Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Liverpool Have Squad To Challenge For Title, Insists Benitez

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is uncertain how Ronaldo's departure will impact Manchester United's title challenge this season but is confident the Reds have the squad to match the defending champions.

United have only spent around a quarter of the £80million they received from Real Madrid for the Portugal winger on Antonio Valencia from Wigan and Bordeaux's Gabriel Obertan while Michael Owen joined the club after his Newcastle contract expired.

However, Carlos Tevez also left Old Trafford for Manchester City and it remains to be seen how both his and Ronaldo's exits will affect the Red Devils this season.

Benitez, whose only major signing so far this summer is full-back Glen Johnson, downplayed the significance of Ronaldo's departure but believes United's spending is not over despite Sir Alex Ferguson's previous claims to the contrary.

'I don't know," he said when asked if Ronaldo's switch to Real Madrid means Liverpool now have a better chance of winning the Premier League.

'I'm sure that they will have some money and they will buy some players so they will be strong but we've really improved with Glen (Johnson) so hopefully we can be a little bit better and it will be enough.'

City manager Mark Hughes has quickly set about spending some of the Middle Eastern owners' millions in the transfer market in an effort to break into the top four and bring Champions League football to Eastlands.

United boss Ferguson has, however, dismissed suggestions their city rivals will prove serious title contenders this season but Benitez was more guarded in his assessment of the Eastlands club's credentials.

'I think that every club now in the Premier League is trying to improve, City is one of them so you never know,' he added.

'At least I would like to be there at the top of the table and be contenders but I cannot say too much about the other teams.'

Glen Johnson Eyes Premier League Glory With Liverpool FC

New signing Glen Johnson is aiming to reproduce the form that won him an England recall last season as he eyes Premier League glory with Liverpool.

Reds manager Rafael Benitez signed the full-back from Portsmouth for a reported £17million following an impressive season on the south coast that saw Fabio Capello restore him to the national team after an absence of almost three years.

Johnson made an encouraging debut in the recent pre-season friendly with St Gallen and his versatility may also prove a useful asset to Benitez, with the 24-year-old able to operate at right or left-back as well as in midfield.

"I just want to play with the consistency I did last year and, hopefully, with the attacking play and the defensive side that I’ve improved on," he said.

"I’d just like to be doing that week in, week out again.

"They’re (Liverpool) right up there with the world’s best and they showed that by how close they came last season so a few minor errors that could be cut out and there will be massive improvements.

"It’s a whole different club, the organization and the professionalism of all the staff makes a difference."

Johnson is Benitez’s only major signing of the summer to date as he plots to go one better than last season’s runners-up finish in the Barclays Premier League.

Babel Ready To Repay The Faith Insists Benitez

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez believes Ryan Babel will justify the faith he has shown in him – starting with tomorrow’s friendly against Thailand in Bangkok.

The 22-year-old Dutchman has struggled to live up to his £11.5million price tag since he arrived from Ajax two years ago.

However, Benitez has resisted the temptation to offload the winger and is backing Babel to be a major hit at Anfield next season.

“We have been really impressed with Ryan,” Benitez said.

“He worked hard in the summer and he came back really fit.

“He’s trying to do his best and that’s very positive when you have a player with his talent.

“The first two years in a foreign country are always difficult. Now he has the right mentality and I’m sure he will improve.”

The Reds touched down in Thailand yesterday after a 10-hour flight from Vienna and received a hero’s welcome in the capital Bangkok.

They face Thailand at the Rajamangala Stadium tomorrow (kick-off 2pm UK time) before making the short trip to play Singapore on Sunday.

After a goalless stalemate with St Gallen and a 1-0 defeat to Rapid Vienna, Benitez is looking for a big improvement.

The 28-man squad has been boosted by the return of Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera, Alvaro Arbeloa, Andrea Dossena and Javier Mascherano following their extended summer breaks.

"For us this is a really important stage of the season," Benitez said.

“Everything we do is preparing the players for the first Premier League game. We must spend this time getting them match fit and working on tactics.

“We analysed what happened last year and know what we can improve on. This time is crucial to what we achieve when the season starts.

“We will continue to prepare them well this week and look to play well in the games.

“It was disappointing to lose in Vienna and you can’t be happy when you don’t win but there were lots of positives to take from the game.

“Hopefully we can keep working well and keep working hard over here.”

