Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Does Rafael Benitez Need The Champions League To Save His Job At Liverpool?

It seems yet again that it will be the CL or nothing for the Reds boss - would another trophy-less season signal the end of his time at Anfield?

Another day, another draw at Anfield. A season that had rarely inspired but remained inconspicuously solid has hit that ominous slide prophesized by Sir Alex Ferguson all those weeks ago. Liverpool are out of both domestic cups and now seven points behind Manchester United at the top of the Premier League table.

The Reds had the better of the game on Sunday and were unfortunate not to take three points from a Manchester City side that are still not looking anything near their worth. That being said, a more flattering post-mortem for Rafa & Co. provides little comfort when coming to the realization that it's still a dead body that's staring them in the face: their chances of league success are dead in the water for yet another season.

They were at one point as far as 10 points in the clear - although at that stage United had games in hand - but Rafa's 'mind games' opus has since seen the Reds' terminal deficiencies come right out of remission to shatter their confidence and further strengthen bitter rivals United's claim to be the new Kings of England, with a potential third consecutive championship that would pull them level with Liverpool's all-time league title haul of 18.

Benitez has ultimately failed to build on his Champions League triumph in 2005, a fairytale ending to his first season in charge at Anfield. He took a team with only half the quality of his current squad far further than their calibre would have suggested, and even beyond what any supporter would have expected. Without that unbelievable run, Rafa would have long been out of a job and few fans would have had a second thought about it.

He has since overspent and underachieved. Complaining about a lack of backing from the boardroom would be one thing, but to bemoan not having the spending power of United or Chelsea while wasting as much as £20 million on Robbie Keane and going in for a £17m Gareth Barry with Xabi Alonso already in your ranks borders on absurd delusion. Rafa has had more than enough money to compete for the title, but beyond the big-money signings of Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano, he has simply not spent well enough and has thus been reduced to shoe-horning the likes of Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt into positions they are not fit to play at the highest level.

There is only so much time a single title can buy any manager, and Liverpool's progress under Benitez has been minimal in proportion to that of teams both above and below them in the table. At some point, the fans need to get past Istanbul and accept that a fresh direction is needed at Anfield if they are to stand any chance of returning to their all-conquering former selves. To become the new Manchester United - or rather, the old Liverpool.

But what if he does it again? Real Madrid loom on Wednesday and if there's one thing you can say about Rafa Benitez, it's that on his day - somehow, some way - he can beat anyone. Should that be enough to keep him in the Red hotseat? No. Will it? Most certainly yes.

So once more, all Rafa's eggs are in the Champions League basket and his job is all but on the line. In light of the fact-loving Spaniard's current strained relationship with his superiors, for them to bend to his will - as it will evidently have to be - will take something incredibly special. They will need to win it, and while they are far from favourites, one thing Rafa can guarantee them at this moment in time that almost no other manager can is a fighting chance.

Sir Alex Ferguson Believes Real Madrid Will Be 'Too Slow' For Liverpool

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has once again spoken of Real Madrid in a less than flattering light, even claiming that they will not be able to beat a more local foe in the form of Liverpool.

Along with United's own encounter against Inter, Madrid facing Liverpool is a glamour tie for football fans all across the globe, as the most successful club in Spain takes on their equivalent in England. Their trophy cabinets hold an incredible 14 European Cups between them.

Real Madrid demolished Real Betis by six goals to one at the weekend, while Liverpool were unable to overcome Manchester City.

Sir Alex believed two weeks ago that the pace of the Premier League side will see Liverpool prevail over Los Blancos, and that Real have "no chance", but whether he will have altered his viewpoint over his earlier bold claims remains to be seen.

He is quoted by the Mirror as saying, "Their game lacks pace. They have great players like [Gabriel] Heinze, [Fabio] Cannavaro, [Fernando] Gago, but they aren't quick. There is [Arjen] Robben, the only one who can give them some rhythm, but he isn't very brave."

Regarding who he believes has the greatest chance of winning the competition this season, Ferguson indicated that there is a great chance that the Champions League will remain in England.

"The [other] three English teams - Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal - or Barcelona [are the favourites, along with United]," he said. "The level of the Premier League is so elevated that it prepares you for games at the highest level. And Barcelona can count on a fantastic player - [Lionel] Messi."

Manchester United take on Inter on Tuesday evening, while Liverpool have to wait until Wednesday to compete against Real Madrid.

