alonso.

"The important thing is all our international players came back fit last week and we have all also had some time off.

"It is important to have some time to disconnect during the middle of the season and now we can look forward to the game with Manchester City, which is going to be very important for us if we want to challenge for the title.

"Hopefully it will not be as dramatic as our game at City when we were two goals down at half-time. We had to play with a lot of belief in that second half and score three goals, which eventually we managed.

"This time hopefully it will be more comfortable.

"But they are a good team even though they have not got the best of away records this season, so we know we will be in for a tough match."

Riise Compares Roma Captain Totti To Gerrard

Roma defender John Arne Riise talked about the Giallorossi's fanbase and made a comparison between Francesco Totti and his former team mate Steven Gerrard.

Roma defender John Arne Riise, who joined from Liverpool last summer, talked about the Giallorossi's passionate fanbase and in particular the Curva Sud section of the stadium, comparing it with the legendary Kop at Anfield.

"The fans in Italy and England both have enormous passion," he told, "and the players have a lot of respect for the fans. The Curva Sud is like the Kop in Liverpool and I've thought more than once how lucky I am to play in two clubs which have such marvelous supporters.

"The atmosphere they create before the match is magical, and gives us a lot of energy before the kick-off. I can advise everyone to come and watch a game in Rome, they won't be disappointed."

He then went on to compare Roma captain Francesco Totti with his Liverpool counterpart Steven Gerrard.

"Totti is like Steven Gerrard in Liverpool, a fabulous player, and someone who has the respect of everyone, both from his team mates and his opponents," Riise continued. "I'm sure next year we will play in the Champions League and with the strength we are finding this season we will certainly go far this year too."

At the moment the Giallorossi are in sixth place with 40 points, two away from a Champions League spot. Next week they travel to north London to face Arsenal in the first leg of their last 16 tie in the Champions League.

With the final being held in Rome this year, they will have an extra motivation to go all the way this season.

Who Could Succeed Rafael Benitez At Liverpool?

As uncertainty mounts over Rafa the gaffer's long-term prospects at Anfield,'s Mike Maguire mulls over who could replace the Spaniard, should he leave.

Liverpool are in the midst of what could end up as their best season in decades. They may be out of the FA Cup and League Cup, but are maintaining a genuine push for the Premier League title and will face Real Madrid next week in the last 16 of the Champions League.

And yet, Rafael Benitez's future is in serious doubt.

The Spanish manager is presently embroiled in talks over a new contract, and he has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the slowness of the negotiation process.

Indeed, in a 'catch 22' of sorts, it is Benitez's desire to speed up the way things are done at Anfield that is causing the stall: he wants more control over transfers, but it is a privilege club co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett seem reluctant to grant.

The former Valencia coach's outspokenness on such matters has hardly helped, and he hinted in the press recently that he could leave in the summer if a deal is not struck by then - regardless of what the Reds achieve this season.

If that should be the case, who would be worthy of fashioning their own groove in the Anfield hot-seat? That is what we intend to find out. And in light of recent calls for British bosses to be given opportunities at top clubs, we've decided to focus primarily on home-grown candidates.

Martin O'Neill, Aston Villa

This man is the one most observers believe is ready to step up to a 'Big Four' job. Since taking over at Villa Park in 2006, O'Neill has transformed a relegation-threatened club into Champions League contenders - and this term, they're even an outside chance for the title.

The Ulsterman's CV reads very well indeed. In the early 1990s he took Wycombe Wanderers to the Football League for the first time in their history; they reached the old Second Division under his tenure. His Leicester City side won the League Cup twice, and they never finished outside the Premier League top ten during his reign. Then came the Celtic years, during which he re-established the Hoops as the best team in Scotland and led them into the Champions League.

Thus, with the Villans now battling for the UEFA Cup and sitting third in the league, O'Neill's credentials are there for all to see. Whether he is right for Liverpool, though, is up for debate. His recent spats with the club and Benitez over Gareth Barry aside, one must remember that he was part of the Nottingham Forest team who enjoyed a fierce rivalry with the Merseysiders during the late 1970s and '80s.

