Monday, June 08, 2009

Rafa Benitez Believes Liverpool's 'Spine' Will Bring Success

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is sure that the 'spine' of his side represents a seam of true quality that starts with his goalkeeper Pepe Reina, goes through his central defence and midfield, and ends up with the sparkling boots of striker Fernando Torres.

"We are working very hard to keep the spine of the team - that was always the idea," Benitez told LFC Magazine.

"We have Pepe Reina as the number one goalkeeper, with Diego Cavalieri behind him, another good goalkeeper. Then we have Skrtel, Carragher and Agger - three good centre-backs.

"Then you go to the midfield with Alonso, Mascherano, Lucas and Gerrard, with Torres up front and Ngog, who is a very good prospect. We have a good squad, which is still young, so hopefully we can improve further.

"We know we still need to improve in some specific areas. We will be working very hard to do that over the summer."

With talismanic centre-back Sami Hyypia departing for Bayer Leverkusen after an emotional Anfield farewell on the last day of the season, there are only two players, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, remaining from when Benitez first took over at the club five years ago this month.

The Spaniard feels that that is a sign of the development that has taken place in the squad, but he also acknowledges that perhaps the Reds have less leeway in the transfer market than some of their big spending rivals.

"Coming to a club that needs a lot of work is a massive difference to arriving at a club without too many changes to make. From my time here, Chelsea and United already had big squads with top-class players. They have both spent big money since and improved a lot.

"We could not spend that kind of money, but look at the level of the squad now compared to five years ago. We have had to work hard rebuilding the whole squad," he added.

"It's not just a case of saying, 'Oh, Liverpool should win because they are spending.' The other clubs are spending too but had better squads from the beginning. That is why, if we are to reduce the gap, we have to do things almost perfectly.

"We have learned together what it means to stay close to the top of the table, from the beginning to the end. I am sure that will help us in the future."

Benitez made retaining current stars his priority, once he had signed a new contract himself in the spring, with Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres all inking new deals in recent weeks.

Any transfer targets for the summer are still unclear, but Benitez's plans might well have been compromised by the financial problems faced by the club's owners that have been revealed in the last week.

Harris Eases Supporters' Fears

Investment banker Keith Harris believes that Liverpool fans should not be too concerned by reports the club could go out of business.

Owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett lost £42million last year, mainly through interest payments on the £350million loans taken out when they bought the club.

With a July 24 deadline looming to refinance those loans, Liverpool's accountants this week warned there is "significant doubt" about the parent company's ability to remain as a going concern.

"That is statement is one that is issued as a warning to the shareholders, and I would have thought in this case that the two shareholders are perfectly well aware of the situation at the club. It's serious but it's a warning to the shareholders," said Harris.

Rather than go out of business, Harris said Hicks and Gillett are realistically facing three owners: to sell up; find additional funds by selling other assets; or sell players to make up the shortfall.

Harris admitted the last would be "the most dire" as far as fans are concerned, and added: "I think that whatever happens, Rafa Benitez's manoeuvres in the transfer market will be restricted."

Gerrard Eyes One More Win

Steven Gerrard believes a win against Andorra on Wednesday would all but see England qualify for the World Cup in South Africa next summer.

The Liverpool midfielder was instrumental in the first two goals against Kazakhstan on Saturday as Fabio Capello's men ran out comfortable 4-0 winners to make it six wins out of six in Group Six.

Despite taking time to adapt to their surroundings on what was an extremely bobbly pitch the Three Lions took command when Gerrard crossed for Gareth Barry to nod home before playing a part in the second for Emile Heskey.

Further goals from Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard mean England need six points from their final four games to seal a place in South Africa but Gerrard believes qualification can be ensured as soon as Wednesday.

"I think if we win against Andorra we are in the box seat to qualify," he told the Sunday Mirror. "I think we are one win away from virtually sealing it.

"But it is important for us not to get carried away, be professional and get the job done and then we can go into the more difficult games with greater confidence."

Despite opting on the side of caution the 29-year-old believes the pain of not qualifying for the European Championships last year will ensure they don't slip up this time round.

"What we are all conscious about is qualifying for the World Cup," he added.

"Missing out on the European Championship was a massive blow and it took the players a long time to get over it.

"What we need to do is pay the fans back and qualify for the World Cup."

Torres: We Can Better Barca

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres is backing his team-mates to overtake Barcelona as Europe's top side.

The Reds ended the season empty-handed, but kept up the heat on champions Manchester United until the penultimate weekend of the season, while also reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.

"Our aim has to be the best. If we have no desire to be the best in England and in Europe then there is no point even turning up for work," Torres said.

