Wednesday, March 18, 2009

We’re Up For Aston Villa Test - Liverpool FC Star Dirk Kuyt

Dirk Kuyt believes Liverpool are ready to turn up the heat in the race for the Premier League title.

Saturday’s stunning 4-1 victory over Manchester United cut the gap at the top to four points and followed hot on the heels of the Reds’ comprehensive demolition of Real Madrid.

The Dutchman admits confidence is sky high in Rafa Benitez’s squad as they prepare for this Sunday’s clash with Aston Villa at Anfield.

And Kuyt insists the Reds now have the belief to go on and win their remaining nine league games.

“The result was a huge lift to the players,” Kuyt said.

“It will still be very difficult to catch United. If they win their game in hand it’ll be seven points, but all we can do is win our own games.

“We are very proud of beating Real Madrid twice and also beating Manchester United away.

“It was an incredible week. We got two very good results against two of the best teams in Europe.

“We enjoyed it and hopefully we can take this form into our next game against Aston Villa.”

United return to action at Fulham on Saturday and Kuyt believes they could find it tough to get over their mauling at the hands of the Reds.

“They have to struggle now and hopefully they will do after that result,” he added.

“We beat them 4-1 so they’re not so happy – let’s hope they take this into the next game.”

Lucas Rejects Reds Rumours

Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva has dismissed talk that he was considering his future at the club.

Reports emanating from his native Brazil suggested Lucas could seek a move away from Liverpool if he is not playing on a regular basis at Anfield.

However, the Brazilian international has moved to clear up the rumours and insists he is happy at Liverpool.

"I've got three more years to go on my contract and I'm really happy here," Lucas told the club's official website. "My girlfriend is happy in Liverpool and everybody at the club is supporting me. I have never thought about leaving."

Lucas is determined to prove himself at Anfield after coming under fire from some fans this season.

The 22-year-old enjoyed arguably his best performance of the campaign as he replaced Xabi Alonso in midfield for Saturday's 4-1 success over Manchester United.

Lucas believes he is improving as a player and he is hoping to earn the trust of every Liverpool fan by establishing himself as a key player in Rafa Benitez's side.

"I think I'm improving and I have more confidence every day," added Lucas. "The team is playing well too, which also helps. Everyone is on fire - all these things help me.

"I don't think about what some of the people say. I have to concentrate on the team. Rafa always gives me a lot of confidence.

"I know some people don't trust me yet but I will try to show them my quality, and I think I've now started doing that.

"When you have games in a row you get more confidence. You get some rhythm. It is more difficult when you play just one or two games a month but I have to work hard, try to improve every day and try to get to my best level."

Why Mascherano, Not Torres, Is The Real Benítez Masterstroke

Not often does the person sitting at home see more than the spectator in the stadium, but it happened on Saturday when Liverpool beat Manchester United at Old Trafford. A couple of minutes before the kick-off, while the television camera was lingering on the teams lining up in the tunnel, something happened that gave a fascinating portent of the upset to come.

We had just learnt that Alvaro Arbeloa, the Liverpool right-back, had tweaked a hamstring during the warm-up and would not be playing. Rafael Benítez had reconfigured his defence, moving Jamie Carragher from centre-back to fill Arbeloa's position and bringing in Sami Hyypia alongside Martin Skrtel. In the light of the lengthy preparations that would have gone into a fixture of this magnitude – not the match of the season, perhaps, but a very important one to both sides – this represented a serious adjustment.

What the roving camera in the Old Trafford tunnel showed was a little huddle at the rear of the Liverpool line. At the centre of a group of defenders Javier Mascherano was delivering an impassioned speech, complete with heated gesticulations. It was the sort of thing one might have expected to see from Steven Gerrard, the team captain, or from the vastly experienced Hyypia, his predecessor. Two hours later, however, Mascherano had given a display confirming my belief that he rivals Claude Makelele as the best exponent in modern British football of an art to which, even now, too little importance is attached.

Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who ran the United defence ragged and scored a goal apiece, won the battle of the headlines. But it was Mascherano who carved out the space and time in which they could play, as he had done the previous Tuesday night when Liverpool produced the second of their great performances of the season in routing Real Madrid. The first of those great performances came at Stamford Bridge in October, when Liverpool's midfield squeezed the life out of Chelsea and ended the west London club's run of 86 home league matches without defeat. The third came, of course, on Saturday – when, significantly, United took the field without an equivalent player. Mascherano's excellence was a thread running through all three games.