David Moyes, Everton

It might surprise some that the Scot had only held one managerial position - at Preston North End - before succeeding Walter Smith at Goodison Park in 2002. Not unlike O'Neill, he took a struggling side and led them back to Europe - most famously to the Champions League in 2005, beating the Reds to fourth place. The Toffees have managed a UEFA Cup spot in every season since, and they are expected to maintain that record this season.

If there is such a thing as a natural gaffer, Moyes is it. He set about attaining his coaching badges at just 22 years of age, so the vast majority of his playing career was spent preparing for life in the technical area. His exploits with a club whose results far outweigh their financial clout have impressed all and sundry, and some have even tipped him as the heir to Sir Alex Ferguson's throne at Old Trafford.

The top brass on the other side of Stanley Park, however, may hope the Glaswegian instead decides to follow in Kenny Dalglish's footsteps.

Steve Bruce, Wigan Athletic

Why are the top British candidates decidedly anti-Liverpool? As a member of the great Man United team of the mid-1990s, Bruce is another who would have to change his stripes to take the Reds' reins. Not all Kopites would be against such an appointment, though.

Football fans on Merseyside know quality when they see it, and there is an undercurrent of respect for this Manc on the coast of the Irish Sea. Only once have Benitez's men beaten a Bruce-managed side in league play, and that came in the controversial 3-2 thriller against Wigan Athletic earlier this season.

After ending his six-year stint at Birmingham City to steer the Latics clear of relegation last term, the 48-year-old assembled a team that currently sit seventh in the Premier League standings. However, the inability to keep star performers - such as Wilson Palacios and Emile Heskey - at the JJB could drive him to a club with more spending power, should such an opportunity arise.

Sammy Lee, Liverpool (Assistant Manager)

Finally, a local lad. Lee's credentials in top-flight management may not read as well as those of the others on this list; his only job as the (little) big boss came at Bolton Wanderers, and that was a near-disastrous and short-lived stint in the wake of Sam Allardyce's exit.

However, there are many factors in his favour. He's a native Liverpudlian; he knows the club inside-out, having spent 11 trophy-filled years at the club as a player; since he replaced Paco Ayestaran as Benitez's right-hand man, the team's results have picked up noticeably; and his rapport with the Spanish players and staff is excellent, thanks to his years with Osasuna.

This appointment would be a throwback to the Boot Room era at Anfield, which effectively ended when Roy Evans left in the late '90s. Many of the more senior supporters would likely welcome him to the top job, but one can't help but think that his track record - or lack thereof, perhaps - might count against him.

Jose Mourinho, Inter

The one 'foreigner' in this motley crew, and unquestionably the most qualified of all the candidates. Everyone knows what he did at Chelsea: harnessed the power of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba & Co. to lead the Blues to back-to-back Premier League crowns, an FA Cup and a League Cup in three years.

Now in Italy, he's odds on to steer Inter to their fourth consecutive Scudetto, and yet his time in Serie A could come to an abrupt halt at season's end. His 'self-assured' attitude has put him offside with the local press, and failure to deliver the Champions League title could see him go the way of Roberto Mancini.

The Portuguese recently declared his desire to return to Stamford Bridge one day. However, in months prior, he stated that he would like to return to England - but not necessarily Chelsea. That led to speculation concerning Manchester City, United and Liverpool, where he was a top candidate to succeed Gerard Houllier before Benitez got the gig.

The Verdict

All these potential options, bar Lee, have endured some sort of feud with Rafa the gaffer or Liverpool. However, contrary to popular belief, leopards do change their spots from time to time. Matt Busby was an Anfield legend, after all...

First, the process of elimination. Lee, while all Kopites would love to see him lead the side to glory, hasn't the experience or perhaps even the capability to do the job. He's a brilliant No. 2, a great link between the manager and the players, but at the Reebok he clearly struggled to break away from that mould and establish his own persona as a manager.

