Saturday, February 28, 2009

Premier League Preview: Middlesbrough vs. Liverpool

Middlesbrough downed West Ham United during the week to book their place in the FA Cup quarter-finals for the fourth year running. It was a confident performance and they were good value for their 2-0 victory over Gianfranco Zola's Hammers. If only the same could be said of their recent Premier League form.

The Teessiders are currently mired in the relegation zone, second from bottom and two points from the safety spots. They haven't won in 14 league outings and their last goal came against Sunderland on January 10. Attendances at the Riverside are dropping week by week and the forecast is not a sunny one for Gareth Southgate & Co.

Still, Boro hold a fairly decent record - although one win in 12 outings sounds less than impressive - against their upcoming opponents, who needed a last-gasp Steven Gerrard special to steal the points at Anfield toward the start of the season. And in context, the visitors are similarly desperate for a turnaround in their domestic fortunes.

Liverpool went into their Champions League clash with Real Madrid on Thursday after dropping yet more points in the title race, having drawn 1-1 with Manchester City to slip seven points shy of the tabletop. But they returned to England all smiles after claiming a monumental victory at the Santiago Bernabeu with what some are hailing as one of the most accomplished defensive performances in recent memory.

However, the Reds have a history of European hangovers - i.e. brilliant CL results followed immediately by sloppy, goalless league showings. But they will be confident of picking up a win by the Tees, as they presently boast the longest unbeaten record on the road - they last went without points away from home on November 1, against Tottenham Hotspur.

Off-field issues could play a part, though. It was confirmed on Friday that the club's chief executive, Rick Parry, will leave at the end of the season, while there remains considerable doubt over manager Rafael Benitez's long-term prospects.



Feb 25 Middlesbrough 2-0 West Ham United (FA Cup)
Feb 21 Middlesbrough 0-0 Wigan Athletic (Premier League)
Feb 14 West Ham United 1-1 Middlesbrough (FA Cup)
Feb 07 Manchester City 1-0 Middlesbrough (Premier League)
Jan 31 Middlesbrough 0-0 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)


Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (Premier League)
Feb 07 Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 04 Everton 1-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 01 Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea (Premier League)



Boro are expected to sport the same side that beat the Hammers in midweek, while Marlon King should return to the squad after being ineligible for the last three games. Didier Digard, Chris Riggott and Andrew Taylor are all unavailable.

Last XI (vs. West Ham United): Jones - Hoyte, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz - O'Neil, Arca, Bates, Downing - Tuncay, Aliadiere


Fernando Torres is back on the sidelines after injuring his ankle against the Merengues, but Steven Gerrard could start after making a late substitute appearance in the same game. Daniel Agger is nursing a back problem.

Last XI (vs. Real Madrid): Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio - Benayoun, Alonso, Mascherano, Riera - Kuyt, Torres


Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

The Englishman was perhaps the best performer against the Irons on Wednesday and netted the opener with a beautifully taken free-kick. His touchline-hugging play on the left could cause serious problems if he gets his final ball right.

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Who else but Stevie G? Until his injury-time jog at the Bernabeu, the super-skipper had been absent since tearing his hamstring in the FA Cup loss to Everton on February 4. With Torres out, all eyes will be on the Scouse hero - if he starts, of course.

How Will Liverpool FC Players Deal With The Off-Field Distractions?

BARELY a week goes by without a journalist asking Rafa Benitez how he thinks his players will cope with the ongoing off-field distractions.

It is a question which is usually answered with platitudes about how Liverpool’s squad is filled with professionals who are not easily distracted by politics, boardroom battles and daily headlines.

But how the Liverpool players manage to rise above the speculation and the subterfuge is something which is becoming almost impossible to work out.

Like everyone else in Madrid during the week they will have heard all the rumours suggesting that their manager would be leaving after the Champions League clash with Real.

And like everyone else there will have been an element of doubt in their minds about what the future holds for them and the club they work for.

But when it came down to the game they went out and to a man executed their manager’s tactics and produced a performance as professional as any in Europe last week.

It is to their eternal credit that they did so and it also serves to underline just how remarkable Liverpool’s performance was in beating the Spanish giants.

