Sunday, March 08, 2009

Rafa Plays High Stakes Game

The future of Liverpool football club will not be decided by anything that happens in Liverpool or Manchester this week. Liverpool and Rafael Benitez's future may be decided in a Kuwaiti boardroom, where Tom Hicks and George Gillett -- the unacceptable faces of deregulated capitalism -- are trying to sell the club.

In the meantime, Liverpool have a trying week on the field in a season which will most probably require a European Cup not to be considered another year of squandered opportunity.

Like Arsenal last season, Liverpool have discovered that they are not equipped to compete with Manchester United and Chelsea over the course of the season. They can attempt to be clever and try to outwit the monoliths of English football but they will almost always be undone by economies of scale.

Arsenal appeared to demonstrate brittleness collectively, while Benitez seems to have undermined his side's season with his attack on Alex Ferguson and the dispute over his contract. Both teams ultimately were undone by forces they cannot compete with; in recent years, the ceaseless ferocity of Ferguson and his desire to compete financially with and triumph over the club that changed everything, Chelsea. Because of Chelsea, English football scours the world for billionaires at a time when they are in short supply. Liverpool were late to the party and last in, first out.

Supporters will point to other factors and blame the manager. Benitez's achievement in challenging United will be overlooked, instead he will be criticised for the attack on Ferguson and the delays with his contract. It is debatable if either of these factors have derailed Liverpool, even if the caution of the manager has cost important points.

The Liverpool players, too, may not be as concerned by Benitez's contract talks as some would suggest. Fernando Torres last week indicated he would stay at the club for the duration of his contract even if Benitez leaves, but it is the rumoured disagreement with Jamie Carragher which may prove a more important indicator of the players' feelings.

Carragher was asked to play right-back at Middlesbrough last Saturday but complained about a weariness which he felt would prevent him performing in the full-back position.

He did not refuse to play in that position as some suggested, but his tiredness may point to a more general disenchantment. When Carragher complained of "heavy legs", Benitez then took the decision to select the awkward Martin Skrtel on the right at the Riverside and Liverpool's title hopes were over. On Wednesday, Javier Mascherano was selected at full-back against Sunderland, so Carragher's exhaustion continues.

Carragher has never been a doe-eyed follower of the manager and his comments in his autobiography on some of Benitez's signings show he is not afraid to question his judgement but he is the player who has been viewed as the closest to Benitez.

The reality is different as no player can be said to be close to Benitez, but even the appearance of such a relationship indicates his importance to the manager. For Carragher to be now finding reasons not to play in a certain position cannot have pleased the manager and it indicates a greater frustration on Carragher's part that the Premier League title he believed Liverpool would challenge for this season has petered out before the key game at Old Trafford next Saturday.

Liverpool, instead, will fall back on a familiar, magical consolation. Real Madrid arrive on Merseyside tomorrow again predicting victory, but the only thing that can stop Liverpool advancing to the quarter-finals for the fourth time under Benitez is complacency and the assumption that the job was done at the Bernabeu.

Benitez, too, will be required to be bold. At his best -- and sometimes his worst -- he is more of a gambler than his reputation suggests but a 1-0 lead may tempt him to play for a scoreless draw as he did two years ago when Liverpool returned from the Nou Camp with a 2-1 lead. On that night, the gamble almost backfired and Liverpool had a tense evening, losing 1-0 at Anfield and going through on away goals.

Benitez's approach on Tuesday will give an indication of his state of mind. If he attacks a terrible Madrid defence and looks for the goal that would secure the tie, then he is as eager to try the unexpected as he was during his early years at Anfield. But those who wonder if Benitez's caution and unwillingness to bend have crossed the line into unworkable parody will be looking for signs in Liverpool's tactics that the manager is entering a bunker.

Some would say that with Benitez it was always hard to tell but in recent weeks, in the stuttering performances and off-field politicking, there have been signs of a man who feels he is running out of options.

On the field, he has done well with a squad which again demonstrates his general excellence in the transfer market.

