Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cruyff: Everyone Now Fears Liverpool

Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff has admitted the club would fear facing Liverpool in the Champions League after their exploits this week.

Liverpool’s season had been threatening to end in disappointment after some disappointing results, but last week’s 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid was followed by a 4-1 victory over Manchester United and there is now a renewed sense of optimism at Anfield.
Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeness admitted recently that he felt Liverpool were the team to avoid in the quarter-finals, and Cruyff has now said that no one will want to be drawn against Rafa Benitez’s side.

“For sure, many of those who feared playing against Manchester [United] don’t want to face Liverpool from now on because of the way their demolished Madrid and then hammered United,” he wrote in his blog for El Periodico.

“They were two convincing and prestigious victories, but each was different.

“Against Madrid, Liverpool went on the pitch to attack and press them. Against Manchester, they went shoulder to shoulder and the game finally turned their way thanks to one incident: Vidic’s dismissal and the direct free-kick.

“Against Manchester United, Benitez felt comfortable with a more defensive team that was always together so that they could intercept the ball and play fast on the break.”

However, while Cruyff is particularly keen to avoid Liverpool, he admits there could be serious problems whoever they face.

“Playing against Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea won’t be easy, especially since Hiddink arrived,” he said.

“Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Porto are put in the ‘if we play them, we go through for sure’ box, but we should be careful of this idea in the dressing room, because no second-rate clubs are remaining.”

Benitez Hails Liverpool As 'Best In Europe'

The Spaniard believes that recent giant-killing results, together with his side's track-record in the Champions League, prove that Liverpool are the best of the best.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is not fazed by the fact that the Premier League crown, Champions League trophy, and FIFA World Club championship are all proudly on display in Manchester United's trophy cabinet.

The FIFA World Player of the Year and individual accolade accumulator - Cristiano Ronaldo - is also on the books there, yet Benitez believes his Liverpool side are the "best in Europe" following his club's 4-1 mauling of United at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Despite Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo opening the scoring in favour of the Mancunians, Liverpool pegged United back through a flurry of goals from Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio, and Andrea Dossena.

The win capped a triumphant week for Benitez's men as they also slayed Spanish heavyweight opposition Real Madrid by four goals to nil and, had it not been for Iker Casillas, the scoreline could have been even more emphatic.

Given the Reds' track record in the Champions League - they have made two finals in the past five years, winning it on one of those occasions to add to the club's previous four triumphs - Benitez believes it is his side, not Sir Alex Ferguson's, who can claim to be the cream of the crop on the continent.

He is quoted by The Sun as saying, "I believe Liverpool have been the best team in Europe for the last five years. We have beaten Real Madrid and Manchester United in the same week - if we can beat them, we can beat anybody."

Talismanic captain Steven Gerrard is hoping that other sides will take heed from the manner in which Liverpool overcame Manchester United.

Gerrard said, "We will need a little bit of luck along the way but hopefully that gives teams that are going to play against Manchester United a bit of belief that they can be beaten."

Manchester United's heavy defeat against Liverpool was the worst inflicted upon them at Old Trafford by their north-west rivals since the 1930s.

Uefa Looks To Avoid Liverpool FC Clash On Hillsborough Anniversary

Michel Platini has promised Liverpool that Uefa are keen to avoid forcing the club to play the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

The anniversary falls on April 15, which is one of the two dates set aside for the second legs of the quarter-finals, the other being the previous day.

Uefa president Platini has not guaranteed Liverpool will not be asked to play on April 15 but said European’s governing body would “do our utmost” to avoid the scenario.

Uefa yesterday issued a statement reacting to reports claiming they had rejected an appeal by Liverpool to avoid playing on the anniversary date.

Platini said: “We are aware of the huge significance of the April 15 date for Liverpool FC and their fans, and that is why we will do our utmost to make sure the club does not have to play on that day.

“I have been in regular correspondence with Liverpool FC for some time now and fully sympathise with the club’s feelings as to the importance of respecting the date of April 15 for those who lost their lives at Hillsborough.

“This being the 20th anniversary of that tragic disaster in 1989 makes it even more relevant and we will take this into account.”

The Champions League quarter-final draw takes place on Friday.

Alan Hansen's Column

Liverpool's magnificent victory at Old Trafford may not have totally turned the tide of the Premier League title race - but it has achieved a major objective of at least making Manchester United think.