"I don't say it lightly, but we must think we can be as good or even better than (Champions League winners) Barcelona.

"It's the belief of everybody at this club that we can become the best and I think we have really moved forward in the last two seasons.

"Liverpool are just as famous as Barcelona as a football club and even more famous trophy-wise. But we want to make Liverpool as successful in this era as they were in the '70s and '80s."

Torres signed a contract extension to 2014 last month and maintains that he has no desire to go elsewhere.

"There is nowhere else in Europe I want to be," he said.

"I believe we are on the verge of something special here and I am delighted to commit my future to this club."

Torres added: "You would not get top players signing new contracts if they did not think there were good times ahead. I expect many trophies for Liverpool in the years to come."

Liverpool Determined To Keep Hold Of Xabi Alonso

Liverpool are determined to hold on to Xabi Alonso despite the midfield player’s desire to move to Real Madrid. Sources at Anfield indicated that it would take a “mind-blowing” offer by the Spanish giants to prise the 27-year-old away from the club.

Florentino Pérez, the Real president, told The Times yesterday of his interest in Alonso. “Xabi is a magnificent Spanish player, so of course we’d love to have him,” Pérez said. “But everything would involve reaching an agreement with Rafael Benítez. It will need to be an agreement that is in the best interests of both clubs.”

Liverpool made it clear yesterday that they have no intention of selling the Spain player, who has three years left on his contract. Alonso, however, has made it equally clear that he wants to move on. After the 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the season last month, Alonso met Benítez, the Liverpool manager, to try to force the issue.

The Spaniard has been unsettled for some time, despite having a superb season. Before the Champions League qualifying match against Standard Liège in August, he was reluctant to play to avoid being cup-tied in Europe with any potential new club. However, Liverpool are adamant that they will resist any move for Alonso — Manchester City and Arsenal have also been linked with the player. Suggestions that £25 million would tempt Benítez to sell were laughed off as being “nowhere near” Liverpool’s valuation.

Benítez will be active in the transfer market despite Liverpool’s accounts revealing that the club’s profits failed to cover interest payments on debt last year. Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., the club’s American owners, are almost certain to get an extension on their £350 million loan deal with Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Wachovia, due for repayment on July 24. RBS, which owns 75 per cent of the debt, is unconcerned by the reported loss of £43 million since most of it was due to “non-cash” write-downs in the value of players.

It is understood that the bank’s only reservation about the performance of the owners is their inability to finance a new stadium. The banks are encouraging Hicks and Gillett to look for new investment to push through the new ground.

RBS was reassured when Benítez and Fernando Torres signed extensions to their contracts in the closing weeks of the season. The Spanish pair’s commitment to the club was a significant factor in giving the Americans financial breathing space.

Man City Rival Liverpool For Lavezzi

Italian newspapers claim Liverpool aren’t the only Premier League team in talks for Ezequiel Lavezzi, as Manchester City are close to a deal.

The Napoli striker is hurt by the failure to increase his wages as promised, so is considering a move to England.

Up until now all the talk has been about Liverpool and a supposed £15m offer, an interest that was confirmed by his representative.

"There is a very real offer from a team who are playing in the Champions League and where he would earn much more than here,” said agent Alejandro Mazzoni this week.

However, today it has emerged that Manchester City are also tracking ‘Pocho’ and could propose over £3m per season to join the Eastlands side.

At present, Lavezzi only earns £1m per season at the Stadio San Paolo.

Napoli have so far refused to consider any offers for Lavezzi, but could change their mind after bringing in Fabio Quagliarella from Udinese.

They would also use the cash raised from his sale to tempt Sampdoria’s Antonio Cassano to the club.

Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola Has Initiated Contact With Javier Mascherano

Reports in Spain and England last week suggested that Barcelona were already preparing various offers, including a €22.8 million bid, to tempt Liverpool into selling midfielder Javier Mascherano.

Now, the Argentine newspaper, Clarin, has claimed that Blaugrana coach Pep Guardiola has already had a conversation with the Albiceleste captain while the Catalan club have made a follow-up by initiating formal talks.

“Barcelona have already began contact with Mascherano after coach Guardiola had a chat with the Liverpool player,” the paper said.

Guardiola had requested to the Barca board to sign three or four top-class players to further strengthen the team, and Mascherano has long been one of those at the top of the shopping list.

It is believed, however, that a move for the Reds midfielder is highly dependent on Toure Yaya’s future, but the Argentine’s arrival at the Camp Nou could now be hastened after the Ivory Coast man reportedly turned down Barca’s latest contract offer.

Liverpool are also under threat of losing Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid.

