Sunday, March 01, 2009

Match Report: Middlesbrough 2 - 0 LiverpooL

Tuncay Sanli blasted a huge hole in Liverpool's Barclays Premier League title challenge as Middlesbrough gave their survival hopes a massive boost.

The Turkey international struck for the second time in four days after Xabi Alonso's own goal had given the Teessiders an unlikely half-time lead.

It was Boro's first league victory and the Reds' first league defeat in 15 attempts, and was hugely significant to both clubs for starkly contrasting reasons.

The hosts last won at Aston Villa on November 9 and had not collected all three points at the Riverside Stadium since 11 days earlier, and Alonso's goal was their first in the league for 526 minutes.

However, Gareth Southgate's men were well worth a win which gives them genuine hope of escaping the drop, but leaves Liverpool's title hopes in shreds with leaders Manchester United seven points clear with a game in hand.

Liverpool arrived on Teesside with talk of manager Rafael Benitez's unsigned contract and the impending departure of chief executive Rick Parry dominating the headlines.

However, the only focus at the end of a week which brought the club a famous Champions League victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu Stadium was the league title which has eluded them since 1990.

Even after Boro's creditable performance in beating West Ham on Wednesday evening to book their place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, few in a crowd of 33,724 - the biggest of the season at the Riverside - were expecting a home win.

Indeed, for the opening half-hour, there seemed only one likely winner despite Gary O'Neil forcing a good reaction save from Jose Reina from Stewart Downing's 11th-minute cross.

Opposite number Brad Jones had already kept out close-range efforts from Nabil El Zhar and Dirk Kuyt as the visitors piled on the pressure, although even the craft of returning skipper Steven Gerrard, making his 300th start for the club, and Alonso could not break the Teessiders down on a consistent basis.

But when the opening goal finally arrived, it came at the other end, and ended an agonising wait for the home side.

Not since Afonso Alves' 45th-minute strike in the 1-1 derby draw with Sunderland on January 10 had Boro found the back of the net in a league game, and they needed a helping hand to end the drought.

Alonso instinctively stuck stuck out a leg as Downing's 31st-minute corner sped across the six-yard box, but only succeeded in diverting the ball past the helpless Reina.

The goal seemed to galvanise the home side, who might have extended their lead four minutes before the break when Downing robbed full-back Martin Skrtel and forced Reina into a good save.

However, Southgate's men returned expecting an onslaught and knowing there was a long way to go before they could even contemplate all three points.

Liverpool should really have been back on level terms within three minutes of the restart when Gerrard ghosted into the box and pulled the ball back invitingly for El Zhar.

However, the youngster hammered his shot high over the bar to let Boro off the hook.

Jeremie Aliadiere might have increased the visitors' woes three minutes later when he was picked out by O'Neil inside the box, but he was similarly inaccurate.

Benitez's side continued to dominate possession, but they were struggling to do anything meaningful with it as Boro's stubborn defence proved more than adequate to keep them at bay.

The game's second goal came with 63 minutes gone, and again it was the visitors who found themselves on the wrong end of it.

O'Neil slid the ball into the path of Aliadiere down the right and when he squared for Tuncay, the Turkey international guided his shot past Reina into the bottom corner to send the home crowd into raptures.

Jones saved from Gerrard and Kuyt failed to connect with his skipper's cross with the goal at his mercy as the game slipped further from Liverpool's grasp, and things might have been even worse with 18 minutes remaining.

Downing and Tuncay combined to open up the Reds once again and present Marlon King with a glorious opportunity, but Reina came to the rescue with a two-handed save.

In truth, the visitors never looked like pulling off a rescue mission as Boro coasted to a fine win.

Rafael Benitez Rues Liverpool Missed Chances Against Middlesbrough

Having secured a memorable victory against an in-form Real Madrid side in the Santiago Bernabéu on Wednesday Liverpool travelled to the Riverside Stadium almost expecting to beat Middlesbrough.

Football, though, can be a funny game and a Middlesbrough side that hadn’t won in 14 Premier League games quite comfortably despatched Rafael Benitez’s travelling Liverpool contingent.

It was a game that Benitez thought hinged on the opening half an hour. “In the first thirty minutes we had five chances, for me, that is the summary of the game” he told BBC Sport after the match.