It was a result and, just as significantly, a performance that will give everybody at Liverpool total belief in what manager Rafael Benitez is doing and huge optimism that the club is genuinely moving forward.

The title is still Manchester United's to lose and they remain overwhelming favourites. We must not forget how well they have played this season before Saturday, so to suggest one defeat is suddenly going to send them off the rails is nonsense.

From the point of view of United and manager Sir Alex Ferguson, there will be a mixture of emotions contained within what will be an uneasy week of inactivity for the side chasing an historic quintuple.

They are lucky that they have some recovery time because they have looked a little weary in their last couple of games but they are also unlucky in that after a defeat on such a scale, you want to get out there as quickly as possible to try to put it right.

If United beat Fulham in their next game everything goes away but if they do not - and I am only speaking from experience - then we all know things can change quickly in big-time football. United, however, are still right there in pole position, with the smart money going on them to retain their crown.

As I said, Liverpool's win hardly balances the title on a knife-edge but if you are chasing the leaders all you can do is keep putting pressure on them and they did that in the most emphatic fashion imaginable on Saturday.

It was a triumph for Benitez - as was the 4-0 victory against Real Madrid in the Champions League - and let me tell you no-one will want to draw Liverpool in that competition. These games also illustrated that Liverpool are at their best, their most formidable, when they impose themselves on opposition rather than wait to see what they do first.

And in Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool had two truly world-class performers delivering at the highest level. Liverpool have really missed them in their injury absences this season.

The truly outstanding performers in any team are missed when they can score a crucial goal or play a killer pass that changes a game but when those two players also have the lightning pace that Torres and Gerrard provide, then that increases the problems.

When you look at the great players English football has produced, I think many people are now realising just how good Gerrard is and Saturday was simply another demonstration of that fact.

Gerrard has been an unbelievable player for Liverpool for five or six years now, almost a one-man team at times. It is not only his ability and consistency, it is his priceless knack of winning and saving matches and the sheer energy he puts into every game.

Torres is also a fantastic footballer but when you are starting with any player at Liverpool there is only one - and that is Gerrard every time.

What we saw from Torres at Old Trafford was a superb example of the striker's art and how even the world's best defenders can be unsettled by the speed of thought and limb that he can produce. In this instance, Nemanja Vidic was the unfortunate man to suffer.

Just like my old colleague Ian Rush used to do, Torres forces defenders into mistakes and you are talking about a world-class player here in Vidic.

Liverpool's equaliser was a case in point. Vidic normally just goes and eats everything up, gets every ball but the presence of Torres made him think for a split second about how he would deal with a speculative long clearance. It was a fatal hesitation and Torres pounced to score a crucial goal.

Vidic started to think about what he was doing instead of just doing it - and as a former defender I sympathise with him because I know exactly how he feels.

You start watching the man instead of the ball, wondering where he is and what he is going to do. It affects your decision-making and this was what Torres and Liverpool exploited so ruthlessly.

Rush used to do it to me in training all the time. I would be looking at him rather than the ball - it has a psychological as well as footballing affect on your game because suddenly the seeds of doubt have been planted in your mind.

Chelsea also took advantage of Liverpool beating United, with their win against Manchester City on Sunday putting them back into second place and, just like Liverpool, they will still harbour hopes of winning the title.

Coach Guus Hiddink has got them back doing what they do best. They are very methodical, very well-disciplined and well-marshalled. They have got Ricardo Carvalho back in central defence and the return of Michael Essien is huge for them.

The race for fourth place has now switched back in Arsenal's favour after they beat Blackburn and Aston Villa lost at home to Tottenham.

One of the main talking points of Villa's defeat was the fact that striker Gabriel Agbonlahor was booed by some of his own fans when he was substituted in the second half. Martin O'Neill has publicly declared his unhappiness about the incident and I have to say I sympathise totally with both manager and player.

It is not just the fact Agbonlahor got stick that is disappointing, it is the irony that he has played such a major part in getting them where they are in the Premier League.

He has looked a little jaded recently but he worked tirelessly in the early months of the season to try to keep Villa's bid for a Champions League place on track.

I think it is very harsh but is a symptom of the fact that when you give any football fans a taste of success they want more. It becomes like a drug to them and they become frustrated when things do not go as they wish.

O'Neill will be lifting Agbonlahor and his players after a disappointing spell. He has done a magnificent job at Villa Park and if there is a manager who can rally that team, it is Martin.