Moyes is the next least likely. Face it, he's been at Everton around seven years now, and Merseyside rivalry is not as friendly as it once was. Gone are the days of the Nick Barmby and Peter Beardsley transfers - if Moyes crossed the picket-line, he'd be waking up with the severed head of a different animal on his pillow each morning.

Bruce is not quite as far-fetched, given his excellent record against the Reds, but O'Neill and Mourinho would have to be the frontrunners of this mob. And one thinks the fans would fancy the former. 'The Special One' is renowned for getting results without paying too much attention to style; the Villa boss, though, has constructed winning teams that are very good to watch. And the Kopites crave eye-pleasing yet very effective football.

However, 'MON' has never managed an elite European club. The step up is a big one, and one that many promising mid-table managers have failed to negotiate. Can he do the job, or is Mourinho the better bet?

Or should Hicks and Gillett just keep hold of Rafa Benitez while he still wants to be there?

Benitez Bid For Budget Control Fails

Rafael Benitez appears to have had to compromise over his demands for complete control over his club's transfer budget, with Liverpool's owners unwilling to hand over a sum that he is free to spend on players as he sees fit, as part of his new contract.

Benitez appears to be close to ending the drawn-out contract process which has created such uncertainty at Anfield, by putting pen to paper soon on a new £3.5m-a-year deal, and though it would appear that he will be able to answer more directly to the club's owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks under the auspices of the contract, the desire he expressed last month for a budget with which he is free to work does not appear to be one the club can satisfy.

Benitez has said he wanted a budget he could spend at his own discretion. "If you have £20m you can sign four players at £5m, one for £20m or one of £15m and another of £5m," he said recently. "Who will know how the money should be spent? One person – the manager, because he knows who he wants for his squad. Who will know the value of the player? The manager."

But the idea of the Americans handing over such a sum does not seem realistic, with Hicks and Gillett apparently insistent that they will expect to take each request for a player on merit, this summer. It was the Americans' decision that £18m was too much to lay out on Gareth Barry which has been a source of such rancour to Benitez, though the Spaniard's original estimate of the Aston Villa midfielder's value – at least £6m less – contributed to a belief shared by both owners that the Midlands club's demands were unrealistic as the process drew out.

Though Hicks is more amenable to Benitez's demands than Gillett, who will not countenance the idea of a manager being free to spend money as he choses, neither will allow a position to arise where he can spend such a sum without recourse to them. A clue to Benitez's acceptance of the need to compromise seemed to come in a recent Spanish interview, in which he said: "I never asked for complete control. I did, however, ask for the power to be able to make my own decisions and run the team the way I see fit. That is not the same thing." But it remains to be seen whether a more direct line to the Americans will be enough to satisfy him, should they decline him any given player this summer.

There are conflicting views on whether control over Liverpool's youth academy is the outstanding issue to be resolved before Benitez signs his new deal. Sources within the club suggest that control over the academy has never been realistic and is not an issue, though others suggest that the Spaniard is intent on being allowed to oversee that side of the club's overall development.

Meanwhile, UEFA are considering a request from Liverpool to move a Champions League match to avoid a clash with the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

Liverpool have asked if the second leg of their quarter-final – should they reach it – can be brought forward from its currently scheduled date of 15 April. That day marks exactly two decades since 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives at Hillsborough before and during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

Liverpool would like the game to be played on 14 April, allowing players and staff to attend a memorial service at Anfield the next day.

The club have alerted UEFA to this potential clash but European football's governing body will not make a firm decision until after the last-16 ties are played and the quarter-final draw made.

A UEFA spokesman said: "We have received a request and we will try our best to accommodate it, but we cannot guarantee at this stage that we will be able to."

Liverpool must first win a two-legged tie against Real Madrid to reach the quarter-finals.

Belief Is The Key, Says Benitez

Rafa Benitez today told his players not to worry about Manchester United and to have total belief in themselves.

