Thursday, May 28, 2009

Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez Cutting His Cloth For The Premier League Title

Radio City News reported last week that Rafa Benitez will have £15-£20M to spend this summer plus whatever he can bring in through sales.

It’s not a fortune in terms of the competition we face from Man United, Chelsea & Arsenal so if its cloth-cutting time, how are we going to strengthen the squad and also bring in that world class player who will turn draws into extra wins?

I reckon we should sell Andrea Dossena and Philipp Deggen while they still have international reputations to help fund a swoop for Stewart Downing, depending on how that injury is.

He's not a world-beater but could definitely do a consistent job in the Premier League. We need serious competition on the left for the dangerous if inconsistent Albert Riera and if Ryan Babel is staying then that's not his best position.

Hopefully that would leave cash available for somebody else exciting up front or maybe on the right wing, giving Dirk Kuyt more chance to compete for his place through the middle (when we play 4-4-2?).

Martin Kelly has just been chosen to play for England under 19s so I wonder if he's ready to be our 4th choice centre-back. It would also be a real bonus if Stephen Darby is now up to giving the dependable Alvaro Arbeloa genuine competition at right-back.

Maybe Deggen is the competition that we need in that position but we haven't seen enough of him and can we trust him to stay injury-free?

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses when something doesn't work out (I'm not sure if Robbie Keane would agree though).

Lucas Leiva has improved lately but we should move him on particularly if Jay Spearing can take over his job as back-up in centre-midfield.

Maybe the sale of both of these players could finance a deal for the versatile Gareth Barry who'd be much cheaper than he was when we came so close to signing him last season.

The classy Xabi Alonso should definitely stay, he's earned his plaudits but we need extra strength in depth to be able to make this next step.

We'd know exactly what we'd be getting from the two players I've suggested and they would add some of that depth to the quality of our squad while hopefully only costing around the same as what we're able to recoup from the sale of some of our current squad who cover similar positions.

Don't get me wrong I'd much sooner be talking about bringing in Lionel Messi but that's not going to happen.

We've also got to start thinking about UEFA's restriction on the number of non-English players in the longer term.

Remember, we were forced to leave Sami Hyypia and Emiliano Insua out of our Champions League squad this season.

Naturally the Premier League comes first in the list of our priorities but it wouldn't be good for continuity if we had to chop and change squads, particularly towards the end of the season when we're hopefully in the hunt for both of the two biggest prizes.

The three local young squad players I've mentioned featured only briefly this season, being given substitute appearances as we qualified in the Champions League.

Using them more regularly as cover might be a gamble we're forced to take if we want to spend really big money on buying just one attacking player to help fire us to next season's Premier League title.

While it'd be unfair to say Damien Plessis or David Ngog have let us down, it'd also be right to say that we're looking for a bit more from our fringe players.

The rest of the squad has proven this season that they are up to the standard required.

We're probably going to have to sell Babel who I think has had his chance (but would still command a sizeable fee) and possibly even a very unlucky Yossi Benayoun to help pay for the likes of David Villa but now is the time to go for it.

He's the type of quality we need and we don't want this summer to turn into another missed opportunity like 2002 when serious errors were made with our transfer budget following a very promising runners-up finish.

It’s taken a long time for us to recover from that.

One thing's for sure, our main rivals will be spending big money in the search for class to strengthen themselves this summer and while we can take pride and confidence from what we've achieved in the Premier League this season, now is not the time for complacency.

The next couple of signings will be a massive factor in determining whether we can finally regain what we all really want most.

The two strongest transfer rumours have been for Villa and Carlos Tevez. I'm hardly giving any secrets away there, am I?

At least the talk is of attacking players of proven international standard and not the likes of El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou.

Rafa has said he has to be almost perfect in the transfer market this summer - cute and clever - and as usual he's right because we'll surely have to beat this season's excellent points total if we are to be 19 times Champions this time next year.

My own feeling is that this season has been a necessary learning curve on the way to the title (like what Man United themselves went through in 1991/2) and that we really are on the brink now.

Tottenham Hotspur Linked With Liverpool's Ryan Babel

According to a report in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, Tottenham Hotspur could be willing to take Ryan Babel off Liverpool's hands during the close-season.

It was claimed on Tuesday that Reds manager Rafael Benitez told the 22-year-old's agent that the player is free to leave Anfield this summer.

Apparently, the 30-time capped Netherlands international is unhappy at starting just six Premier League games and 13 times in total during the 2008-09 campaign, especially as he had begun 29 matches the previous year.

Benitez has made it clear that he cannot guarantee the versatile 6ft forward, who can play on the wing or through the middle, will be a regular in the starting XI next year.

It is suggested that the former Ajax star is most likely to end up in either the Primera Division or Serie A should he decide to leave the Merseyside outfit.

However, if he chooses to remain in England, a switch to Spurs could be on the cards as manager Harry Redknapp is reported to be up for the challenge of helping Babel realise his potential.

Liverpool paid £11.5 million to land Babel in 2007, but it is thought they will accept a bid in the region of £8m.