I would have to say, though, that I fancy Arsenal to clinch that fourth Champions League place now because they are starting to play well and get big players back.

Hyypia: 'Liverpool FC Still Believe The Title Can Be Ours'

Sami Hyypia believes Liverpool would have thrown in the towel if they didn’t believe they could still win the title.

The Anfield outfit breathed new life into the championship race with their emphatic 4-1 win at leaders Manchester United over the weekend.

Despite the defeat, United hold a healthy four-point advantage over both second-placed Chelsea and Liverpool with a game in hand.

With Rafael Benitez’s side having only nine Premier League games left, time is running out to overhaul the champions. But Hyypia is convinced nobody in the Liverpool squad will surrender their title dream until it is mathematically impossible.

“We needed to win this game and we did,” said the 35-year-old. “Everyone is happy with the result and I’m sure a few of the other teams will be happy too.

“But United are still four points ahead with a game in hand. It’s going to be difficult to think about the title but we’ll keep fighting until the end and see what happens.

“We can’t control how they do so we just need to concentrate on ourselves and hope they drop some points.

“If we didn’t believe then we might as well stop the season now. You have to believe you still have a chance. We have to do our best and win our games, and maybe Man United will drop points in some of their games and we can take advantage.”

Hyypia was a star performer on Saturday despite revealing he had just 60 seconds to prepare for Liverpool’s biggest game of the season.

An injury to Alvaro Arbeloa in the warm-up at Old Trafford has prompted Benitez into an emergency reshuffle with Jamie Carragher moving across to right-back and Hyypia coming in to partner Martin Skrtel at centre-back.

And Hyypia added: “Five minutes before kick-off I did not know that I would be playing but the manager made the decision that I would start one minute before we came out because Arbeloa had a problem with his hamstring.

“He felt it in the warm up and they said to me to be ready because maybe I would have to go on but I hadn’t really done a good warm up and I was wondering how the first few minutes would go.

“But I got into the game quite quickly and it was okay after that.”

Liverpool’s historic win at Old Trafford – their biggest win at United since 1936 – came just four days after Real Madrid were thrashed 4-0 in the Champions League.

And Hyypia admits he has not experienced as enjoyable a week since the FA Cup and Uefa Cup were won eight years ago.

“It’s been a good week,” said the veteran, who arrived at Anfield in 1999. “I can’t think of a week like this since in 2001 when we won a few cups in one week.”

Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso, whose calf problem ruled him out at the weekend, are both expected to be available for Sunday’s visit of Aston Villa.

Manchester United Are In Danger Of Blowing Title Race, Says Liverpool Legend Phil Thompson

Liverpool legend Phil Thompson believes that Manchester United are in real danger of blowing the title.

The former Anfield No.2 says Liverpool can still win the Premier League after their thumping win at Old Trafford showed United have "chinks in their armour".

Thompson insists United have no chance of winning the Quintuple and says Liverpool have an easier run-in, giving Rafa Benitez a genuine chance of clawing back Sir Alex Ferguson's lead at the top.

Thompson said: "It was comfortable. Sir Alex was right when he said it was not a 4-1 defeat, it wasn't - maybe it was only 3-1.

"Liverpool have had two wins over United and beaten Chelsea. It's been fantastic and now we just have to get our home form sorted out.

"But it gives not only Liverpool the chance to say 'we have got a small chance of winning the title' but everybody else as well because Manchester United look as though they are cracking up. You look at it from a professional point of view and it was the things that happened in the Inter Milan game.

"Defensively, United have been so strong but there were chinks in the armour in midweek against Inter and I think those frailties were there then and that's what sets doubts.

"That maybe leaves you thinking 'well, maybe these things add up' and Sir Alex will have been looking at that and Liverpool took full advantage.

"They were hot. There was a love - in with Fernando Torres.

"Manchester United are an excellent side but just looking at what's happened in the past week gives a glimmer of hope to, dare I say it, Chelsea, and definitely Liverpool.

"We've got Aston Villa next week then after that the last eight games are extremely kind to Liverpool.

"Yes, we've got Arsenal at home but it's fantastic and if things can just change a little, Liverpool can win their games and take advantage.

"But it's those home games against the lesser teams - Liverpool have got to take advantage.

"When the teams see the 'This is Anfield' sign, they should know that they are going to be put under pressure from the first second, let alone the first minute, and that's what they have got to do."