Liverpool currently trail the league leaders by five points and the gap could tomorrow be stretched to eight should United beat Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford.

But with the Reds set to take on Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday Benitez knows the dynamic at the top of the table could still shift in favour of the Reds as long as they retain their focus and belief in the weeks to come.

“The first thing to stress is that we cannot change anything that other teams are doing unless we are playing them,” said the Anfield boss.

“We can only improve the things that depend on us and what we do ourselves - so it is important that we keep our focus.

“Clearly we have to believe in ourselves because we are in the position that we are in in the league table because we deserve to be there.

“We know that every single league game from now until the end of the season will be important and we cannot start to think about where we may or may not be in two or three games time if results go this way or that way.

“All we can do is focus on each game as it comes and try to do everything we can for winning.

“You never know what will happen at this stage of the season, there are often some strange results and this is why we must keep our concentration and not think too much about anyone or anything else.

“Training at Melwood has been really good this week and the mood among the players has been very positive, so hopefully we can take this into Sunday’s game.”

Benitez’s contract situation is yet to be resolved and he today told the ECHO: “There is no news and I want to concentrate on the football.”

But one thing which he insists is not in any doubt is that the battle for the title is not a two horse race between his own side and United as it has been billed in some quarters.

Benitez is refusing to rule out Aston Villa and reckons Martin O’Neill’s team could still have a major say in the destination of this year’s Premier League trophy.

He added: I think it's too soon to say it's a two horse race.

“We have to keep going and then maybe at the end it could be down to two teams.

“Aston Villa are in a good position also but I am not surprised by this because they have good players.

“They are working really hard and are in a good position, and that makes motivation for each game easier.”

Lack Of Rotation By Rafael Benitez May Cost Liverpool In Home Straight

Despite a fractious boardroom, doubts over the club's future ownership and the endless saga of Rafael Benitez's contract renewal, Sir Alex Ferguson knows Liverpool are the only side who can stop Manchester United's relentless march to a third straight Premier League title.

Benitez's side have failed to be derailed by off-pitch politics and have remained in touch despite long-term injuries to Martin Skrtel and Fernando Torres. With a well-earned reputation as the league's strong finishers, Anfield should be quietly confident.

But Liverpool could yet run aground because of that old issue of rotation – or rather, a lack of it. In his four previous seasons in England, Benitez has come under fire for tinkering too much. Now, he may falter at the last because he has not rotated enough.

His faith in his policy has always been absolute. He honed it at Valencia, twice breaking the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona by coming from behind in the home straight, his players fresh by virtue of being rested from the start.

For all the criticism, the bare facts suggest it worked in England, too. In the 2005-6 season, Liverpool lost just one of their last 13 games, at Arsenal, a feat they repeated last year, only slipping up to Manchester United. In 2006-7, distracted by another emotional run to a Champions League final, they lost four in the same period, but used reserve sides at Portsmouth and, famously, Fulham.

The flaw, of course, was that by that stage Liverpool were out of the race already, too far adrift from first Chelsea, then Manchester United to compete. Benitez has remedied that this time by naming a more settled side. Last year, he made 131 changes over the course of the season, and three years ago, 120.

In an injury-riddled season, he is on course to make just 101. Five players have started more than 80 per cent of Liverpool's games, with Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina ever-present. Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard and Alvaro Arbeloa are not far behind.

Benitez believes "many factors" play a part in his knack for producing sides which finish strongly, but rotation is a key principle. By sacrificing it, though, Benitez may find that his greatest weakness was, in fact, his greatest strength.

He has also found it tricky to keep players out of the side happy, with Robbie Keane already dispatched back to Tottenham after six months.

Benitez will be relieved to know Ryan Babel does not intend to follow his lead. The Dutchman has struggled for form but says he is learning from Torres.

Babel Reiterates First-Team Plea

Ryan Babel has reiterated his desire for more first-team football at Liverpool but accepts that Fernando Torres is the star of the attacking show.