Rafael Benitez Reassesses Set-Up With Gary Ablett Leading Out Four Staff

Four of Liverpool’s backroom staff will be released as part of the ongoing review of the club’s Academy.

Reserve team manager Gary Ablett is the most prominent name of the quartet with Rafael Benitez reassessing the set-up beneath the first team.

Under-18s manager Hugh McAuley, under-16 coach Dave Shannon and under-14s coach Paul Lever are also set leave, with their departures expected next week.

Although Liverpool reached the FA Youth Cup final, where they were this week beaten by Arsenal 6-2 on aggregate, the reserve and youth levels have underwhelmed in their respective leagues.

Meanwhile, Martin Skrtel has vowed to break his goalscoring duck for Liverpool next season.

The Slovakia international has scored five goals for his country but has yet to find the net in 50 Liverpool appearances.

“I haven’t scored but I hope to change this,” said Skrtel.

“For me the first job is to protect our own goal.

“Any goals I score is something extra. But I hope next season I can get some goals.”

Skrtel has become the latest Anfield player to express his sadness at the departure of Sami Hyypia while also admitting he owes the Finn a debt of gratitude.

“For me, I’ll miss Sami because he is a big person and a big player,” added Skrtel. “He has helped me a lot. Whenever I’ve needed something I could go to Sami and ask him. He’d always help me.

“But now he’s finished here after 10 years – he’ll be missed.

“He is a very good player. To play here for 10 years is incredible. Before I came here I could see on television how good he was. I already knew he was a really good player with quality. He still is now. I wish him all the best at his next club.”

Liverpool's Summer Shopping List - Llorente?

We’ve diagnosed the problems, identified the targets and given our recommendations... now it’s your turn.

There’s nothing every football fans loves more than to speculate on where their team needs to strengthen, how much to spend and who to buy. Our team-by-team analysis of what needs to be done is the perfect chance for just that.

We have pinpointed the weak spots and given our suggestion for who should be the number one priority as well as a handful of alternatives.

Will Rafa Benitez heed our advice? Have we missed a trick? Is our budget unrealistic? Who would YOU sign? Don’t be shy in letting us know by dropping us a comment at the foot of the page. Let the debate commence.....

Right Back - Glen Johnson (Portsmouth): This one will happen. Benitez needs a right back desperately, and those who have been privy to Rafa's press conferences know that he is desperate to sign English. Johnson is one of only two or three English players Benitez deems good enough for his squad, prepare to see him bid high to get his man.

Altenatives: Dario Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Miguel (Valencia)

Centre Midfield - Fernando (Porto): Rafa Benitez has formed arguably the best central spine in the country with the triumvirate of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard. The problem is: What happens when one cannot play? Lucas is young and developing, but right now he clearly is not good enough for a title challenge. Fernando of Porto is one of the best holding midfielders in Europe, he is superb at breaking attacks down and filling the holes like Dietmar Hamann used to do. Can also pick a pass, making him a good partner to either Alonso or Mascherano.

Alternative: Antonio Apono (Malaga), Jurado (Atletico Madrid)

Wide Midfield - Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli): This guy is good. Sometimes you see bandwagon reporting when journalists recommend a player purely because his agent has admitted the club have made an approach. This is not the case here. Previously the wearer of the number seven jersey for Argentina Under-21s, Lavezzi has all the traits of the previous greats to have donned the same number. Can play anywhere along the attack, allowing Benitez to rotate Riera, Kuyt and Benayoun. Put it this way, if Napoli lose him, there will be a public outcry from the fans.

Alternative: David Silva (Valencia), Arjen Robben (Real Madrid), Cristian Rodriguez (Porto), Giovinco (Juventus), Willian (Shakhtar Donetsk), Juan Mata (Valencia)

Striker – Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao): Liverpool do not need a first choice striker. When everybody is fit Gerrard will play behind Torres - hence spending £20+ million on Carlos Tevez is a ludicrous idea. What Liverpool do need is a back-up option to Torres, a man capable of leading the line if El Nino is injured, and a man who can change Liverpool's attack if they need a goal. Fernando Llorente is big, strong, superb in the air, has a good touch, and has the mobility that Peter Crouch lacked. His goal record for Bilbao in La Liga this season is 13 in 33, which is a very similar to Torres's 14-goal tally in the year before he moved to Anfield.

Alternatives: Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid), Lisandro Lopez (Porto)

Liverpool FC's Xabi Alonso Not Happy With Second Place

Good season or bad season? If you’re a blind devotee of the Shankly school, where ‘first is first, second is nowhere’, then you’re probably firmly in the Xabi Alonso camp, our midfield maestro having declared himself unsatisfied that we have finished the season trophy-less for the third successive time.

And if you want to look on the dark side, there’s plenty of stuff to get you frothing at the mouth looking back over this campaign. The Robbie Keane episode still leaves a sour taste in the mouth, even if the liqueurs served up in the second half of the season did much to cleanse our collective palates.

At various stages Rafa has taken on not just the 19 other Premier League sides, but their managers, our owners, the chief executive and the Hull groundsman to boot; losing some battles, but emerging stronger overall. However, as that great philosopher Ben Parker (Spider-man’s uncle) once said: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

So if you don’t deliver the title soon Rafa, we know where to come...