Some regarded it as a victory when Rick Parry announced he would be leaving the club in the summer but Benitez does not see the departure of the man who contributed to Liverpool's failure to sign some of Europe's best players as an issue that has anything to do with his contract. In fact, it has been hard to see what Benitez does want. His contract talks now resemble the Northern Ireland peace process: whenever a satisfactory answer is given, the question changes.

His last months in Valencia were dominated by the same disagreements and the same suggestions that there were no longer effective working relationships. Despite, or maybe because of, the comic ownership of Hicks and Gillett, Benitez has now received nearly every assurance he wanted. Now he is believed to want some guarantees when new owners arrive or the club is remaindered, whichever happens first.

They cannot be given, quite understandably, and Benitez needs to accept that. He is a coach who gives the impression that he feels he can control everything, but he cannot dictate terms to potential owners.

He can, however, make his position secure by winning the European Cup. Benitez is right to suggest that Liverpool's season would have been different if Torres had been fit and he will hope that the player can rediscover some sharpness in the remaining weeks, although he has rarely looked sharp all season. Torres is clearly troubled by his hamstrings and refuses to beat defenders on his left side as he did to such effect last season, most notably when scoring his first Liverpool goal against Chelsea.

For a man who likes to control things, Benitez is now dependent on hope. He will anticipate Torres being fit for the Madrid game and remaining so for the match at Old Trafford, in which Liverpool will have no option but to gamble.

Yossi Benayoun gave an insight into the manager last week which would have surprised nobody. After the game at the Bernabeu, the players celebrated while Benitez stayed calm. He never congratulating the player on his goal and instead began to think about the next challenge. As that was the defeat at the Riverside, perhaps he would have been better off behaving like Ron Atkinson.

Benitez's methods are relentless but the players may be reaching a point where they require something more. Robbie Keane could never come to terms with the fact that Benitez's management was based on tough love, without the love, and others have struggled too. Yet he has been a force for good at Liverpool, a manager prepared to challenge in his flawed way the orthodoxies of English football. He has also battled for the club at a time when Liverpool itself is in peril.

Real Madrid have again shown in the days since the first leg that they remain more expert at trash talk than convincing football. Despite looking to close the gap on Barcelona last night, they were prepared to rest players in preparation for the second leg. "Anfield is life and death," Juande Ramos said, unintentionally echoing the most misquoted line in football history.

Liverpool are playing for high stakes too. Their season, for all its promise, is now on a familiar curve. It may be hard to tell this week, but for Benitez and Liverpool, at Anfield, Old Trafford and in Kuwait, it will be win or bust.

Rafael Benitez Tempted To Risk Fernando Torres Against Real Madrid

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has admitted he is pushing Fernando Torres hard in a bid to get him fit for the second leg of their Champions League tie against Real Madrid.

Torres hobbled out of the first leg at the Bernabeu with an ankle problem, which caused him to miss the Premier League games with Sunderland and Middlesbrough.

However, the Spaniard is closing in on a return to fitness and, with Real Madrid and Manchester United next up for the Reds, Benitez is hoping to have his top striker available.

Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, the Liverpool boss said he was optimistic over Torres’ fitness and that the striker is desperate to face Los Merengues.

“We are pushing Torres and are trying to get him fit for the game. He is very important to us,” Benitez stated.

“I imagine Torres also wants to finish off the job. The Liverpool win was the first time he had tasted success against Real Madrid.”

The Merseysiders won the first leg 1-0, courtesy of a Yossi Benayoun header, and are firm favourites to progress at the expense of Juande Ramos’ men.

Benayoun, who scored the winner in Madrid, also admitted he was hoping Torres would feature at Anfield.

“It is obvious to everyone, including us players, that Torres and Steven Gerrard are our main men," admitted the Israeli international. "They are the big stars so, of course, we depend on them.”

A win against Los Blancos would set up Liverpool nicely for their clash with Manchester United at the weekend. It is a game that Benitez has already stated his side must win if they are to retain any hopes of winning the Premier League.