“If you don’t take your chances and you concede a goal…you have to go forward,” he continued. “They were playing counterattack [after they scored] so if you want to win this game you have to take your chances.”

Benitez reflected on his side’s inability to capitalise when they were on top in the game, highlighting a El Zhar’s “one on one with the keeper”.

“You cannot change things now but we are clearly very disappointed.”

Commenting on Liverpool’s title chances, Benitez was sombre.

“If before the game was difficult now it is more difficult, that is clear,” he said. “We have to think about Sunderland and after we will think about Real Madrid.”

The Liverpool boss had little to say about the weeks boardroom revelations that Rick Parry would step down at the end of the season.

“It is a decision between the owners and Rick Parry, we have to concentrate on football.”

Rafa Benitez Admits Title Slipping Away After Liverpool Lose To Middlesbrough

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez couldn't quite bring himself to concede the title to Manchester United, but a numbing 2-0 defeat at struggling Middlesbrough pushed him mighty close.

Favourites United now stand seven points clear with a game in hand and victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford on March 14 will almost certainly clinch a third successive title for Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

An incredible week for Benitez, that nudged him closer to a new long-term contract after a famous win in Madrid, saw him crash down to earth.

This was a damaging reverse against a side that hadn't won in 14 games since November, or even scored a goal in more than eight hours of football.

An own goal from Xabi Alonso and a second-half strike from Tuncay sentenced Liverpool to only their second league defeat of the season.

And the look of anger on the face of skipper Steve Gerrard as he limped off with cramp suggested strongly that Liverpool believe the title has already slipped from their grasp.

Benitez had billed this as a must-win clash after dropping two home points to Manchester City and he could barely hide his resignation as he was asked if it was all over.

He clearly can't concede this early in the campaign, but his argument that it was now United's to lose was Rafa-speak for "we surrender".

"Before the game it was going to be difficult and after this result makes it is even more difficult," said Benitez. "I don't know if Manchester United will slip up. We have to see how United do in their games.

"But it will be more difficult for us. You must score goals if you want to stay at the top.

"It has been a problem not killing teams off and it was the same today. It was a frustrating game. In the first 30 minutes we had five chances and to win you must put them away. It is disappointing." It was disappointing for the 3,600 travelling Liverpool fans too, as many headed for the exits long before the end.

Boro's first league victory since November before their biggest home crowd of the season - 33,724 - lifted under-pressure Gareth Southgate's side out of the relegation zone.

The Boro boss said: "What pleased me most was that we played as well as we did in beating West Ham.

"We got a little bit of luck with the first goal but as the game went on I thought we deserved it. It was great to see the stadium full and the crowd kept us going when we tired late on.

"We have kept four clean sheets in our last six games against Premier League teams."

Rafael Benitez Plays Down Steven Gerrard Injury Fears

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has reassured Reds' fans that Steven Gerrard is ok, after they watched their inspirational leader limp out of the Premier League game with Middlesbrough with 20 minutes of the game remaining.

The Reds title challenge is now all but over after they suffered a 2-0 defeat at the Riverside, and must surely now turn their attention to the Champions League.

Fernando Torres is also an injury worry for the club, and if Gerrard is injured again it will severely hamper their chances of progressing in the Champions League, in which they currently lead Real Madrid 1-0 going into the second leg at Anfield in just over a week's time.

However, Benitez seemed certain that his inspirational captain was suffering from cramp, and that the injury was nothing to worry about.

Speaking to Setanta Sports, Benitez said, "He had cramps. I don't think it will be serious."

Gerrard has just returned from three weeks out recovering from an injury that forced him to miss the knockout round first leg tie of the Champions League against Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The 28-year-old midfielder has been at Liverpool for his entire career, after rising through the club's youth academy. He has made a staggering 324 Premier League appearances in his time at the club, scoring a very respectable 64 goals.

Dirk Kuyt Is Fretting On Rafa Benitez Future

Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt will commit himself to a new contract with the club only once he has assurances on Rafael Benitez’s long-term future as manager. Benitez is yet to sign a new deal and uncertainty over the direction of Liverpool, after the announcement that chief executive Rick Parry is to leave, means Kuyt has delayed talks on a renewal.

“The manager told me he wants to give me a new contract,” said Kuyt, whose current deal runs to next year, “but because of his own contract he wanted to sort that out first and see what’s happening. For me, I’m focusing on the important games coming up. I’m not too worried about it at this stage. We’ll see. At this moment I’m really happy at Liverpool. I’m enjoying every day. It depends what the club wants. If the club wants to give me a new contract I’m more than happy to talk.”