Thompson has called on Liverpool boss Benitez to sign a new contract after weeks of stalling and he claims that boost could push his former club over the finishing line.

Thompson told talk-SPORT: "I've said it for quite a while but it would be extremely difficult for United to win them all.

"I don't think you can win all five and that's not with my red nose on.

"It will be a tall order for Liverpool now but that's why they had to win at Old Trafford and it's given them a glimmer of hope.

Manchester United are still in the box seat and it's theirs to lose.

"But Rafa has had a fantastic week and wouldn't it be great if, seven days on from the win over Real Madrid, for him to sign his contract.

"I think and I hope that he will sign. But he should get it done and let common sense prevail.

"Yes, it's his contract but this is Liverpool Football Club and he needs to do it ASAP."

Spearing Set For Contract Talks

Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing is to hold discussions at Anfield regarding a contract extension, skysports.com understands.

The 20-year-old impressed as a second-half substitute in last week's thrashing of Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League, offering a sign of his potential.

And that form is thought to have made manager Rafa Benitez keen to secure Spearing's long-term future.

The youngster made his competitive first-team debut in December 2008, coming on as a substitute in a 3-1 Champions League win against PSV Eindhoven.

Spearing was the captain of the Liverpool Under-18 side who won the FA Youth Cup in 2007.

Lucas Ponders Liverpool Departure

Brazilian Lucas Leiva admits he might not be able to continue being a squad player at Liverpool as he wants his international place back.

The 22-year-old midfielder is very highly regarded in his homeland and already has three full caps to his name.

But his displays for Liverpool have not endeared him to the Anfield faithful and many do not consider him to be capable of competing with the likes of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano for a central midfield berth.

Whilst Rafa Benitez looks to have a great deal of faith in the former Gremio star, the player himself admits he cannot afford to be kicking his heels on the sidelines if he wants to cement his place in Dunga's Brazil squad.

"I think I have played a lot, but the competition for places here is very high," he told Folha online. "The situation doesn't really worry me, but my objective has always been to play in order to make sure I am back with the national side.

"Once the season is over, I will have to see what is the best option for me.

"It is the World Cup next year and I will have to push to get this chance and you have to be playing to get called up."

Lucas has seen himself drop out of Brazil squad and he admits he does not know why Dunga axed him.

"I can't really explain what happened, but Dunga makes his own decisions," he said. "I was in the squad in the last four World Cup qualifiers and played against Bolivia, when the team didn't play well.

"I believe that I'm part of a list of 30 or 40 players, but I'm out of the 22-men squad."

Liverpool's Adam Pepper Nets Xabi Alonso-Style Goal

Adam Pepper'S lob from the half-way line was only enough to earn Liverpool under-18s a point as they drew 2-2 with Blackburn Rovers at the Kirkby Academy on Saturday.

Captain Joe Kennedy had leveled for Liverpool level after Blackburn had taken the lead. Then 17-year-old midfielder Pepper put Hugh McAuley's side 2-1 ahead on 55 minutes with a Xabi Alonso-style effort that deserved to be a match-winning strike. Sadly Blackburn hit back to earn a point.

Blackburn took the lead on 35 minutes when Michael Hall fired in after a quick breakaway.

Three minutes after the break, though, Kennedy came in at the back post to head in the equaliser from Pepper's corner. And soon after McAuley's side took the lead when the Liverpool-born Pepper scored his superb effort to deceive the keeper with a lob from around 45 yards.

But on 64 minutes Rovers equalised when Tom Hitchcock pounced to score.

McAuley felt his side should have won, but he said: "It was a good game and a good performance. It was a decent game of football because I thought they played well also.

"We were 1-0 down but came back and led. The goals were two individual mistakes and that cost us the result. It was a game we should have won. We had a lot of the possession and created some decent chances."

Liverpool will look to return to winning ways at Leeds United this Saturday (kick-off 11am) and will play Birmingham City in the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup. Birmingham went through courtesy of a 1-0 win at St Andrews last night.

The first leg will be at Anfield with the second leg in Birmingham, but not dates have been finalised.

The other two-legged semi-final will see holders Manchester City take on six-time winners Arsenal, with the first leg at Eastlands tomorrow.

LIVERPOOL UNDER-18s: Hansen; Scott, Wisdom, Kennedy, Buchtmann; Amoo, Roberts, Pepper, Ince; Eccleston, Clair (Robinson 66). Subs: Cooper, Chamberlain, Roberts-Nurse.