Success is usually extremely difficult to attain without togetherness and somehow Liverpool’s players are managing to create a collective spirit even when other parts of the club are so clearly lacking it.

Should they go on to lift a major trophy this season it will be an incredible achievement because no other set of players in world football are having to deal with the levels of acrimony and distraction that they are coping with pretty much every single day.

Benitez Won't Commit To Liverpool Until Ownership Issue Is Resolved

Uncertainty over the future ownership of Liverpool is the main obstacle preventing Rafa Benitez from committing himself to a new Liverpool contract.

In what has been a tumultuous week for Liverpool, manager Rafael Benítez has made it clear that he will not sign a new contract until he receives guarantees about the Merseyside club's future ownership.

On Friday, Liverpool announced that chief executive Rick Parry would be leaving Anfield at the end of the season. But Benítez made it clear that his decision about whether or not to sign a new four-year deal was never dependent upon Parry's future at the club, even though there has been a public power struggle between the two.

One of Liverpool's co-owners, Tom Hicks, is ready to agree to Benítez’s demands for greater control over the club’s transfer policy and youth system, but Times Online reports that the main stumbling block to the ex-Valencia boss committing himself to a new contract is the continuing uncertainty about who will own Liverpool. “It is too simple to say [if Rick Parry goes, I will sign a new contract],” Benítez said.

Benitez's stance underlines the need for Hicks and George Gillett Jr, his estranged business partner, to resolve the ownership issue before the summer, when other clubs, possibly including Real Madrid and some Premier League rivals, make a move for the Spanish tactician.

However, Hicks is not in a position to give Benitez the guarantees he is seeking. Gillett still has to find a buyer for his 50 per cent share in the club, and The Times claims that even if he wanted to sell to Hicks, his partner does not have enough funds to buy it off him.

Under the terms of their ownership agreement, Gillett could sell two per cent of his stake to Hicks, which would give the Texan majority control. However, Gillett would risk not being able to sell the remaining 48 per cent - because neither the would-be investors from Kuwait nor those from Dubai want to buy into a club that Hicks still controls.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking financially. In July, a £350 million refinancing package must be repaid by the two American co-owners.

George Gillett And Son At Risk As Tom Hicks Wins Liverpool Power-Play

Checkmate Hicks. Rick Parry's impending departure not only marks the end of his troubled tenure at the helm of Liverpool, but also the stalemate which has enveloped the club for more than a year.

Parry, closely aligned with co-owner George Gillett and his son, Foster, in Anfield's fractured boardroom, acted as one of the few obstacles to Tom Hicks's attempts to force his partner out of their joint venture. Now Parry has fallen, the rest will surely follow.

To the dismay of many fans, Hicks has made it plain he has no intention of giving up on his investment just yet, not while the potential rewards remain so great. Parry survived one assault last April, but was in no position to come through a second.

When Hicks spoke out against Parry last year, describing him as a "disaster" and claiming that he had been asleep at the wheel as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea drove off into the gilded sunset of worldwide merchandising and money-printing stadia, Gillett stepped in to save him.

That he did not do so again not only suggests Gillett, like Hicks and Rafa Benitez, had lost faith in Parry but also that the diminutive American might be prepared to follow him out of the door. Hicks has been actively seeking to trade in his current partner for a richer, more pliable model. Gillett has bowed to the Texan's wishes once. There is no reason to suggest he will not do so again.

Unpalatable to the Anfield faithful it may be, but Hicks's position of strength is good news for Benitez, the man they cherish above all others. Nobody is bigger than a club like Liverpool, but after the miracle of Istanbul, to many on the Kop, Benitez, the heir of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish, comes close.

Privately, those inside Liverpool admit the relationship between manager and chief executive had become unworkable. Benitez may not have actively brought him down, but he was part of it. They fell out over Parry's inactivity on transfers, his valuations of players, his lack of speed in tying current employees to new contracts.

Benitez insists those issues, as they pertain to his own four-year contract extension, have been ironed out. Now the problem concerns guarantees over what happens to him if the club's ownership changes. The Spaniard wants to know his position is secure and that he can get out if the boardroom vision of the club suddenly differs from his own.