For those seeking to pinpoint the reasons why we didn’t win the title, the collective wisdom is that the seven home draws cost us dearly.

Stoke may have been spared by an early refereeing blunder, but in the majority of the other matches we just weren’t good enough to break the opposition down, and didn’t deserve to; not the stuff of champions.

And if you want to play the game of pinpointing league-losing results, look no further than Wigan away and Everton at home, when we surrendered leads late on in games with schoolboy errors; a bit more discipline in those key moments, and we’d still be nursing headaches this morning from Sunday’s celebration.

But enough of this introspection and doom-mongering; let’s call up yet another arch-philosopher, Ian Dury, and find reasons to be cheerful. Who will ever forget that week in March, when Real Madrid and Manchester United were destroyed in quick succession, the latter humiliated on their own ground?

A week later, the rout of Aston Villa brought our goals tally to 13 in three games, against some of the best sides in Europe.

Doubles over the Red Babies and churlish Chelsea provided conclusive proof that we can live with the best, and even our failures were glorious: the rest of the country marvelled at our resilience as we threatened to overturn Chelsea’s first-leg lead from the Champions League quarter-final and traded goals with Arshavin at Anfield.

Newcastle United were lucky to concede just five at St James’; and late comebacks became commonplace both home and away, with injury-time winners at Manchester City and Portsmouth among the most memorable.

Throw in Benayoun’s last-gasp effort at Fulham, when we really started to believe, and we’ve had our fair share of matches this season which will live in our memories long after the upset of seeing United equal our titles haul.

The mess of statistics you’ll by now be familiar with brook no argument: the number of defeats, the unbeaten home record, the goals scored; they all point to a highly-successful season. The painful reality however, is that the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea have not so much raised the bar, but strapped it to the head of a giraffe.

Excellence is not enough; you have to strive for perfection. Which means that Rafa can afford no more mistakes in recruiting the high-quality additions we need to take that final step towards turning potential into achievement.

Liverpool Plan Double Raid On Relegated Boro

Liverpool’s interest in Middlesbrough’s Stewart Downing is well known, however the Daily Telegraph suggest Rafa Benitez may also have his eye on another of their home-grown talents.

In addition to Downing, the newspaper alleges that Liverpool are considering bidding for the England Under 21 centre-back David Wheater.

The 6ft 5in defender has impressed in a struggling Teesside outfit, and has previously been linked with a move to Arsenal and Birmingham City.

The Telegraph suggests Gareth Southgate may cash in on the star, despite Wheater recently committing his long-term future to the club after their relegation was confirmed.

While Downing may have to bide his time to leave the club due to his ankle injury picked up against Aston Villa, the relegated club have slapped a £9 million asking price on the towering Wheater.

The lofty price may prove a stumbling block for Benitez due to his limited transfer kitty this summer, but should Middlesbrough be willing to budge, a deal may be brokered.

Southgate recently admitted he was hopeful of holding onto the vast majority of his squad, but suggested Downing would probably leave in January after his rehabilitation from injury.

Liverpool Legend Ian Rush: Hyypia Was Houllier's Greatest Signing

Sami Hyypia called the curtain down on an illustrious decade of service at Liverpool recently, and will embark on one last footballing voyage - to Bundesliga giants Bayer Leverkusen.

It is a move that has brought with it countless tributes, and club legend Ian Rush believes the Finn is deserving of any accolade.

"[He] deserves all the tributes that have come his way because he's been a fantastic servant for the club," he explained to The Liverpool Echo. "Sami will go down as probably the greatest signing of Gerard Houllier's reign as manager.

"When you consider what the club paid for him and what he has achieved over the past decade it really is remarkable. He has given 10 years of exceptional service and the tears at the end of Sunday's game proved just what the club means to him."

Rush continued, "I know from experience that leaving a club like Liverpool takes a lot of getting used to. You don't realise until it's over what a massive part of your life the club is and Sami will need time to adjust.

"If you are talking about dedication and passion for Liverpool I'd put him right up there alongside Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher."

Liverpool Identify Javi Martinez As Xabi Alonso Replacement

According to a report in the British tabloid The Daily Mirror, Liverpool are lining-up Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez as a replacement for Xabi Alonso.

Reds manager Rafael Benitez has repeatedly denied that Alonso will be sold this summer, but the midfielder has continually been linked with an exit from Anfield in the forthcoming transfer window.

It is thought that should the Spanish international leave the Merseyside outfit, he will make way for Aston Villa's Gareth Barry.

However, recent reports have indicated that Liverpool, who tried to sign Barry last summer, have not expressed an interest in signing the Villans captain of late.

It seems, therefore, that Benitez may have targeted Martinez instead.

Apparently, the Premier League giants attempted to sign the Spain Under-21 international two years ago.

It is claimed that los Leones will want at least €11.5 million (£10m) in exchange for the midfielder, who’s contracted at San Mames until 2012.

Since joining Athletic Bilbao from Osasuna for €6m (£5.2m) in 2006, Javi Martinez has scored eight goals in 94 appearances.