Kuyt, above, added that he was not the only one in the dressing room wanting Benitez’s situation clarified. “Of course it’s very important for me who’s the manager, as it is for every player,” said the Dutch international. “I never thought the manager would go because everybody was talking about his new contract. As far as I can see he is focused on the games as well as the players are.”

Kuyt hoped Benitez’s popularity with fans would steer him towards a quick solution to any snags in negotiations over a new deal. “The supporters have always been behind Benitez,” said Kuyt. “He’s a great manager and has done great things for the club: Champions League, FA Cup. He’s done lots of good work for the club.”

Rafa Benitez Has Full Support Of Liverpool Players, Says Fabio Aurelio

Liverpool defender Fabio Aurelio has rejected claims that Rafa Benitez has lost the plot.

The Brazilian was with Benitez when the Spaniard guided Valencia to two La Liga titles and the UEFA Cup, only to quit the club after a row with directors.

And he insists the Kop boss has not been affected by the Anfield power struggle that has seen him refuse to sign a new contract, or the fallout from his stunning verbal attack on Sir Alex Ferguson six weeks ago.

At the end of a week when Liverpool defied rumours of Benitez's imminent departure by beating Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, Aurelio said: "Rafa has acted normally with the players at all times.

It doesn't matter what is going on inside the club, he is always the same on the training ground and in the dressing-room.

"There has been a situation at Liverpool regarding the manager's contract. It must be difficult for him, but with the players he remains the same.

"And we don't accept the comments he made about Ferguson have caused a problem. All managers play these mind games.

"The players are with him - and we will be with him until the end."

Rick Parry: There’s No Row With Gillett And I wish The Liverpool FC Team Well

Rick Parry today dismissed speculation suggesting his impending departure from Anfield has been caused by a fall out with George Gillett.

As exclusively revealed yesterday, Parry is set to leave Liverpool in the summer after 11 years as the club’s chief executive.

The 54-year-old does not have another job lined up, although there is expected to be no shortage of offers for a man who is highly respected in the higher echelons of English football and who was instrumental in the Premier League becoming one of the greatest success stories in world sport, before taking his “dream job” at Anfield.

Parry is refusing to give interviews about his decision to walk away from Liverpool at the end of the season, privately insisting that the team needs to be the story rather than himself.

But he spoke out to rebuff suggestions that his departure was caused by a breakdown in relations with Gillett, his long-term ally in Liverpool’s boardroom.

“There has been no fall-out with George Gillett – the rumour mill is miles off the mark,” said Parry.

“There has been a process which has been conducted in a professional and dignified manner on both sides and this is the outcome.

“There are no hard feelings and I generally wish everyone all the best, particularly the team which has an important game today (against Middlesbrough) and more to come in the near future.”

The fact that Parry is so adamant that his relationship with Gillett remains strong will remove one conspiracy theory about yesterday’s dramatic events.

But it will also raise suspicions that the position of Reds co-owner Tom Hicks is strengthening, because it is highly unlikely that Parry would have come to see his future away from Anfield unless this was the case.

Parry came to his decision to leave during talks with both owners which all involved have insisted were amicable.

Though Parry and Reds co-owner Hicks have not seen eye to eye for some time – with the Texan having tried unsuccessfully to oust the long- serving executive from his position last year – both were prepared to bury their differences in order to put out an official joint statement confirming the course of action that was being taken.

That was followed up by some conciliatory noises from Reds boss Rafa Benitez, whose much publicised wrangling with Parry has been wrongly attributed by some as one of the main reasons for the former accountant’s impending exit.

And the Spaniard vowed to work together with Parry until he eventually leaves the club.

“I think it is a decision of the owners and by Rick Parry,” said Benitez. “We are at a crucial stage of the season, with important games coming up, so I think that we have to work together and look to do the best for the club.

“At this moment, everybody wants the same, everybody wants to work together and wants to be successful. I will wish Rick Parry the best.”

Benitez was also quick to dismiss suggestions that Parry’s decision to go makes him the winner of a power struggle.

He added: “Clearly, this is not the case. I have not said anything about this, and I can continue to work together with Rick until the end of the season because we want to win games.