One opponent has been vanquished and even if the other, wounded, does not follow, Hicks's power play has left Anfield in no doubt as to who is in charge. The stalemate has been broken. Hicks is calling the shots. Now he can give Benitez answers.

Rafa Benitez Now Has To Deliver Trophies After Winning Liverpool Power Struggle, Says Mark Lawrenson

Rafa Benitez has won his power struggle with Rick Parry - but must make sure he keeps the fans onside.

It was an impossible situation with a manager and chief executive barely speaking and at loggerheads over key issues at Anfield.

Clearly, Liverpool have backed Benitez over Parry. Now it's time the manager puts pen to paper as quickly as possible on his new contract.

The fans have stuck with Benitez and been loyal to him and their support will only have been strengthened by Liverpool's win in Madrid. But their patience will eventually wear thin.

My theory is that George Gillett does not want him at Liverpool but Tom Hicks does. So there are still obstacles to overcome. It is unsettled at Liverpool, a club renowned for being private, successful and protective of what goes on within Anfield's corridors of power.

Benitez is trying to engineer his new contract so that he has total power. He has won his power struggle with Parry, so why not just sign as quickly as possible?

I'm with Benitez in that if you've £25million to spend it should be up to the manager who he signs. He wanted Gareth Barry and got Robbie Keane.

But Benitez has got his way and must start rewarding the fans for sticking by him.

That means signing a new deal and winning some silverware. And the Liverpool fans really want the Premier League title.

Rafa Benitez: I Did Not Make Rick Parry Quit Liverpool

Rafa Benitez last night insisted that he did not demand the departure of Anfield chief executive Rick Parry.

And the Liverpool manager warned he still has issues to resolve before he will sign a new contract that has been on the table for the past five months.

Parry will leave at the end of the season after losing a long and acrimonious power battle with Benitez and Tom Hicks, the club’s American co-owner. Benitez said: "My negotiations are not a question of power, they are about normal football matters. I have never said I won’t sign a contract if Rick Parry stays.

"This won’t have a bearing on whether I sign or not. Rick Parry going is not one of the issues. I don’t see why people say I won."

While it’s hard to believe Benitez had nothing to do with Parry’s departure, it is true that he was not the sole instigator.

Parry has gone because Tom Hicks has wanted him out for a year, and co-owner George Gillett has decided he can no longer protect the chief executive, pointing to his own imminent departure.

How Rick Parry Lost The Liverpool Power Battle With Rafa Benitez

For Rick Parry, yesterday proved one battle too many in the long-running Anfield war.

But his departure as chief executive of Liverpool at the end of the season does not mean yet that peace will come to one of the bitterest disputes English football has witnessed.

Manager Rafa Benitez kept a straight face yesterday as he insisted the removal of his sworn enemy had nothing to do with him.

What Benitez meant to say was that, while he believed he couldn't work with Parry, he doesn't have blood on his hands - because it was co-owner Tom Hicks who was ultimately responsible for his axing.

The chief executive had been marginalised at Anfield for more than a year after Hicks demanded his departure.

Last April, the Texan billionaire called for Parry's head by openly questioning Liverpool's less than sparkling commercial performance, and insisted: "If you look at what has happened under Rick's leadership, it has been a disaster."

It was only the support of joint owner George Gillett that kept Parry in place, but it seems that support has evaporated in recent weeks as negotiations began over a pay off.

Contrary to reports though, Gillett has not fallen out with Parry, but is merely paving the way for his own departure.

Gillett has been looking for a buyer for his 50 per cent stake in Anfield for the past 12 months, and The Mirror understands that he is now ready to accept Hicks will assume full control at the Merseyside club, by either buying the shares himself or finding a partner to buy Gillett out.

Hicks has moved against Parry to appease Benitez, who wants more control over football matters.

But he has also done it to flex his own muscles, and show that he is ready to become more hands on at the club he hopes to have majority control over by the summer. Parry, aware of this, has negotiated a lucrative package to ease himself out of the club.

With Hicks and Benitez working together closely, that will ultimately mean that the Anfield manager will sign a new contract... but not just yet. He still wants other assurances over his control of football matters and transfer budgets.