I first saw him in 2004, when he was 20 years old and winning an Olympic gold medal with an Argentina squad including Carlos Tevez and Gabriel Heinze. No one in Britain pays much attention to the Olympic football tournament, for the simple and patently inadequate reason that there are no British representatives. Other nations, however, take it extremely seriously, making it a good opportunity to see young talent on the way up. In Athens, Mascherano, who had made his senior debut for River Plate less than a year earlier, sat in front of the defence and controlled the traffic with a calmness and technical excellence reminiscent of Barcelona's Pep Guardiola.

Four years later in Beijing he was doing much the same thing, this time as an over-age player in a squad including Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero. The impression was the same, and so was the result: another gold medal for a man who by this time had moved from River Plate to Corinthians in Brazil and thence to England, first to West Ham – where Alan Pardew saw fit to give him only seven appearances in half a season – before finding a home at Anfield.

Most people would probably claim that Torres is the best of Benítez's many expensive acquisitions, and the coltish striker is undoubtedly a wonderfully compelling performer who adds a sense of possibility to any match in which he takes part. But my choice would be Mascherano, a player who rose above a set of tangled transfer dealings and above the inability of his first English club to understand exactly what it is that he adds to a team. Benítez could see what Pardew failed to spot, and spent £18m on a player whose contribution is proving to be priceless.

In the absence of Xabi Alonso, his usual partner at the base of midfield, Mascherano's tackles, his interceptions and his distribution laid the solid foundation for Saturday's tumultuous victory. His competitiveness and his footballing intelligence were on full view as he fetched and harried with marvellous humility and unfailing relevance. Nobody writes poems about such players, but they should.

Rotating Rafa Will Pay For Not Running Liverpool The Bob Paisley Way

Thirty years ago, when Liverpool won their 11th league title under Bob Paisley, the most successful manager in the history of the club, they achieved it using 15 players.

Four of them (Ray Clemence, Kenny Dalglish, Ray Kennedy and Phil Neal) played all 42 league games in a season when they lost just four times in the league, scoring 85 goals and conceding just 16.

Of those 15 players, some barely got a look in as Paisley sent out the same team, winning the league in old money by eight points.

Super sub David Fairclough made just 10 appearances and Sammy Lee, now back at Anfield as a coach, two.

Squad rotation had not been invented back then and the idea of Liverpool employing nearly 70 professional footballers in order to choose seven for the substitutes' bench would have been absurd.

Despite an early exit from the European Cup (knocked out by Nottingham Forest in the first round), they played 54 competitive matches (42 in the league, seven in the FA Cup, two in the European Super Cup, and one in the League Cup) using only 16 players. Of those, Sammy Lee and goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic made just one start each.

To put Liverpool's achievements under Paisley into context, a season when they also lost an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United after a replay, the maximum number of games they will play this season is 58.

There was no such thing as fixture congestion, with five friendlies arranged during the season against Saudi Arabia (where Dalglish scored the only goal), Swansea City at Anfield, Werder Bremen, Bangor and Borussia Moenchengladbach.

When Paisley retired in 1983, he had captured six league titles and three European Cups, boasting a 56 per cent win record that was the envy of modern football.

Today, Rafael Benitez complains that Liverpool do not have the resources to compete with Manchester United at the top of the Barclays Premier League.

Why then, does he argue for 11 substitutes instead of seven, something that will only benefit the club with the biggest pull.

According to Benitez, who incidentally has the same 56 per cent win record at Anfield as Paisley, Liverpool's best XI can match United's best XI, a statement given credence with their fabulous 4-1 victory at Old Trafford last Saturday.

One of the problems is that Benitez rarely plays his best team, making 90 changes in just 29 league games this season. He will inevitably reach a century before the close of play.

Since he arrived in English football, Benitez has used 30 players in the Premier League in 2004/05, 24 in 2005/06, 29 in 2006/07, 28 in 2007/08 and 23 so far this season.

He has kept the same team just twice in the league this season, for games against Stoke and Everton in January, just as Liverpool's title challenge was beginning to fade.

Hardly the model of consistency.

The majority of the 60 odd professionals will never get a look in at Anfield, not nearly good enough for a team still waiting for their first league title since 1990.

Benitez complains that they cannot compete with United, the team who spent £30m on Dimitar Berbatov last summer as Sir Alex Ferguson made improvements to a team who were already champions at home and abroad.