Fabio Aurelio: Liverpool FC Aren't Scared Of Real Madrid

Liverpool will be bidding to reach the Champions League last eight for the fourth time in five years next week with Brazilian full-back Fabio Aurelio insisting that not even Real Madrid scare them.

Ahead of the last 16 first leg victory over Real in the Bernabeu, Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart claimed Liverpool “were a little bit scared” of their Spanish opponents.

That boast came back to haunt Real, with Yossi Benayoun heading a late winner to send Liverpool into Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield confident they can reach the last eight again.

And Aurelio, who faced Real several times in La Liga in his spell with Valencia, even had a swipe at Madrid’s under-achievement in recent seasons in the competition.

Aurelio said: “If you look at the last few Champions League campaigns, Liverpool have been in the last four consistently.

“And we have reached two finals in recent seasons. Where were Madrid?

“They are a great club with great history in Europe, but Liverpool are also famous in the competition.”

Aurelio was one of seven players in Liverpool’s starting line-up in the Bernabeu who have faced Real in La Liga.

And the confident performance, somewhat out of keeping with recent Premier League displays, produced a deserved first-leg win to stun the vast Spanish audience.

And Aurelio said: “We are not frightened of anyone. Certainly, from my point of view, I am used to playing against Real every season from my time in Spain, as are many of our players.

“But aside from that, we are Liverpool, and we do not have to be afraid of anyone.

“And the draw we achieved in Madrid certainly excited all of our players.”

But even though Liverpool have a precious away goal, they are fully aware that Real will be dangerous rivals on Tuesday and are more than capable of winning the tie.

Real defender Sergio Ramos underlines the confidence from his squad, who have extended their unbeaten run in La Liga to 10 matches, to bring themselves within four points of leaders Barcelona.

He said: “Just like Liverpool, we need to find an away goal. It is almost like a final, we are playing for qualification and we all know we have to put pressure on them to try to get a goal, although we will have to be wary because they have match-winners.”

One of those is Ramos’ international colleague Fernando Torres, who was injured in the first leg and is still fighting to overcome an ankle problem.

But boss Rafael Benitez says: “We hope he will make the second leg. We are pushing him and believe he will play. Otherwise he will be OK for the trip to Manchester United (in the Premier League) the following weekend.

“But certainly we are aware that he can have a big influence on the second leg and get us into the quarter-finals.”

Ramos, though, is looking forward to experiencing the Anfield atmosphere on a big European night.

He said: “I don’t know how it is for everyone else, but for me personally to play in a stadium like that is great. I feel it is something that motivates and can help as well.”

Those sentiments were echoed by left-back Gabriel Heinze, who has previous experience of Anfield after spending three seasons with Manchester United.

He said: “The atmosphere there is something beautiful, it is part of football. It will not affect us because we are used to playing in this type of atmosphere. We just have to get a good result.”

The game will be Liverpool’s 298th in European competition and their 167th in the European Cup. If they win they will reach their 13th European Cup quarter-final.

The omens are good for Liverpool. They have lost only one of seven two-legged ties on aggregate against Spanish opposition, although they also lost to Athletic Bilbao on the toss of a coin in 1968.

In 1998-99 they lost home and away to Celta Vigo who had current Real player Michel Salgado in their squad.

But Liverpool’s Spanish international winger Albert Riera believes the Anfield atmosphere will get to Real.

He said: “Real will be dangerous, but with the atmosphere here will be something they have never confronted before. We are confident we will be in the draw for the last eight.”

Benitez Leaves His Calling Card At Real

Rafael Benitez left Madrid 11 days ago enlivened and enraptured that his Liverpool side had accomplished what he had never before achieved as a manager at Santiago Bernabeu, his footballing alma mater. The grin on his face seemed to say that he felt he had delivered a serious statement of intent about his own unvarnished yearnings to manage in that stadium some day.