Liverpool’s Arbeloa Ready To Step In For Sergio Ramos In Spain Team

Liverpool full-back Alvaro Arbeloa could be given a rare chance to start for Spain in Tuesday’s international friendly against Azerbaijan, should Sergio Ramos fail to regain full fitness.

The versatile Real Madrid defender suffered a hip injury just before the club’s final game of the Primera Division season against Osasuna. He is still struggling to shrug off the problem despite a full week of rest.

“If Sergio fails to recover and the coach hands me a start, it will fill me with great pride,” Arbeloa told EFE.

“It would be my sixth game with La Seleccion and I will try to take advantage of the opportunity as best I can.”

Despite an equally long season with Liverpool, Arbeloa assured that he was physically ready for the Spanish challenge.

“I am feeling good at the moment. I finished the season well with Liverpool and I would’ve had plenty of rest before going to the Confederations Cup,” he detailed.

“The coach knows that I am here to help the team and I’m ready to play in any position necessary. That I can play at either right- or left-back will increase my chances of seeing more game time and helping the national side. That is my main desire.

“We all want to repeat our Euro 2008 success by winning the Confederations Cup.”

Coach Vicente del Bosque could indeed be forced to field a makeshift back line altogether for Tuesday’s test against Azerbaijan.

With Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique joining Sergio Ramos on the sidelines, the Spanish press expect Arbeloa and Joan Capdevila to line up as the full-backs while Valencia duo Raul Albiol and Carlos Marchena anchor the heart of defence.

It is also predicted that Del Bosque will deploy the 'double X' in central midfield, Xavi and Xabi Alonso, while relative newcomers Juan Mata and Pablo Hernandez could occupy the flanks due to injuries to Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Santi Cazorla.

Bar Iniesta, the rest are expected to recover in time before the start of the Confederations Cup on June 14.

Loan Ranger Tom Hicks Kops The Blame For Problems At Liverpool

These are heady days for fans of the Texas Rangers, who now find themselves in the unusual position of supporting winners. Not since the turn of the century have the Arlington-based team reached baseball's play-offs, not since 2004 have they really been in contention to win the American League West.

There may be many reasons for this sustained run of mediocrity, but prime among them surely has been the club's apparently insatiable appetite for financial dramas. When things are going well on the field, the Rangers can usually be relied upon to stumble into some kind of off-the-field tribulations guaranteed to sidetrack players, officials and supporters. So it has been in recent days with the announcement that Tom Hicks is willing to cede control of a team he bought in 1998 from, among others, George W Bush.

"With the right partners, I would be willing to sell a controlling interest in the Rangers. My family and I want very much to stay involved with the club, but we understand that we may have to be open to solutions that may include partners who own a controlling interest in the Rangers,'' Liverpool's co-owner said in a statement at the end of last week, before adding a pay-off so lacking in self-awareness that it was almost comical: "I don't want any of this to be a distraction to the team and our fans."

If any of this sounds familiar to Liverpool fans, who have watched their beloved club slide into almost constant tumult, at least off the field, since Hicks and his business partner George Gillett arrived on Merseyside back in 2007, then it was the same old story, too, in the States, where Hicks has earned a reputation for what the New York Times called wrong-headedness.

"How can it not be a distraction?" the paper asked this week of his announcement about his plans to sell the Rangers. "This is a team for which being in first place a third into the season is a new experience, and its players have to deal with reports and questions about the team being for sale."

Hicks, an old school Republican, can live with the criticism of a liberal newspaper like the New York Times. Harder to bear is the personal embarrassment that comes with the acknowledgment of defeat in his battle to remain in control of the Rangers. Only three months ago, he had insisted that while he wanted to sell at least some of his 95% holding in the Rangers he was interested only in having minority partners. Much has happened since then, not least the Hicks' decision to default on over $500m in loans tied to his ownership of the Rangers and the Dallas Stars ice hockey team.

At the time the Rangers owner was bullish, calling the move a "non-event" designed to bring his creditors to the negotiating table. Clearly, it was more complicated than that, to put it one way. To put it another: he was unwilling to accept the truth; that he did not have the financial wherewithal to meet demands from Major League Baseball to reduce the size of the club's debt. The only option he was left with was to sell the club.

This is embarrassing indeed for a man such as Hicks, who relished the caché that came with owning a major league baseball team and never missed an opportunity to throw his money around, lest anyone in Texas and elsewhere was unaware of exactly how rich he was.

Not for him the low-key approach adopted by others, the likes of Randy Lerner (owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns), Stan Kroenke (owner of the Denver Nuggets of the NBA) and Malcolm Glazer, who controls the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. Gillett was another who preferred to remain in the background, stewarding one of ice hockey's most storied clubs, the Montreal Canadiens, in a fashion entirely at variance with the man who was to become his business partner in English football.