Those constraints did not stop Benitez spending £24m on Fernando Torres, hailed the best striker in the world by Steven Gerrard last weekend, or £17m on Robbie Keane.

United spent £12.5m on Cristiano Ronaldo when they signed him from Sporting and he went on to become the best player in the world.

In previous eras, under the old boot room mentality of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Dalglish, the league was always the bread and butter, with the belief that if they are consistent over 42 matches other trophies will follow.

When Dalglish was asked why Liverpool were so consistent, he replied: 'Because we are playing better more often.'

They were unstoppable. One impressive win in the Premier League against United last weekend and now there is talk again of Liverpool catching them.

Before last week's game, Gerrard claimed that if he only won one more trophy in his career, then he would willingly sacrifice all his medals for the league title.

Jamie Carragher, scandalously sent to play right back at times this season because of injuries, speaks in similar vein: 'It is time we won it.'

That will never happen, not while Benitez continues to change his team according to the opposition. There is no continuity at the club, with frequent changes another accident waiting to happen, as they were when they lost 2-0 at Middlesbrough on Feb 28.

In times gone by, Liverpool allowed the opposition to worry about them, picking the strongest available team and winning league titles year in, year out. Under Benitez that is no longer the case.

It has certainly been a good week for Liverpool's manager, earning the right to have another crack at it again next season following the 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the Champions League and a spectacular win at Old Trafford.

They have a world class training facility at Melwood, a trophy cabinet that is envy of most clubs in Europe and a team that is capable of winning big matches.

United have the greater financial resources, but the traditions and history of Liverpool should still count for something.

Sir Dave Richards Backs Liverpool's Plea On Hillsborough Anniversary

Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards has thrown his weight behind Liverpool's call to avoid playing a Champions League game on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

Richards, who was at the ill-fated semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday's ground on April 15, 1989, presented a simple but compelling case as to why Liverpool should be allowed to concentrate on commemoration rather than competing for a semi-final berth.

"Liverpool shouldn't be playing on the anniversary of Hillsborough out of respect, more than anything, for the people that died, and we should keep that respect in football," said the former Wednesday chairman.

"Being involved with Sheffield Wednesday for a lot of years it has been a big thing in my life. I was at the game and I don't think that anyone will ever forget what happened that day.

"I was on the pitch. I had two doctors as my guests at the game and we all went down on to the pitch. It was very difficult and it took a long time to get over what happened but that tragedy drove me on to try to make things better."

He added: "I was an ordinary fan and came on to the Wednesday board the following June. It was a turning point for me because I became involved in football because of the Hillsborough disaster.

"It was a major turning point for the game in general thanks to Lord Justice Taylor with all-seater stadia and the way we come in and go out of grounds. It's a very significant date. A lot of great things have happened since and we have to do what we can to remember that."

The draw for the Champions League quarter-finals and semi-finals will be staged in Nyon, Switzerland, on Friday, and the presence of four English clubs in the last eight is the source of immense pride for Richards.

"I feel terrifically proud because I'm also chairman of the European leagues," said Richards. "It's a fantastic achievement and we do take a bit of stick about our teams dominating Europe but it's a terrific accolade for English football."

Richards spoke after handing over a £30,000 donation of behalf of the Premier League to the Sunderland AFC Foundation for their work at the 'Barclays Spaces for Sport' site, the Washington Millennium Centre, Tyne and Wear.

Andrea Dossena: I Will Discuss My Liverpool Future With Benitez

Andrea Dossena has certainly been a positive influence for Liverpool. In two substitute appearances against Real Madrid and Manchester United, he scored two well-taken goals, making his presence known at the club after an anonymous beginning to his career in England following his transfer from Udinese.

"After a difficult start, now I am doing well here,” he told UEFA’s official website. “I will discuss my future with [manager Rafael] Benitez and with the club - then we'll see.

"My goals in Madrid and Manchester? They are just rewards for the sacrifices I made during a difficult first season. It has not been easy to get into this team. However, I always trained hard, even in difficult times."

Despite his willingness to stay on with the Reds, the 27-year-old would not rule out a return to Italy.

"I have a three year contract and I'm fine,” he said. “Of course, I think about my own country, you can never say never.”

Dossena will be hoping for a call from Italian national team coach Marcello Lippi as he aims to be included in the squad for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers at the end of the month.

