Saturday, March 21, 2009

O'Neill Circles The Wagons Around Barry With Big Prize Slipping Away

Martin O’Neill is ready to fight Rafa Benitez over Gareth Barry if Liverpool renew their £18million interest in him this summer.

Benitez had to pull out of the deal seven months ago when he could not raise the money but now, with a new lengthy contract and £30m to spend, he is expected to be back. If Barry stars tomorrow at Anfield and Villa end Liverpool’s sensational run of results, it will only encourage Benitez to make another bid.

But O’Neill will not give up without a fight. If Villa can win a place in the Champions League next season – another reason why they need to end a run of four Premier League games without a victory – O’Neill believes Barry will stay. But he has not given up hope of Barry hanging around even if Villa only have the Premier League to play in.

“Benitez could be back for Barry now it looks as if he’s got some money to spend,” said O’Neill. “I don’t know what Liverpool are thinking and it’s not my concern at this minute.

“In the summertime, if we qualify for the Champions League, then there would be a decent chance Barry would stay. That’s what he has said.

My stance has not changed. If we didn’t make it, the chance for him to go and play in the Champions League is not something I would begrudge him.

“Liverpool might come in: Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea – I assume Barry would want to stay in this country. Only four clubs can play in the Champions League, so there’s a limited choice.” Barry has enjoyed his football this season and has won the fans over again after angering them by saying he wanted to go to Liverpool. And O’Neill admitted: “We’d love to keep Barry at Aston Villa.”

Steven Gerrard against Barry in midfield could be key to whether Liverpool can follow on from their four-goal wins over Real Madrid and Manchester United. “Barry is a very capable player,” said O’Neill. “We are capable of going to Anfield and getting a result.”

O’Neill fell out with Benitez when he attempted to buy Barry and although he says the row is forgotten, the relationship is still cool. “I’ve got the utmost respect for the coaches who are doing it,” said O’Neill.

“Benitez has won the Champions League with Liverpool and done exceptionally well with Valencia. I’m not constantly on the phone to Benitez, but the relationship is fine. It’s gone.”

But not totally forgotten, though? “You may be right.”

Aston Villa Defender Curties Davies Hails Jamie Carragher

Ahead of this weekend's Merseyside tussle with the Reds, the Villa centre-back has nothing but praise for one of his opponents.

Aston Villa centre-back Curtis Davies has today spoken of his admiration for Liverpool's iconic stalwart Jamie Carragher, whom the Villan feels offers real inspiration to younger players for his hard work and inspirational attitude to the game.

"He started as a full-back and played for Liverpool very early on his career, which was a massive achievement," Davies told The Birmingham Post.

"As he’s got older, he’s moved to centre-half. A lot of people say that small centre-halves are likely to struggle in the top flight, but he’s one of the toughest in the business.

"He’s like a rash. When someone takes him on one-on-one, there’s no-one better. When he wins the ball, he doesn’t just get rid of it either. He uses it sensibly."

And Carragher's devotion to the Reds is also something Davies finds worthy of comment, believing that his local 'scouse' roots are a central driving force behind the Liverpool man's high quality performances.

"A thing that comes across every week too is that it means a lot to him to play for his home-town club," Davies added.

"He is very passionate. I think that’s the way they are bred in Liverpool. They are football-crazy and kids love playing on the streets so I am sure it was a dream come true for Jamie to play for Liverpool."

Martin Skrtel Proving To Be Another Fine Rafael Benitez Signing

It is business as usual at Liverpool's Melwood training ground. Jamie Carragher breezes in to have a quick word with Ann, the receptionist, as Sammy Lee busies himself at the top of the stairs.

Meanwhile, Brian Hall, a former player from the 1970s but now the club's PR manager, accompanies a small group having a look around.

Nothing untoward here. Nothing to suggest Liverpool had just enjoyed a fantastic week, one that might well affect the next few years.

On the pitch, Real Madrid had been slain in the Champions League before Manchester United met a similar fate on their own patch. A few days later we hear Rafael Benitez has finally signed a new contract to end all the speculation.

It would be difficult to imagine a more healthy set of circumstances just as the season approaches its thrilling climax. Typically, though, no one was getting overexcited in this part of Liverpool, where counting chickens has never caught on.