The MadrileƱos didn't quite see it that way. Defeat of the kind that Liverpool and Yossi Benayoun doled out, which makes the prospect of Real progressing when they visit Anfield on Tuesday a slim one, tends to prompt a period of introspection in Madrid, with talk of which conquistador might be worth signing up. Not once has Benitez's name cropped up among the capital's football cognoscenti.

Though Juande Ramos was too shell-shocked to offer much response after his side had been mugged by Benayoun's 82nd-minute header, he waited until last week to offer a more fulsome – and brutal – analysis of what Benitez had delivered that night.

When it was put to Ramos that his compatriot – the same Benitez who once studiously scribbled assessments of Real from the stands – had out-thought him, Ramos demurred in the strongest terms. "I disagree," he said. "Liverpool came to the Bernabeu not to play football but to get the nil-nil. On top of that they scored from a set-play and went away with an undeserved victory. They will play the same way at Anfield. But if we score, we will have a real chance of going through."

Sour grapes, you might say. The Real manager knows defeat over two legs may end his own hopes of assuming the post permanently when his contract expires this summer. But Ramos was in touch with the prevailing mood in Madrid, where they like their football served with style.

Benitez's grounds for gloominess extend to these shores, of course. His fans still adore him but the dark mood he conveyed after Liverpool beat Sunderland on Tuesday suggested that he might be wondering if he ever will bring Liverpool the piece of domestic silverware they covet above all. "I just get on with the game," he said, with an expression somewhere between a grimace and a winsome grin, on Monday when asked if he felt he was carrying the can for 19 years without a title.

All that will be out of view come Tuesday, on another great Anfield night when that mighty home record in Europe is defended. (It was two years ago yesterday that a European side, Barcelona, last won at Anfield). But not out of mind, perhaps, as the club realise they are back behind the starting blocks all over again.

Still short of a second world-class striker; needing to rebuild in many key departments; trying to recruit a chief executive to help undertake the building work. And hoping a strong individual can be persuaded to take a job which, with Benitez demanding more control and the banks possibly foreclosing on the owners' loans in July, looks like a poisoned chalice.

No one is too sure where that leaves the players. The Benitez code – that is all he offers at times – seemed to suggest indignation last week that one of his senior players, Jamie Carragher, is reluctant to play at right-back.

For as long as the European quest is alive, these cold realities will remain at bay. Once it is extinguished, there will be no avoiding them. That places this European adventure in a different, more challenging landscape to those he has embarked on with Liverpool before. Two short weeks since the Bernabeu. A minor eternity in the life of Rafael Benitez.

Rafa Ready For Crucial Week

Rafa Benitez admits the next week will be 'very crucial' in determining the success of Liverpool's season.

Liverpool face Real Madrid in the second leg of their last 16 UEFA Champions League tie on Tuesday before heading to Premier League leaders Manchester United next Saturday.

With the Reds out of the FA Cup, Benitez is happy to have more time to prepare his players for the decisive double-header against Real and United.

Benitez highlighted the importance of the two games, with Liverpool leading Real 1-0 in Europe and trailing United by seven points domestically, and the Anfield chief is hoping for positive results.

"When you play two games in a week it is not easy to prepare for the next game, so physically and tactically we have been able to do more things," Benitez told the club's official website.

"In this case we have had more time to prepare and have been able to approach the week in a different way - we are really pleased with the situation.

"For sure this week will be very important. You can talk about crucial games in the season, but these two important games this week it could make a very big difference.

"To progress in the Champions League and to beat United is totally different than if you cannot progress or if you cannot win, so this week is very crucial."

Benitez is also not expecting Real's derby clash in La Liga with Atletico Madrid on Saturday to have a great impact on their preparations for Tuesday's second leg at Anfield.

He added: "I will be watching for both teams in the Madrid game, but I don't see a massive difference for us.

"It is a different game in a different competition so I won't be supporting either team.

"I think Real can play more or less at the same level all the time. Their game with Atletico will not affect how they play in the Champions League. It won't be a problem for them."

Bankers Take Prospective Anfield Buyer To High Court

Liverpool's owners will continue to listen to bids for the club - but remain adamant they will not sell at a knockdown price.