Liverpool & Manchester City Eyeing Chelsea's Michael Mancienne

Premier League duo Liverpool and Manchester City are keeping tabs on Michael Mancienne's situation at Chelsea, according to a report in The Times.

The versatile defender's contract is set to expire at the end of next season but it is suggested that he may be open to a move away from the west London club this summer.

Although the England Under-21 international is due to begin contract negotiations with the Blues, it is thought that he is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of first-team playing time.

Therefore, the 6ft defender might take notice of any offers from Liverpool or Manchester City at the end of this season should they promise to give him regular first-team football.

Having returned to Chelsea from a loan spell at Championship leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he made 10 appearances earlier this season, Mancienne has played four times for the Blues since February 14.

Torres Has Pushed Gerrard To Another Level

Former Liverpool player Gary McAllister has backed Zinedine Zidane’s claims that Steven Gerrard is the best player in the world at the moment.

The Scot, who won the UEFA Cup, League Cup and FA Cup the sensational 2000-2001 season made clear his admiration for the England international and hinted that the arrival of Fernando Torres has pushed Gerrard to become an even better midfielder.

Speaking to, McAllister stated, “Someone like Lionel Messi at Barcelona can put together wonderful pieces of skill, there is no doubt about that.

"Steven is a different type of player, but I don't think there is anyone who influences their team more than him. Or the players around him for that matter.

"He drives the team forward and you've seen that again with his performances over the last week. He has been phenomenal. I read what Zidane said and it's hard to disagree.

"There is still plenty of improving in him because he never settles for what he has got. He's not 30 for another year and a bit and, with the hunger he has, he will keep pushing himself – and Liverpool."

"I definitely think the arrival of Fernando Torres at Liverpool has elevated Steven's game again.

"Their partnership and understanding has been there from day one and you can tell by watching them when they are on the pitch together just how much they like partnering each other. A lot of the time their first instinct is to look for one another and that underlines the trust they have.

"The phrase 'world class' is bandied about too often nowadays, but you would have to say those two are.

"Steven has been given licence to roam but his best work still comes from central areas. There was the debate about where he was playing a couple of seasons ago and people don't mention it now.

"But the penalty he won at Old Trafford came because he broke forward from a central role, not from out wide."

Keane: Rafa And I Did Not Suit Each Other

Tottenham striker Robbie Keane reckons he would have become a better player at Liverpool if Rafael Benitez had not been the manager.

Keane endured a torrid time on Merseyside following his switch from Spurs last summer and moved back to White Hart Lane after finding himself surplus to requirements at Anfield.

Keane regularly found himself on the substitute’s bench and failed to score enough to justify claims for a first team place under Benitez.

He eventually re-joined Tottenham in the January transfer window and has scored two goals in his last three games for Harry Redknapp's side.

And Keane reckons he would have enjoyed a better time at Liverpool if there was a different manager in charge.

"I do believe with a different manager it would have worked for me," Keane told Icon magazine.

"Different managers have different methods and some have different ideas than those you are used to or believe in."

"People have their own opinions of Benitez. I have nothing against him and will leave people to make their own minds up about him.

"When you've been around for a while as a player, all you want is a bit of respect and to be treated the way you feel you deserve to be."

Liverpool Begin Hunt For Rick Parry's Successor

Several firms will be consulted including Paul Nolan, whose company identified new Football Association chief executive Ian Watmore, and Simon Cummins, of Odgers, who has been involved in several high-profile sports appointments in recent years.

Gillett's hands-on involvement in the process is a clear indication that, like co-owner Tom Hicks, he is planning to remain involved with the club in the medium term.

Both owners have been involved in discussions with potential investors in recent months but the depth of the recession has prompted a growing acknowledgement that an imminent sale of either man's stake in the club is unlikely.

Gillett rejected a recent attempt by Kuwaiti investors the Al-Kharafi family to secure his stake at a knock-down price, and he is understood to remain committed to the club. Relations with Hicks are also said to have improved significantly in recent weeks and the pair will work together on the chief executive appointment.

With a measure of equilibrium in the boardroom, the most destabilising influence at Anfield is Rafael Benitez and his failure to sign a new contract. The owners have met all his demands and the contract has been redrafted at least eight times, but still he refuses to sign.

With every day that passes the suspicion grows that the Spaniard is stalling in anticipation of an offer from Real Madrid, and will use the uncertainty over Liverpool's future ownership as an excuse should he decide to walk.