“The relationship between us has been good and professional, and now it will be the same because we both want the best for the club."

One school of thought is that Benitez will now finally sign his new Liverpool contract, now that he knows Parry will be leaving.

But the ECHO understands the Reds boss does not believe the current situation has changed in any meaningful way, and will be seeking further reassurances about the direction in which the club is heading during forthcoming talks with the co-owners.

Fans group Spirit of Shankly has been consistently critical of Parry, but in a statement released last night made it clear that his departure from Liverpool will not weaken a determination to see Hicks and Gillett follow him through the Anfield exit door.
“Tom Hicks should be under no illusion that today's announcement does nothing to enhance his position in the eyes of our members,” said an SOS spokesman.

“We will continue to campaign for his and Gillett's departure, as they have proven incontrovertibly that they are not fit custodians of Liverpool Football Club.”

Parry will remain at Anfield until the end of May in order to facilitate an orderly changing of the guard when his replacement is found.

Current commercial director Ian Ayre is the strong favourite to fill Parry’s shoes, having been appointed to his present role by Hicks.

Ayre is a lifelong Liverpool fan who was chief executive of Huddersfield Town for a time.

But there will be no shortage of interested parties in an executive position at one of the world’s top football clubs, and former Football Association chief exec Brian Barwick, another Reds fan, could also be a contender for the role.

London sources have indicated that former Arsenal managing director Keith Edelman could also feature on the shortlist.

It remains to be seen how a process to find a replacement will be conducted as the ongoing differences between Hicks and Gillett are yet to be resolved, and there is ongoing speculation that either or both of the pair will not be at Liverpool for the long term, despite denials to the contrary by the two Americans.

Such matters are no longer Parry’s concern, of course, although, as a Liverpool supporter, he is hoping that the future is positive for the club and its fans.

He added: “It has been a privilege to serve the club, and as a lifelong supporter I wish the owners, Rafa, the players and the wonderful staff all the very best for the future.

“I will be leaving at the end of the season knowing that the club remains strong and with a set of supporters who deserve success in all that Liverpool does.”

Benitez - Genius Or The Most Arrogant Manager Of All Time?

So, Rafa Benitez has won the Liverpool power struggle. Rick Parry, the chief executive, is leaving. And Rafa will now presumably have total control over transfers and get a nice big pay rise. But while agreeing that Parry was an interfering old busybody, am I the only one who isn't so convinced by Benitez's supposed genius?

There has always been something very irritating about the Spaniard. The goatee beard is not a good start. He clearly thinks it makes him look like Johnny Depp. When, dare I politely suggest, George Michael after a hard night on Hampstead Heath is a more appropriate comparison?

The cheap-looking glasses, hideous patterned ties and ill-fitting suits do nothing to counter the general impression of a middle- ranking bank manager. But the most annoying thing about him is that he could be so much more successful if he just managed to find a few seconds in every day to stop thinking about himself and dwell on his team for a moment.

Benitez has to be the most arrogant manager ever to grace the Premier League. Which, when you consider the competition, is a pretty amazing achievement. Jose 'I'm the Special One' Mourinho has an ego the size of several planets, Sir Alex Ferguson makes Emperor Nero look timid and dear old Sam Allardyce is still banging on about how he should be England manager, when most of us think he'd struggle to run a pub side these days.

But Benitez is cockier than all of them, in his own peculiar way. You just know that he wakes up every morning, struts to the bathroom in his purple Noel Coward smoking jacket, takes a long, hard look at himself in the mirror, and smirks: 'Rafa, you is looking the bizzo today!'

Liverpool were cruising at the top of the League at the turn of the year. They looked strong in depth and focused and I genuinely thought, if Gerrard and Torres stayed fit, they might go on and win the title. Then came Dossier Day. The moment that Benitez decided to make it all about himself again.

Instead of exuding a firm air of menacing confidence about his players, which would have instilled fear and panic into the ranks of Liverpool's already struggling opponents, he exploded in a veritable orgy of selfindulgence. Out he marched, jowls twitching, goatee glistening, brow furrowed, and positively dripping with prickly defensiveness. And for the next half an hour he laid into Sir Alex in a fit of indignant pique that was toe-curling to watch.

When he'd finished going through his ridiculous fact-file, he sat back like a smug geography teacher having just administered another tedious lecture to the class on their collective shortcomings. And I sat back and chuckled loudly to myself, exactly as I suspect Sir Alex did in Manchester.

