Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pre-Season Preview: Liverpool

If ever there was a vital pre-season for Liverpool, it’s this one.

Having just fallen short of breaking their Premier League hoodoo last term, failure to take the next step in the upcoming campaign could be disastrous – in the eyes of the fans, at least.

Manchester United’s successful title defence in 2008-09 saw them equal their north west rivals’ record tally of 18 English championships. That alone is unbearable to most Kopites; as is the possibility of the Red Devils reaching 19 first.

Thus, a productive summer is essential for Rafa Benitez and his troops. They kicked off their pre-season play in Switzerland during the week with a 0-0 draw against St. Gallen, and they will be hoping to improve in their upcoming fixtures.

Rapid Vienna (A), Sunday 19 July, 18:15

Liverpool skip over to Austria to face Rapid Vienna. As one of the country’s powerhouse clubs, they should provide a significantly sterner test than their previous second division opponents.

Thailand (A), Wednesday 22 July, 14:00

The now-customary jaunt to South-East Asia begins with an exhibition match against the Thai national team. Ranked 117th in the world, the Elephants are coached by former foe Peter Reid, the ex-Everton and England defender.

Singapore (A), Sunday 26 July, 12:00

Then they go down to one of the smallest independent states in world, to take on a team that boasts more expats than natives. Expect plenty of the youngsters and reserves to get a run-out in this game.

Espanyol (A), Sunday 2 August, 20:00

Back to Europe, to take on the ‘other’ Catalan club. Having narrowly escaped relegation from the Primera Division last season, Mauricio Pochettino’s men will be hoping to lay the foundations for a vast improvement on their efforts in 2008-09.

FC Lyn (A), Wednesday 5 August, 18:00

Norway has become a regular stop on the Reds’ recent pre-season adventures. Last year, they took on Valerenga; this year, they will face their Oslo rivals. They are in the midst of the Tippeligaen season, and thus should provide decent competition.

Atletico Madrid (H), Saturday 8 August, 15:00

Fernando Torres’ old club will travel to Anfield for the Merseysiders’ final hit-out of the summer. Both sides have high hopes for the upcoming campaign and will want to take some good form into the season proper.


Glen Johnson remains Liverpool’s only big-money purchase so far this summer and the England right-back’s performances over the next few weeks will attract plenty of attention. Benitez has already made it clear that he wants the former Chelsea and Portsmouth star to sharpen up defensively.

Still, most gazes will be drawn inevitably towards Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. The midfielders have been heavily linked with an Anfield exit, the former touted for Real Madrid and the latter for Barcelona. Alonso’s future is looking particularly murky and, as one of the Reds’ standout performers last season, he would be a hard man to replace. How prominently will he feature in pre-season, if at all?

As far as youngsters go, Dani Pacheco and Krizstian Nemeth are the ones to look out for – both extremely gifted forwards who have what it takes to crack the first team in the not-too-distant future. Scouse midfielder Jay Spearing is another to keep an eye on.

Dirk Kuyt: Glen Johnson Can Help Take Liverpool Higher

Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt believes the signing of Glen Johnson could edge the club closer to winning some honours next season.

The Reds finished the 2008-09 campaign without a major trophy, but they did enjoy a good season as they finished as runners-up to Manchester United in the Premier League.

The Dutchman is confident Johnson's arrival at Anfield could well bring them the league title in 2010, having been impressed with his new team-mate thus far.

"Last season we played very well," Kuyt told the club's official website.

"Unfortunately, we didn't win any trophies, but if we can keep the team together then the fact we have added Glen Johnson means hopefully we can go one step higher.

"Glen has shown already that he is a very good player in the Premier League and the England team."

Johnson made his Liverpool debut on Wednesday night in a 0-0 friendly draw against Swiss side St. Gallen, in which he played the entire second half.

The former Portsmouth and Chelsea defender's first Premier League outing could be the club's season opener against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

Liverpool Starlet Daniel Pacheco Guided By Experienced Players

Liverpool teenager Daniel Pacheco has spoke of the assistance he is receiving from senior members of the squad.

The Spaniard is currently in the team for Liverpool's pre-season friendly tour and featured in the opening game against Swiss side St. Gallen.

Pacheco has admitted it is tough competing in such a strong squad, but help from players like Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun, who speaks Spanish, is aiding his development.

"I am learning a lot from playing alongside Stevie or Dirk or Yossi," Pacheco told the club's official website.

"But I have to keep working hard and try to improve in order to impress the boss.

"Every day I am learning something. Yossi has been helping me a lot - it helps that he can tell me things in Spanish. He tries to help and I try to listen to everything he tells me.

"They are very good players so it's hard but the first-team are good with helping the young players. I'm very happy to be here."

Pacheco is yet to make a competitive first-team appearance for Liverpool since arriving from Barcelona in 2007, but is regarded as an exciting prospect for the future.

Stephen Darby Still Chasing Liverpool First Team Role, Despite Glen Johnson Signing

Stephen Darby would have been forgiven for being perhaps the only Liverpudlian who became downhearted when Rafa Benitez shelled out a club record £16m on a right-back this summer.