Benitez Ponders Returning Gerrard’s Real Role

Rafael Benitez must decide whether to risk the fitness of Steven Gerrard during Liverpool’s increasingly pivotal Champions League clash at Real Madrid tomorrow.

The Anfield skipper will board the plane for Spain today after being included in the squad to play at the Bernabeu in the first knockout round first leg tie.

Gerrard has been sidelined for almost three weeks after suffering a small hamstring tear early on in the FA Cup fourth round replay defeat at Everton.

The 28-year-old, who has been undergoing intense rehabilitation in a bid to be fit for the trip to Madrid, came through a training session yesterday morning.

However, Benitez admits the player was not fully extended during the fitness test and doubts remain over whether Gerrard will be able to command a starting role.

“Steven will be in the squad,” said the Liverpool manager yesterday. “He was okay in training this morning. It was a special training session so we were not testing him 100%, but he trained okay so we will see.”

Tomorrow’s Champions League tie has taken on extra significance given Liverpool’s indifferent form in the Premier League.

The Anfield outfit’s championship challenge has floundered in recent weeks to allow leaders Manchester United to stretch seven points clear.

And having been dumped out of the FA Cup by their neighbours, Europe once again appears the most likely route to silverware for Benitez’s side.

Jamie Carragher admits Liverpool’s title hopes were dealt a severe blow by that result, but reckons the Anfield outfit can reignite their challenge provided they win at Old Trafford on March 14.

“It’s going to be difficult but we aren’t about to throw in the towel,” he said. “There are still points to be played for.

“We were disappointed to lose two points against City and it puts more pressure on us to go to Old Trafford and try and get a win, but if you want to win the title, that’s what you’ve got to do.

“We’ve been to some big grounds this season and got some good results so hopefully we can do that there too.

“We can’t worry too much about what Man United are doing. We’ve got to focus on our own matches and try and do better.”

Sunday’s draw was Liverpool’s sixth such result in 13 home league games this season.

And Carragher added: “We have drawn too many at home but we don’t know how the season will end yet and we could still go on a great run and catch Manchester United.

“We are capable of that, but if at the end of the season it hasn’t gone as well as we would have liked, it’s something we will probably look at.

“A lot of teams come to Anfield and sit deep and that’s something we’ve got to try and overcome at home. We don’t lose often here but we need to turn some of the draws into wins.”

Daniel Agger To Miss Liverpool's Clash With Real Madrid

Daniel Agger has been omitted from the Liverpool squad for Wednesday's Champions League fixture against Real Madrid, the club's official website revealed last night.

While Steven Gerrard came through a late fitness test with no dramas, Agger will remain on Merseyside as he continues to recover from a back injury.

Philipp Degen, the Swiss full-back, will also stay mired on the sidelines.

"Gerrard will travel, Degen is still out and Agger has a problem - everyone else is fit," said manager Rafael Benitez.

Thus, either Sami Hyypia or Martin Skrtel should partner Jamie Carragher in central defence.

Confident Kuyt Targets A Successful Bernabeu Bow

Dirk Kuyt is convinced Liverpool can still stun Real Madrid in their own backyard tomorrow even though their Premier League title dreams now stand precariously in the balance.

Rafael Benitez’s side were visibly shattered by the 1-1 home draw with Manchester City on Sunday which left them seven points adrift of leaders Manchester United with 12 games remaining.

Kuyt’s late equaliser, his ninth goal of the season, saved face but did little to lift the gloomy reality that swept over Anfield.

But the Dutchman tried his best to rally colleagues and fans alike with Liverpool facing a tough away clash with Madrid on Wednesday in the last 16 of the Champions League.

The task of reaching the last eight in Europe has been made more difficult by Real’s stunning current form which boasts nine successive La Liga victories and a remarkable 6-1 rout of Real Betis on Saturday.

But Kuyt said: “What we must do is turn our attention to the next big game in Madrid, we must concentrate on getting the right result there.

“If we do that in Madrid it will boost our confidence as we try to win the final league games.

“Whatever seems to be happening in our league matches, we always seem to turn in a good performance in the Champions League.

“Madrid will be tough, we must be ready. But we believe we can get the right result there.

“I watched Real Madrid on TV on Saturday scoring six against Real Betis, they were excellent. I always make sure I watch them when I can because they have such quality.