For Parry, the fight became too arduous. He won his first battle when arriving at Anfield from the Premier League back in 1998 when he replaced Peter Robinson as the chief executive.

His biggest battle was to try and find the right investors to buy Liverpool and build a new stadium, but he and the previous owner David Moores have admitted they made a mistake in selling to the Americans.

Parry's first fight with Benitez came straight after the Champions League triumph of 2005, and since then the relationship between the pair has been increasingly fraught.

A major fall out between the two after the Champions League final of 2007 saw the Americans back Parry and almost sack Benitez, but with Hicks switching sides to win the support of Liverpool fans the chief executive's days were always numbered.

He will leave with a handsome settlement. But for Benitez the pay off could be even more substantial as he gets what he always wanted - full control of the club.

Liverpool FC's Alvaro Arbeloa injured

Liverpool suffered a fresh injury blow last night with the news that Alvaro Arbeloa will be out for at least 10 days.

The full-back has a slight hamstring tear and is a doubt to make the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid at Anfield a week on Tuesday.

Arbeloa sustained the injury during his impressive display in the 1-0 win in Madrid on Wednesday and is currently undergoing treatment.

He will miss the Premier League games at Middlesbrough today and at home to Sunderland on Tuesday.

Arbeloa’s injury is further bad news for manager Rafael Benitez, who is ready to throw Steven Gerrard back into his starting line-up today.

The Liverpool manager’s attacking options have been severely rocked by the absence of Fernando Torres following the injury he picked up at the Bernabeu.

Torres suffered a twisted ankle and has been ruled out of today’s game, and now faces a race to be fit in time to face Sunderland.

And with Gerrard making his return from a hamstring tear for the final two minutes in Madrid, Benitez is considering putting his captain back in from the start.

He will be assessed this morning before a final decision is made but Benitez is aware of the need to play as strong a side as possible at the Riverside.

Benitez said: “Every game is so important now because we need to put United under pressure.

“So we need to win and to win you need to have your best players.

Fernando Torres Injury Ruins Liverpool Plans For Must-Win Middlesbrough Game

Rafa Benitez has a massive injury headache for the game he says is a must-win for Liverpool's Premier League title hopes.

The Anfield boss hasn't yet conceded the Premier League to Manchester United despite trailing by seven points, but he will be without Fernando Torres for the visit to Middlesbrough.

Benitez admits that the Reds can kiss goodbye to the title if they lose today, and the loss of Torres is a massive blow, but he said: "We have to go to win as we are still thinking of winning the title.

"It is really important for us to get three points in each game.

"We can talk and talk about the difference but the main thing for us is to win our games to put pressure on United.

"We cannot let the gap get any wider, but we have not given up because many things can happen before the end."

Torres has an ankle problem and will miss the game, but could be back for the visit to Anfield of Sunderland on Tuesday night.

Benitez explained: "He wants to play but the doctor says we have to wait. In this situation two or three days can be a big difference."

Skipper Steven Gerrard is in the squad but could again be on the bench at the Riverside Stadium. Alvaro Arbeloa is out with a hamstring, forcing Jamie Carragher to switch to right back and offering a chance to Daniel Agger.

Liverpool Back In For Barry: Transfer Talk

Rafa Benitez will sign a new contract after winning his power struggle with Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry and his first move after putting pen to paper will be to launch a £20m raid for Aston Villa and England midfielder Gareth Barry.

This column revealed on Monday that Benitez faced the axe because support on the Anfield board was wearing thin.

But owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have decided the club's imminent failure to regain the Premier League title was because of a lack of quality purchases in the transfer market last summer.

That was when Benitez set out his stall to lure Barry from Villa to Merseyside only to be thwarted in his plans when the Reds refused to increase their £16m to match Martin O'Neill's £18m valuation.

There was a bizarre twist when Liverpool then splashed out £20.3m for Spurs striker Robbie Keane only for Benitez to run him out of town last month when he returned to White Hart Lane for just £12m.

The Liverpool manager still wants Barry to team up with talismanic Steven Gerrard as he feels they would form a midfield partnership which would be the fulcrum to Liverpool's success.

Now Parry is stepping down, after apparently losing Gillett's support, Benitez holds the upper hand although he will be under pressure to produce silverware next season.