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.