As if getting into the Liverpool team was not difficult enough he now has to compete with England’s first choice in that position for a place in the Reds starting line up.

But if Darby is in need of any inspiration as he attempts to prove that he can do a job for the team he supports then he could do a whole lot worse than look at the progress fellow full back Emiliano Insua has made over the last 12 months.

Last summer it was Insua’s turn to see his manager spend a club record on a player who operates in his position when Andrea Dossena was signed in a £7m deal, but as it turned out it was the Argentinian youngster and not the Italian international who found favour with his manager more and more as the season wore on.

It is an example which the naturally optimistic but always realistic Darby is hoping to follow in the coming campaign.

“Last season I was lucky enough to play for the first-team twice,” said the double youth cup winner.

“Now I want to build on that, work hard in training and hopefully get a few more opportunities.

“I signed a new contract recently and that was fantastic for me because I dreamed of playing for Liverpool as a boy so when I was offered the new deal the only thought on my mind was to sign it.”

Insua may have a slight edge on Darby in terms of experience having played 18 first team games compared to his opposite number’s two, but that doesn’t mean the Buenos Aires-born defender feels any more secure in the Liverpool squad.

“I know the last season was a good one for me because I played more games than I did in the season before but that has gone and now I have new challenges and new targets,” he said.

“If I can improve and show that I am working hard then maybe I can be involved in even more games this time – this is what I will be trying to do.”

For both full-backs the road towards hopefully confirming their first team credentials began in the sleepy Swiss town of St Gallen on Wednesday night with Insua playing the first half and Darby doing the second 45 minutes of Liverpool’s largely uneventful goalless draw.

The duo were just delighted to get some playing time under their belts as they bid to build on their match fitness ahead of the kick off of Liverpool’s Premier League season at White Hart Lane on Sunday 16 August.

Insua said: “It was good to get back to action because when you start playing games you know that the new season is not too far away.

“We are all looking forward to the new season and we hope that it will be a very good one for us but we also know that we will have to work very hard before then to make sure that we have got our fitness and that we are ready.”

“I thought the lads played really well in the first half against St Gallen,” added Darby.

“They were getting forward really well and were creating chances and I think we continued that in the second half so it was good for me to be a part of that.

“It was great for me to be involved again, especially with there being so many young lads out on the trip to Switzerland.

“The fact there are so many youngsters here proves that if you work hard and train well then you will get your chance.

“The manager has told me to work hard, take every day as it comes and then see what happens so that’s what I’m trying to do.

“It’s good for me that there are so many first team players who are willing to help the young lads and give us advice when we need it, that’s a massive help.”

The arrival of Glen Johnson does not make life more difficult for Darby though, not if the former Portsmouth man’s first appearance in a red shirt is anything to go by.

Benitez deployed his £16m man in the left back berth as he looks to smooth off some of his rough defensive edges and the Reds boss clearly believes Johnson is versatile enough to operate in that role.

Not that Insua is phased by this in any way.

“Glen played very well in his first game but this was no surprise to us because we know he is a good player because we have seen him in training,” said the 20-year-old.

“He is a good player and a good person and it is good for us that we now have him in our squad.

“Now I must wish him well because if Glen does well then it can only be good news for the team.

“It is also good for the team that he can play in both full back positions because it is always helpful if you have players who are versatile.

“I cannot afford to think about how this might affect me though. All I can do is focus on the next game and try to use pre-season to make sure I am fit for the first Premier League game on August 16.”

Pre-season may only just have begun but the battle for places is already as hot as ever and Stephen Darby and Emiliano Insua are clearly up for the fight.

Fernando Torres Gets What It Is To Play For Liverpool

Given his phenomenal goalscoring record since arriving at Anfield two years ago Fernando Torres’ status as the darling of the Kop has been well and truly earned.

It isn’t just the Spaniard’s goals that mark him out for hero worship though, it is the way he has integrated himself into Liverpool the club and Liverpool the city pretty much from the moment he first got here.

His respect for the traditions of his club is apparent each and every time he gives interview, so much so that it is rare for Torres to speak about Liverpool without mentioning the fans who devote so much of their lives to support the team he is so proud to play for.

It is often said that Torres just “gets it”, that he understands what it means to be a Kop star and what it means to represent the people of his adopted hometown and this was again clear following the birth of his daughter Nora.

In conversations with friends, Liverpool’s number nine could not hide his delight at becoming a dad and one of the things that pleased him most was to father – “a baby Scouser”.

Torres gets it alright, no question about that.

Why Javier Mascherano Owes Liverpool FC

Switzerland is a country that is so immaculately clean that it is hard to imagine it having any flies. But if there are, then the place for them to be yesterday would have been on the wall of Rafa Benitez’s temporary office in Badra Gaz.

Whatever was said between the Liverpool manager and the recently returned Javier Mascherano will rightly remain private but one can only imagine the tone of the conversation that took place.