The Dutchman carved a reputation as a super-sub at the beginning of the season following a string of match-winning performances from the bench.

However, Babel has tailed off in the second half of the campaign, starting opportunities remain limited and his influence when joining games in the latter stages has decreased.

The 22-year-old has been deployed primarily as a winger by manager Rafa Benitez, but he has previously expressed a desire for a central role and is optimistic that the controversial winter sale of Robbie Keane will increase his chances.

"With Robbie having gone to Tottenham that has increased my chances a little more," Babel - who was linked with a loan return to former club Ajax earlier in the campaign - told the Liverpool Echo.

"I feel that I am ready for more playing time so hopefully that will come.

"I have spoken with the manager and he has told me what my role can be in the future. If necessary, I will play as a winger, but I have made no secret of my desire to play as a striker at Liverpool."

Babel recognises Spain international Torres is Benitez's first choice and he is hoping to learn from his team-mate.

"I have to be realistic. I know Fernando is the number one striker, there is no doubt about that," he added.

"But there are a lot of games and I want to prove that I can be a striker, too.

No Bidding War For Agger

Italian football agent Vincenzo Morabito claims that AC Milan are the only Serie A club interested in Liverpool defender Daniel Agger.

The 24-year-old has made just ten Premier League appearances this season and has featured only twice since the New Year.

The Denmark international has made no secret of the fact that he would be willing to leave Anfield if he does not start to play on a more regular basis.

The former Brondby centre-half's contract is set to run out in less than 18 months' time and so far Liverpool have yet to offer him a new deal.

"Agger is a player who is rarely used at Liverpool," Morabito told Sportmediaset.

"He is a good player but has not found much space in the team over the last two seasons."

Agger has reportedly attracted interest from Milan, who would be able to double his current wages, but recently fellow Italian giants Juventus and Inter have been mooted as alternative destinations.

"I don't think Agger will attract a bidding war between the major clubs but Milan are thinking about him to a certain extent," he added.

"Inter? I don't think so at all. If Agger was to come to Italy then he would only go to Milan."

The Rossoneri are said to be keen to line up a replacement for skipper Paulo Maldini who is finally expected to hang up his boots at the end of the season.

Rafe Benitez: Only 100% Run-In Will Bring Liverpool Title

Rafa Benitez has told his Liverpool players they must win every remaining game to have any chance of catching Manchester United in the title race.

United have moved five points clear of the Reds and can stretch their lead to eight if they beat Blackburn at Old Trafford tomorrow.

Liverpool don't play until Sunday when they face Manchester City at Anfield and Benitez claims they cannot afford to drop any more points.

"Clearly we don't want to lose points so we will try to win every single game," said the Liverpool boss.

"You never know what's going to happen. You can lose points one day and then a few weeks later the other teams lose points. We just have to keep going, think about the next game and winning three points."

Liverpool will not have played for 15 days by the time they take on City and Benitez hopes this break can help rekindle their faltering challenge.

Benitez felt his players were tiring and gave them a few days off after the international break to recharge their batteries.

"We had been playing too many games in a row so it was important for the players to rest and enjoy some time with their families," he said. "We need to be ready for the important weeks ahead.

"We know the City game is massive for us and that's why we have to concentrate totally on it and prepare properly."

Liverpool have been boosted by Steven Gerrard's rapid recovery from his torn hamstring, but Xabi Alonso claims it would be foolish to rush him back.

"It's good to see Stevie coming back, but we have to wait until he is 100 per cent," said Alonso, who is suspended on Sunday. "It's not intelligent to rush him back. Whenever he feels OK, he will be a big part of our squad again."

Whatever happens this season, Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt has warned United that they pose a long-term threat to Old Trafford hopes of dominating English football for years to come.

The Dutchman said: "We have players who are just reaching their peak, Steven Gerrard just seems to get better every season.

"We have a lot of young, talented players who have now been at the club a long time."