A High Court writ for breach of contract, brought by investment bank Seymour Pierce against a consortium led by Kuwait's Al-Kharafi family, claims George Gillett and Tom Hicks had been involved in talks with the Arabs for more than a year before negotiations broke down for the third time at the end of last month.

But club sources claim that, despite the July deadline to renegotiate the huge loans which financed their takeover two years ago, the American pair are not actively seeking to sell and will not do so unless the price is right and they consider the would-be owners to be suitable. Several parties are understood to have approached Hicks and Gillett, but there is no deal on the table.

Neither Hicks nor Gillett would comment last night, but last week a prospective member of Al-Kharafi consortium took the highly unusual step for an Arab businessman of going public with a claim that Liverpool's owners were demanding too much for the club - thought to be around £500million.

The writ suggests that talks with the Al-Kharafis began soon after the Americans agreed new terms for their loans with the Royal Bank of Scotland and American institution Wachovia in January 2008.

Although Hicks now seems to be the one driving a possible sale to the Kuwaitis, with his lieutenant Roy Bailey in the Middle East in recent weeks, the writ, seen by the Mail on Sunday, claims the Gillett camp were the primary movers this time last year. It is believed that a sale was all but finalised last July, only for the Al-Kharafi consortium to walk away at the last minute.

The claim lodged with the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court on February 25 this year says that Seymour Pierce was engaged on February 27 2008, by Rafed Al-Kharafi and the Al-Kharafi National Group to be the exclusive adviser on a takeover of Liverpool.

According to the document, the Al-Kharafis agreed to pay Seymour Pierce an initial fee of £100,000 once Hicks and Gillett had agreed to talks about a sale and a corporate finance fee of £150,000 once the bank had obtained private financial information to aid consideration of the purchase.

By March 18, the document claims, both Gillett and Hicks had indicated they wanted to sell to the Kuwaitis. On April 10, May 15 and June 17, it is alleged, Gillett's advisers provided confidential information to Seymour Pierce, including a list of all salaries at the club, while the Hicks camp forwarded the club's 10-year financial projections.

Including expenses and interest, the total claim is for £302,368.89. The writ also says that the contract between Seymour Pierce, fronted by football deal-maker Keith Harris, and the Al-Kharafi family included a success fee. Sources suggest that if the Kuwaitis do eventually buy Liverpool, Seymour Pierce will claim a further £7million.

New Liverpool Contract Will Put Striker On £90,000 A Week

Fernando Torres is ready to sign a new £22million deal with Liverpool.

The Spanish striker’s advisors have told the club’s American owners that the player will ignore overtures from across Europe to agree new terms this summer.

That would see the wages of the 24-year-old leap by £20,000 a week to £90,000 — with an extra year added to his existing deal.

Torres signed a bumper six-year deal when he joined from Atletico Madrid for £23m in 2007.

Although he’s struggled with injury this season, he’s become one of the most wanted strikers in the world and Manchester City are among those considering a massive bid.

But Torres has no intention of quitting Anfield, regardless of the boardroom and managerial uncertainty. Earlier this week, he rubbished claims he’d leave the club unless Rafa Benitez stayed as manager.

Talks have been on the back-burner while the club resolves Benitez’s situation but rewarding Torres is a top priority at the end of the current campaign.

But Liverpool may have to cope without him in the Champions League showdown against Real Madrid at Anfield on Tuesday as they defend a 1-0 lead.

The hitman has been unable to train since the first leg due to an ankle problem and will undergo a fitness test tomorrow. The victory in the Bernabeu was Torres’ first win over his former city rivals in nine attempts.

Benitez said: “We are pushing him and are trying to get him fit for the game. He is very important to us.

“I didn’t know the statistics about Torres but when you are not winning against a team like Real Madrid you just know that there has to be a first time to enjoy a victory.

“He felt good about winning in the Bernabeu but that’s no good unless we carry on where we left off at Anfield.”