The players, for instance, had come in earlier than usual to undergo a few tests with the medical staff. Gauging body fat was one, which was never likely to trouble the club's Slovakian centre-half, Martin Skrtel, who comes around the corner looking super-fit.

"It has been one of the best weeks in my career," Skrtel says straight away, his close-cropped hair topping a powerful 6ft 4in frame. "They were fantastic results for everyone. Before the game at Old Trafford the manager and all the players said this was our last chance to stay in the title race. We knew we had to win and I think we were better than them."

In the wake of those stirring results, much has been said – and rightly so – about the indispensable influence of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Skrtel, however, has also played a key part by forging a strong bond with Jamie Carragher.

In fact, with Daniel Agger injured and Sami Hyypia used more sparingly these days, the 24-year-old has impressively answered the call since returning from a bad knee injury at the end of December. Strong, aggressive, good in the air, the lad looks excellent value for the £6.5 million Benitez paid Zenit St Petersburg in January 2008. Not surprisingly, Skrtel is pleased his manager has committed to a new contract.

"Rafa signing is perfect for us, perfect for the club," he says. "It's good for everyone that we know he's staying for a long time now. He brought me here and he has improved me as a player. When I arrived I hadn't been playing because it was the winter break in Russia, but Rafa gave me a chance straight away and since then he has brought my level up a lot."

Yet Skrtel rolls his eyes and smiles when I mention his full debut, a topsy-turvy FA Cup tie against Havant and Waterlooville. The new boy, in truth, had a bit of a nightmare.

"No, it wasn't a good game for me. It was my first game at Anfield and I was a little nervous. But Rafa kept with me for the next game against Sunderland and from then on it got better and better."

Skrtel was brought up in Raztocno, a small village two hours outside the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. Useful at ice hockey as a boy, he concentrated on football from the age of 10, though he took a few years to settle down in defence.

"I always played left wing or as a striker. But when I was 16 and playing for the Slovakia youth team our centre-backs were injured and suspended, so the manager asked if I could play there. I said I would try but I'd never done it before."

He was obviously pretty good because after a spell at Trencin, Skrtel left home at 19 to join Zenit. "That was very hard," he confirms. "Going from a small club and small city like Trencin to a big city like St Petersburg where five million people live – everything was new for me. I had to learn a lot of new things – a new language, a new style of football. Everything was totally different to Slovakia."

After falling out with his first manager, Dick Advocaat arrived to lend some belief and the youngster's performances soon started turning heads. Eventually, a host of clubs were keen on a player seemingly ready-made for the tough environs of the Premier League.

"I'm a centre-back so I have to be strong – win every header and tackle if I can. That's how I like it. When I was younger I'd pick up a lot of yellow cards but in our first meeting Rafa told me to be careful in England because it is easy to get booked. Now I try to play strong but without the fouls."

It is a successful approach that is going to be crucial over the next few weeks, seeing as Aston Villa's visit tomorrow kicks off a decisive run encompassing yet another Champions League clash with Chelsea.

Next Saturday, what's more, Skrtel lines up against England in a Wembley friendly, though the serious stuff starts the following Wednesday for a country topping its World Cup qualifying group.

"We play the Czech Republic," he explains. "That is a huge game. It's like Liverpool v Everton – a real derby. A lot of Czech people think they are better than us Slovaks. Before Czechoslovakia was broken up, there were 10 million Czechs in the country and only five million of us. Because of that they thought they were better."

Sounds a proper grudge match. Skrtel certainly isn't short of challenges just now.

Benitez Sums Don't Add Up, Says Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson underlined the way that Rafael Benitez has emerged as a potential nemesis yesterday by pulling apart the Spaniard's characterisation of Liverpool as a "little club" and accusing him of flawed mathematics in his claim that United had spent £100m more on players in his era at Anfield. "I was amazed when I saw that," Ferguson said of Benitez's claims, made after Liverpool's 4-1 win at Old Trafford. "I talked to some of the people in the sports technology department and said: 'Check that out'. I am sure I have not spent that much."