Because every time Mascherano has been linked with a move to Barcelona over the past couple of months without the Reds midfielder doing his utmost to distance himself from such talk the more Benitez must surely have bristled with indignation.

So much so that the Liverpool manager recently only just stopped short of publicly rebuking the Argentinian, deciding instead to remind him that he owes his club a debt of loyalty – and rightly so.

When Mascherano was rescued from West Ham reserves by Benitez his status as one of the world’s finest holding midfielders was diminishing faster than Gordon Brown’s reputation.

His morale had fallen to such an extent that Diego Maradona’s “monster” of a footballer was actually being kept out of the Hammers first eleven by current Portsmouth plodder Hayden Mullins.

Since coming under Benitez’s guidance Mascherano has got his mojo back and Maradona is so pleased with his resurgence in form that he insists his Argentina team is “Mascherano plus ten others”.

In fact his rehabilitation has been so complete and so rapid that Anfield could soon rival the Priory as the nation’s finest therapy centre for broken stars.

Mascherano should remember this and he should also recall the start of last season when he was allowed to captain Argentina at the Olympics at a time when he should really have been playing for the people who pay his wages.

Interestingly, Lionel Messi – who has been quoted in the Spanish media several times beckoning Mascherano to the Nou Camp – was initially denied the chance to travel to Beijing by Barcelona only for the Spanish giants to relent at the last minute following pressure from the player.

Mascherano had no such problems with Liverpool as Benitez bowed to the 25-year-old’s wish to try and become only the second sportsman in the history of his country to win two Olympic gold medals, a feat he duly achieved.

So when he looks at those glittering gongs and reflects on his place in Argentinian sporting folklore he should also contemplate the fact that neither would have been possible without the benevolent blessing of Benitez and the backing of his club.

Mascherano owes Liverpool. He owes them for rescuing his career and for allowing him to follow his Olympic dream.

No doubt Benitez has reminded him of this while also pointing out that Barcelona is hardly a logical cure for Argentinian homesickness.

Aquilani 'Sacrificed' To Liverpool

Alberto Aquilani looks set to be the sacrificial lamb in Roma’s transfer campaign, as talks continue with Liverpool over a £22m move.

Earlier this month Coach Luciano Spalletti confirmed his club needed to sell someone – preferably from midfield, where there is an abundance of players – to raise money for the transfer kitty.

Despite penning a new contract in June, Aquilani is set to be that figure, as he would receive the most money on the market.

Liverpool have made an offer of £18m, but the Giallorossi are holding out for £22m and negotiations are set to continue.

Rafa Benitez has picked the Italian as the ideal replacement for Xabi Alonso should the £30m sale to Real Madrid go through.

“We will certainly evaluate any firm offers that come in for Aquilani and consider them carefully,” added Spalletti from Roma’s pre-season training camp.

Aquilani is considered one of the talents on the Italy scene, but has been plagued by injuries and is still recovering from ankle surgery.

Dortmund Considers Liverpool's Voronin To Replace Frei

Following the departure of Alexander Frei to Basel, Dortmund are preparing to swoop for his replacement.

Names on the list include Nantes’ Ivan Klasnic, Robert Lewandoski of Lech Poznan, and interestingly Andriy Voronin of Liverpool.

While Klasnic is reported by Bild to be their number one target, the Croatian only moved to France last season, signing a four-year deal, thus that idea could prove to be too expensive for Dortmund to implement.

The Bundesliga club are reported by that same source as giving serious consideration to Andriy Voronin.

The Ukrainian striker impressed the entire Bundesliga last season with his free-scoring exploits at Hertha Berlin, who were then not able to afford to make his loan move permanent.

Dortmund would look to conclude a similar deal with Liverpool for Voronin, taking the striker on loan with a view to a permanent deal.

Voronin himself could be keen on the move, having enjoyed his time in the Bundesliga and found the style of play much more to his liking.

Despite Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez speaking fondly of the Ukrainian at their training camp in Switzerland recently, there seems little doubt an offer for Voronin would be considered by the Anfield club.

Danny Ayala Grabs His Liverpool FC Opportunity

One man’s disappointment can be another’s opportunity and this was the case on Liverpool’s pre-season trip to Switzerland where Danny Ayala got to rub shoulders with the big boys after Daniel Agger was forced to withdraw through injury.

Understandably, Ayala had been gutted to find out he would not be in the travelling party when Rafa Benitez named his squad for the Swiss training camp.

The Spanish teenager had been desperate to be included and hoped to be able to travel with his close mate Dani Pacheco but Benitez had other ideas, believing it would be more beneficial for Ayala to get more playing time with the reserves instead of being surplus to requirements in Switzerland.

That was until Agger reported problems with his back and Ayala was booked on the official club flight to Zurich and took full part in Liverpool’s training camp in Badra Gaz before making his first team bow as a second half substitute against St Gallen.

Ayala has been able to benefit from the expert coaching of not only the likes of Sammy Lee and Mauricio Pellegrino but also Jamie Carragher, who has taken time out to give tips on the art of central defending.

That’s what you call a footballing education.