While Lerner, Kroenke and Glazer, who have all bought their way into English football in recent years, at Aston Villa, Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively, could give Greta Garbo lessons in maintaining studied mystery, Hicks has seldom come across a microphone he did not want to pontificate into or a stage he did not want to hog.

His outgoing personality (or out-sized ego, depending on who you ask) was an asset in the world of leveraged buy-outs, where his chutzpah helped him build a personal fortune using other peoples' money to buy and sell companies. But it ill-served him in the world of sport, where he allowed his ego to cloud his better judgment, both in what he said and in what he did.

Famously, or rather infamously, he allowed himself to be talked into the biggest single contract for an athlete in history – a 10-year, $250m deal for the short-stop Alex Rodriguez. At the time, this was seen as a bold declaration of intent by the Rangers owner. Looking back, now that Rodriguez has long departed for the New York Yankees and details of the deals have been made public (the next highest bid for Rodriguez's service at the time was a reported $170m), it would be fair to say it was a supreme act of folly, perhaps the greatest ever in American professional sport (which really is saying something).

Yet Hicks ploughed on: on to the next bad baseball deal, on to the next losing season and finally on to Liverpool, where he and Gillett have guided the Merseyside club towards the financial precipice.

The news that Liverpool are hampered by debts of £300m-plus – that their owners, who promised to be "different" from the Glazers, who borrowed other peoples' money to buy Manchester United, were in fact exactly the same – has shocked English football. But perhaps more shocking is that few people had apparently noticed before now. Hicks himself had admitted, in an interview shortly after he and Gillett bought the club, that any profits earned would be used to service their debt.

"When I was in the leveraged buy-out business we bought Weetabix and we leveraged it up to make our return. You could say that anyone who was eating Weetabix was paying for our purchase of Weetabix. It was just business.

"It is the same for Liverpool. Revenues come in from whatever source and go out to whatever source and, if there is money left over, it is profit," he said at the time, with commendable honesty.

Like Weetabix, Liverpool FC is an enduring brand name. It was there before Tom Hicks arrived and it will be there when he is gone, as inevitably will happen one day, probably sooner than later. Whatever happens before, expect the Texan to issue a statement expressing his hope that none of the tumult at Anfield is a distraction for the club and fans.

Expect him to be sadly disappointed.

Liverpool & Everton Urged To Share New Stadium On Merseyside

Liverpool and Everton are both currently pursuing plans to build new stadium independently of each other, although the Reds plans have been pushed back to 2012 and the Toffees plan to move outside city boundaries to Kirkby is not universally popular.

Liverpool's massive debt was also revealed earlier this week, with the club's parent company showing a loss of £42.6 million.

Warren Bradley, head of the city of Liverpool's committee for England's 2018 World Cup bid, a man who claims to have seen the accounts of both clubs, has stated that the only way any plans for new grounds can succeed is if the two clubs agree to share.

Neither Anfield nor Goodison Park currently meet FIFA criteria as stadium which can host World Cup games.

"We've got to do something, if we are serious about being a bidding city for the World Cup. I don't want to see everything migrate down the M62 to Manchester where there are two fabulous stadiums," Bradley told The Observer.

"There is a need for a 60,000 fit-for-purpose, 21st-century stadium in Liverpool. It would cost around £300m. Sure, we still have the tribalistic supporters in the city who would say, 'I won't sit in it after a Liverpudlian or Evertonian has.' But that's not the argument, is it? I don't see any reason why it can't work – it does so across the southern hemisphere, and in Germany, Italy and America.

"We recognise the FIFA criteria, that both clubs must have 40,000-plus seats available to the paying public that doesn't include VIPs. I don't believe either club is in a position to satisfy that criteria, so therefore something needs to be done quickly," added Bradley.

Whilst Liverpool have refused to comment on Bradley's remarks, Everton spokesman Ian Ross angrily retorted, "Yes, the Everton directors have one view and that view is that we should push ahead with the destination project. For Warren Bradley to suggest that the directors have one view and that is [to have] a shared stadium is the usual utter nonsense.

"We have spent nearly three years working on destination Kirkby and are giving absolutely no consideration to any other scheme. Perhaps councillor Bradley should have fought somewhat harder to keep Everton inside the Liverpool city boundary if he is that intent on a joint stadium.

"We would have welcomed more help from our city council – that never ­happened, which is why we pursued Kirkby. For councillor Bradley to now claim there is a weight of opinion to suggest we should now have a joint stadium would appear to be opportunism of the first order."

Stanley Park, the city green space that separates the two geographically close grounds, has been mooted as a possible site for a shared ground. This is also the proposed site for Liverpool's new stadium.