Ferguson has a point. The substantial question mark about Benitez surrounds his turnover of players and he has actually spent over £170m gross on players since he arrived at Anfield in 2004, against the £164m Ferguson has laid out on his 18 acquisitions.
Cutting straight to a perceived weakness in Benitez, he ridiculed the number of players the Spaniard has brought in – "The most amazing fact about them is that they have used 60 players in the reserves this season," he said and threw in another grenade on the issue of Benitez's foreign contingent and the absence of players developed by Liverpool's Academy.

"We have signed 18 players in the last five years. Eight of them are young players," Ferguson said. "We like to do develop our young players but other clubs are maybe different. Rafa has a different philosophy from me about producing players. But I worked out that in the last five years Liverpool have spent £24m more than Manchester United." Ferguson's attempt to deconstruct the idea of Liverpool as the poor relation included this prediction: "You will see Rafa produce an incredible spending spree – that is an absolute certainty now he has signed a new contract. They talk of a recession but there will not be one at Liverpool. He is well ahead of us in spending in the last five years. You can expect a big spending splurge at Liverpool."

That seems highly unlikely. Liverpool's owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks face uncertainty over whether the loans they took out to buy the club will be refinanced in July. Benitez might have spent more to date but the events of last summer – United laying out £30m on Dimitar Berbatov without needing to recoup cash from players' sales; Benitez having to offload players like John Arne Riise and Peter Crouch in order to purchase Robbie Keane – showed a gulf. It may be much the same this summer.

Benítez Quick To Give Liverpool Underdog Tag Against Chelsea

The unstinting wave of optimism that has surrounded Liverpool over the past two weeks seemed to have been turned back yesterday following a Champions League quarter-final draw which left Rafael Benítez struggling to find a positive.

For a fifth successive campaign, Liverpool will meet Chelsea and, despite completing a Premier League double over their rivals this season and the recent stunning successes against Real Madrid and Manchester United, Benítez declared his team distant underdogs.

Not even the recent announcement of the Spaniard's new contract, and his pledge yesterday that he is committed to the club whatever the status of their ownership, could improve Benítez's mood following the news that he must once more face Chelsea. "I don't see any advantage and I don't think we are favourites," said the Liverpool manager after learning that his side would have to play the first leg at home against the team that eliminated them at the semi-final stage last season.

"Chelsea are a good team and they are in form at the moment. For me it is always worse when you play the first leg at home and then the second leg away."

Although he is unwilling to admit it publicly, Benítez must be growing a little weary of facing Chelsea. Next month's two-leg contest will be the 23rd and 24th occasions the teams have met since the Spaniard breezed into Anfield in the ­summer of 2004.

The two most recent meetings have ended in 1-0 and 2-0 victories for Benítez on the Premier League stage, results he insists will have as little bearing on the European tie as the result of last season's semi-final when Chelsea won 4-3 on aggregate. "It's a different season and some of the players are different," he said. "It will be similar in terms of the rivalry between both teams – but totally different."

Before the first leg Anfield on 8 April, Liverpool face difficult league games, at Aston Villa on Sunday and Fulham, as they look to keep alive their faint title aspirations.

At least with his contract saga resolved, Benítez is hoping the feel-good factor around Anfield following recent events, on and off the field, continues on the pitch against Villa, with the manager moving quickly to quash rumours that his new five-year contract includes a get-out clause should Liverpool's co-owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, leave.

"That's not the case. I have signed because I am 100% committed to Liverpool," Benítez said. "Both have told me that they want the best for the club. For me, that's enough.

"I have signed the contract because I know we can improve. I will keep contact and have a very good relationship with the owners. It doesn't matter who is there because I will try to do my best to control the football operation."

Meanwhile, there were sighs of relief at Anfield and at Uefa's headquarters in Nyon after the logistics of the draw made it possible for Liverpool to avoid having to play on 15 April, the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. The Liverpool officials, players and fans had appealed to Uefa to avoid scheduling their Champions League quarter-final on that date.

Uefa president Michel Platini had been wary of creating a precedent by guaranteeing Liverpool that their tie would not be scheduled for April 15 but behind the scenes officials promised to do all they could to avoid the possibility. Liverpool chief executive, Rick Parry, said: "It's massively important and I'm delighted that's the outcome. It's a huge issue for the club and the fans and I'm pleased Uefa has recognised that."There had been concern at the prospect of a minority of fans engaging in unsavoury chanting if Manchester United and Liverpool were to meet around the time of the anniversary.