'Game over,' he must have thought. Dossier Day was not the only time Benitez has made it all about himself. For most of the season, Liverpool's achievements on the field have been overshadowed by their manager's contractual wranglings. He's going, he's staying, he's angry, he's frustrated, he's . . . he's . . . he's Rafa Benitez, the biggest star at the club! This week Liverpool fans will forgive him anything given their excellent win at Real Madrid. 'Give Rafa the freedom of the city!' was the cry from the world's most emotional supporters. To which I reply: 'Calm down, calm down.'

Particularly after yesterday's terrible performance against Middlesbrough. Benitez is, indisputably, tactically astute, massively experienced and worthy of considerable praise as a coach. But Liverpool are not an exciting team to watch. They're hard to beat, granted. They're also, however, a bunch of boring long-ball merchants prepared to grind out results and catch opposition sides on the break. And when you analyse Benitez's actual record as manager, from a historical perspective, the position looks even less impressive.

He won the Champions League in his first season at Liverpool, making himself an instant Kop god in the process. But that was four years ago and since then he's added only one FA Cup and a Community Shield to the mix (I'm not knocking that joke of a trophy, by the way. We Arsenal fans would do cartwheels of ecstasy for the Shield right now).

This season was the closest Liverpool have come to winning the Premier League and they almost certainly blew it when they had it in their hands. Because, at the crucial moment, when the players looked to their manager for the kind of supreme Churchillian 'Let us go forward together' speech that might drive them on to victory, he turned it into the Rafa Benitez show.

The best manager Liverpool ever had was not the magnificently eloquent Bill Shankly. It was Bob Paisley. A humble, absurdly modest, quietly-spoken man who won six league titles, three European cups, one UEFA cup, three League Cups, a UEFA Super Cup, and five Community Shields. Paisley would rather have inserted electrodes into his spinal cord than constantly big himself up ahead of his players. And I bet he never once asked for a pay rise.

Steven Gerrard Runaway Fixer Is Caught By Police

An underworld fixer who saved Liverpool star Steven Gerrard from a gangster has been arrested after a year on the run.

John Kinsella, 44, stopped a villain known as The Psycho who threatened to shoot the England star in the legs.

Self-confessed gangland enforcer Kinsella slipped out of a court last year minutes before he was found guilty of taking part in a £41,000 robbery.

Police this week tracked the boxer and martial arts expert to Amsterdam, where he was living under a false identity. He is to be extradited. At his trial in Lincoln, Kinsella said George Bromley had demanded cash from Gerrard. He told the court: "I took steps. I told him to stop it and leave him alone. He followed my advice."

Steve's dad Paul confirmed the story to cops and said he and his son had "total respect" for the fixer.

Lincolnshire Police said last night: "We can confirm John Kinsella has been arrested."

While Kinsella was on the run he bizarrely won a three-year cut in his 14-year sentence - using legal aid.

Liverpool And Blackburn Rovers After Hoffenheim's Demba Ba

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim striker Demba Ba is reportedly on the transfer radar of two Premier League clubs, Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers.

The player's agent has revealed that there has been interest declared from the two English clubs, and it is expected that the Senegalese striker will make a move from the Bundesliga sometime in the summer.

Hoffenheim have been Germany's surprise package this season and are still floating around the Champions League spots, a remarkable achievement for a newly-promoted club.

Demba Ba has been an integral part of this meteoric rise to fame, the 23-year-old chipping in with 11 goals this season, and his performances have inevitably attracted the interest of bigger clubs in Europe, with German side VFB Stuttgart also rumoured to be interested.

Speaking to Foot Mercato, Ba's representative Alexandre Gontran, said, "Stuttgart first contacted me in January. I think that they have also contacted the club.
"But other clubs are keen on him, including Liverpool, who have confirmed their interest in Ba regarding next season, and Blackburn as well.

"Demba feels good at Hoffenheim and, if the team keep on playing well and manage to qualify for a European cup, I don’t see any reason why he would go.

"If the opposite situation occurs, keeping their players will be very difficult for Hoffenheim. We have been speaking about a contract extension since November."

Ba is under contract at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena until 2012 and his agent has high hopes of cashing in on his young gem before that contract with the Bundesliga side runs out.