“We are not scared of them. When you get beyond the group stages of the Champions League everyone there is a good team.

“It will be a fantastic game for us. I have never played in the Bernabeu, it is one of those great stadiums I have on my list to play at, and that chance is here.

“So that is an incentive to do well and produce my best form. And if we do get a good result there, it will give us a good lift.”

He added: “That is what we want. We are sure we can beat sides with the quality of Madrid. We have shown that this season.

“We have beaten Chelsea twice, we have beaten Manchester United and we know we can do it. We just have to be ready.

“We have always known we must win at Manchester United, the gap is bigger than we would have liked but we must keep going and retain our confidence.

“The Bernabeu is a stadium I have always wanted to play at. Just like the Nou Camp a couple of years ago.

“We beat Barcelona that night and nobody expected it, so we know we can beat Real Madrid too.”

Kuyt concedes catching Manchester United in the title race will be very difficult.

He said after the draw with Mark Hughes’s City: “We were really disappointed with the game, we knew we had to win to close the gap on United.

“We tried everything, we controlled much of the match but could not get the result.

“We dominated the first half before Craig (Bellamy) scored a good goal for City.

“It is not impossible to catch Manchester United. The situation has not changed much, we have always needed to win our games.

“The gap has been a few points for some while and we have just needed to maintain our form and keep in touch with United.”

Martin Skrtel Still Aiming For Liverpool Double

Sunday's 1-1 draw with Manchester City saw Liverpool slip seven points behind the Premier League leaders, Manchester United, with just 12 games remaining.

Thus, there is an air of tension around Anfield ahead of Wednesday's Champions League date with Real Madrid, but Martin Skrtel still has his heart set on hauling in the Red Devils and lifting silverware in Rome.

"It won't be easy but there are still a lot of games until the end of the season and we will do everything we can to try and win two trophies this season," the 24-year-old said on Liverpool's official website.

Nevertheless, the Slovakian international is well aware that he and the rest of Rafael Benitez's men must turn their form around soon if they are to win anything at all this season.

"It's frustrating because we are fighting for first place in the Premier League and we have to try and win every game," continued Skrtel.

"I think if we had scored in the first half [against Man City] it would have been easier for us to win. I was really disappointed afterwards because we wanted to win. It was a draw and we dropped two points, but that's football.

"We have to win every game now and hope United drop some points."

Liverpool Under-18s Celebrate 4-0 Comback

Liverpool under-18s bounced back from the 4-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion the previous week to land their first FA Premier Academy League victory of 2009 as they beat Crewe Alexandra 3-1.

Hugh McAuley’s side were in fine form and goals from Nathan Eccleston, David Amoo and Alex Kacaniklic gave them a boost ahead of Friday’s FA Youth Cup quarter-final with Bolton Wanderers at Anfield.

Early on Amoo has one headed effort, Lauri Dalla Valle was denied superbly by Crewe keeper Daniel Platt, while Kacaniklic saw a shot cleared off the line. Platt also denied Eccleston on the half-hour, before Liverpool took the lead seven minutes late. A fine run by Amoo teed up Eccleston, but despite Platt again saving his initial effort, he fired home the rebound.

Crewe quickly drew level with a flicked header at the near post. But Amoo restored the lead following an excellent run and shot at the near post. Seven minutes after the restart Liverpool added a third goal when Kacaniklic scored from close range. Liverpool continued to press for more goals Platt again saving well from Eccleston, while Dalla Valle, Michael Scott and Amoo all went close to extending the lead.

Coach McAuley was delighted with his efforts and said: “We needed to bounce back after last week’s defeat to West Brom. We had the big hitters out, if you like, and it was a very good performance. It was a good football match which it always is against Crewe. In the first half it was a bit end-to-end and they had one or two chances, but we dealt with them well. Generally speaking we played good football throughout and controlled the game, which was very pleasing.”

McAuley added: “The goals we scored were good and we had other chances as well. It was ideal preparation and sets us up nicely for the cup match. Overall it was a pleasing day at the office.”

LIVERPOOL UNDER-18s: Bouzanis; Scott, Metcalfe, Kennedy, Robinson; Amoo, Pepper (Roberts 75), Irwin, Kacaniklic; Eccleston, Dalla Valle (Cooper 85). Subs: Duyan, O’Connor.