And while unpleasant Hillsborough-related chants have also been heard at Stamford Bridge on odd occasions during the many recent meetings of the teams, Parry said he was confident it would not be a problem when the two teams played on 14 April.

"I'm certainly hoping that's not going to be an issue," he said. "The key for us was the date and that's a good outcome."

Rafael Benitez Looks To See Off Chelsea Again

There are two sides to Rafael Benítez: the one that still seems to have trouble motivating his players for matches against lowly teams such as Stoke City and Middlesbrough, and the one seen yesterday.

Benítez momentarily let slip during a lengthy discourse that the Champions League was the “most important” trophy in his eyes, but while that may frustrate some at the club for whom the Barclays Premier League title remains the most precious prize, one can hardly criticise the Liverpool manager for the natural affinity he has with European football’s premier club competition.

Benítez has the kind of authority in the Champions League that Sir Alex Ferguson, his Manchester United counterpart, has established in the Premier League and as he looked ahead to a quarter-final against Chelsea next month that will bring the teams together for an unprecedented fifth successive season in Europe — Juventus and Deportivo La Coruña met four times between 2001 and 2004 — the air of calm surrounding the Spaniard was pointed.

It was almost easy to forget for a moment that Liverpool have a crucial league game at home to Aston Villa tomorrow, when the Merseyside club will hope to maintain the pressure on United, the leaders, after their remarkable 4-1 win at Old Trafford last weekend, but Benítez was far more comfortable and confident discussing Chelsea than Villa, which might help to explain why his team often take their eye off the ball domestically but never in Europe.

Chelsea finally exacted revenge on Liverpool last season for two previous defeats at the semi-final stage in 2005 and 2007, a 4-3 aggregate success enough to secure them a place in the final against United in Moscow, but Benítez dismissed claims that that result could hand Guus Hiddink’s team a psychological advantage.

He also brushed off suggestions that the first leg being at Anfield on April 8 and the second leg at Stamford Bridge six days later plays into Chelsea’s hands. Nor does it matter that he is coming up against Hiddink, who has won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven. When it comes to Europe, Benítez has absolute faith in his abilities and those of his team, and while he did not say it, he knows that Chelsea will be the more fearful.

“The league depends on United — it will be difficult but not impossible [to win] — but to win the Champions League again would be massive,” Benítez said. “It means a lot to win trophies but maybe to win the Champions League is the most important.

“I don’t think we are favourites. I don’t see either club having an advantage. Chelsea are a very good team that are in form again and it will be tough for both teams. They are playing with more confidence [under Hiddink].

“The Champions League is in our own hands. It depends on us. That’s a massive difference to the league situation, but it will still be very difficult. You can’t change the draw now, but our side of it is more difficult. If we get through, Barcelona or Bayern Munich will be difficult and then there’s the final itself, but do I want to be in the same situation in the next five years? If we keep playing them in the final stages of the Champions League, then I will be happy, as it means we have reached that far.”

Having finally ended speculation about his future by signing a new five-year contract this week, Benítez is clearly looking to the long term. One of the sticking points had been his demand for Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., the Liverpool owners, to provide him with guarantees about the future ownership of the club, but while they were unable to do that, the Spaniard is adamant that there is no clause in his contract that would allow him to leave if the owners changed.

“There’s no get-out clause,” he said. “I’ve signed the contract because I am 100 per cent committed to the club. Both owners signed my contract and said they want the best for the club and for me that’s enough.” Chelsea beware.

Rafa Benitez: Manchester United Are Favourites For Europe

Much has been made about Chelsea and Liverpool's re-acquaintance in the Champions League - their fifth successive meeting in continental competition - but Reds boss Rafael Benitez was keen to stress that the draw could have been kinder to them.

The Spaniard also offered clarity over his new long-term Liverpool contract.

"It will be difficult for both sides," Benitez said at a press conference today. "We've played each other so many times, sometimes its advantageous, sometimes its not.

"Villarreal, and FC Porto are good sides, but to draw against a team like Chelsea is tough," he warned. "Clearly Manchester United are favourites."

Regarding the news that UEFA are set to acquiesce to Liverpool's request of moving a Champions League tie so that it will not lie on their 20th anniversary commemorations, Benitez added, "We were trying to avoid the Hillsborough date for what it means for the club and the fans, but we are pleased with the decision."

He also clarified the complexities over his new contract, "I think every press conference for the past three months I have answered a question about this. There were uncertainties to sort out, those were the key, we had to clarify these.

"I am pleased with the answer. I have the same control that I had before with regard to transfers," he said.

Liverpool Co-Owner Tom Hicks Insists New Anfield Will Happen

Liverpool FC co-owner Tom Hicks insists new Anfield will happen – telling fans “we’re going to build that sucker”.

But the Texan was unable to say exactly when the new stadium would be ready.

He blamed delays on the closure of the world’s money markets.

The Americans need £400 million even to restart building work in Stanley Park.

Hicks has hinted at his ability to get cash together – claiming he will be at Liverpool for as long as Rafa Benitez.

The Spaniard’s new five-year deal keeps him at the club until 2014.

But for Hicks and co-owner George Gillett to stay in control they must re-finance £300m of loans in July.

Hicks could replace Gillett, thought to want to sell his stake, although he hinted his fellow American could stay.

He insisted the world’s financial markets would reopen and the pair would get the money.

“The stadium is very much something we plan to do. It is not being mothballed, it is going to happen.”

But fan groups have hit out at “more broken promises” from Hicks and Gillett, calling them “naive” to think Benitez’s new deal will win over supporters.

Last August the club said the new 60,000 stadium would be ready for 2012/13 – a year delay on previous dates.

When Hicks and George Gillett bought Liverpool two years ago they promised to start work within 60 days.

The club and the city council are yet to sign an agreed 999-year lease on Stanley Park.

Council leader Warren Bradley has warned the club to “sort itself out” or face losing the right to build on the park.

Chair of Liverpool’s Supporters’ Club Richard Pedder said: “I don’t believe a word Hicks says. He won’t be here as long as Rafa.

“I believe he’ll be forced to leave in July and it will be a hat-trick of success for Liverpool FC.”

Anfield councillor Brian Dowling said: “The people of Anfield deserve better than what they’re getting.

“Hicks living in his big house in America has no idea what it’s like for people in Anfield.”

Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks Never Doubted Rafael Benitez Would Stay

Tom Hicks, the Liverpool co-owner, says he never doubted that Rafael Benitez would commit his long-term future to the club.

The Liverpool manager ended months of bitter wrangling over his future by signing a new contract last night that will keep him at Anfield until 2014. Internal politics had led to doubts about his position at the club but Hicks believes there was never a real possibility of him leaving.

"I was never worried we would lose Rafa Benitez," Hicks said. Hicks added: "These things are complicated. A five-year contract is complicated, so I'm just relieved we finally got it done. Rafa has such a passion for Liverpool. I looked him in the eyes and I knew he'd sign.

"From the supporters' point of view, to have it done on top of such a great week on the pitch is great."

Hicks played down long-running reports that the delay was down to a power struggle - and in particular wrangling over transfer policy.

"That was in the media but it was never really true," he said. "I sat down with Rafa a couple of months ago and he made it very clear that he knows a manager can't have control over transfer budget.

"He has had his frustrations over the last five years and those are well chronicled but he will make the recommendations about which players we sign and the new CEO, the owners and the board will make the final financial commitment. And that is the way it needs to be."

The American is happy with the Reds' improvement in the Premier League and added: "We have a chance to catch Manchester United. It's not a great chance, but it's a chance."

Hicks said the club would continue to back Benitez in the transfer market. "We have signed Martin Skrtel, Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Yossi Benayoun. We even signed Robbie Keane. But that didn't work out."

"I sat down with Rafa a couple of months ago and he made it very clear that he knows a manager can't have control over transfer budget," he said. "He has had his frustrations over the last five years and those are well chronicled but he will make the recommendations about which players we sign and the new CEO, the owners and the board will make the final financial commitment. And that is the way it needs to be."

Hicks dismissed the idea that the club was imminently going to be sold to businessmen in the middle-east and reaffirmed his commitment to staying at Anfield.

"I'm going to be here the next five years, Rafa will be here for five years," he said. "I think George will be here for the next five years, though I can't answer for him. We all want to be here for the new stadium."