Benitez refused to be drawn on Alonso’s future – despite a barrage of questions about where the midfielder will be playing next season.

The midfielder has been heavily linked with a move to Real Madrid but he is expected to play some part in tomorrow’s fixture.

“Xabi Alonso is with us and available,” Benitez said. “His future is to enjoy his time here this week with the people in Thailand – enjoy the weather, the game and the journalists. For the next week he will be here.

“We will talk together about tactics, prepare for the game and try to enjoy our football.

“We have a lot of respect for our fans here so we will try to use all the senior players.

“But the Spanish players and Dossena and Mascherano arrived back late because of the Confederations Cup and internationals, so they will probably not play as much as the other players.”

Meanwhile, Benitez is unlikely to be conducting any transfer business while he’s away after insisting he’s happy with the make up of his squad.

“We have already signed Glen Johnson, an England international, who is a very good signing,” he said.

“Also Andriy Voronin has come back after being one of the best players in the German League.”

Liverpool Set For Aquilani Talks

Il Corriere dello Sport understands Liverpool have flown to Italy for talks with Roma about the prospect of signing Alberto Aquilani.

Yesterday Roma fans staged a protest expressing their anger at the club's lack of activity in the transfer market this summer.

As takeover talks come to a standstill and with no new investment in sight, Roma will have to sell if they are to buy ahead of next season.

Reports suggest Liverpool have identified Aquilani as the perfect replacement for Xabi Alonso, who appears ready to leave for Real Madrid.

Il Corriere believes Roma have told Aquilani that they will sell him should a decent offer arrive.

The 25-year-old who was born and bred in Rome struggled with injury last season, but also signed a new contract a couple of months ago.

Yesterday his agent, Franco Zavaglia, denied the existence of an offer from Liverpool.

“For now, they have not contacted me. I don't know anything. For now, there is nothing concrete,” Zavaglia said.

Roma have made a habit of selling one of their jewels every summer for the last three years.

Duffen Denies Reds Rumours

Hull City chairman Paul Duffen has dismissed reports that he is a contender to become Liverpool's new chief executive.

Liverpool are aiming to appoint a new chief executive after Rick Parry left his position at Anfield at the end of last season.

Reports had claimed that Duffen was to be put on a short-list of candidates to replace Parry on Merseyside.

However, Duffen has branded the speculation 'ridiculous' and insists his focus is on helping manager Phil Brown improve his squad.

"It's a great example of the silly season at work, it's ridiculous," Duffen told the Hull Daily Mail.

"I am completely focused on working with the manager and strengthening the squad for next season."

Duffen has been with the Tigers for the past two years and also holds a shareholding in the Premier League club.

Benitez Expects United Spending

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez expects Premier League title rival Sir Alex Ferguson to use his world-record transfer profits to strengthen Manchester United this summer.

The Red Devils earned a staggering £80million up front from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid this summer to significantly boost funds at Old Trafford.

But despite repeated reports linking him with Franck Ribery and Sergio Aguero, Ferguson has claimed that he will not spend any more money before transfer deadline day.

Benitez, though, believes his opposite number, who has bought Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan while also signing free agent Michael Owen, will venture into the transfer market before the end of August.

"I am sure they will have money and they will buy some players," said the Liverpool boss when asked about United.

Benitez is confident Liverpool will again be able to compete with United in the new season after finishing runners-up in the last campaign.

The Reds have signed Glen Johnson from Portsmouth and Benitez feels the England full-back will add a necessary edge.

"We have to be strong next season. We have improved with Glen and hopefully we can do a little bit better and that will be enough," he said.

Benitez is also aware of the emerging threat of Manchester City, who have spent big this summer on the likes of Gareth Barry and Carlos Tevez.

"I think every club now is trying to improve and Manchester City is one of them," he said.

"I would like to be there at the top of the table and be contending but I cannot say too much on the other teams."

Liverpool FC Keen To Build On Incredible Passion Of Far East Fans

When Ian Ayre took over as Liverpool’s commercial director two years ago he didn’t need telling what huge potential there was for the club in Asia.

Having spent 15 years living on this vast continent he had seen for himself the passion and devotion of its football supporters.

And in particular a deep love for Liverpool Football Club.

Six years may have passed since the Reds’ last trip to Thailand but the reception Rafa Benitez and his players received on their arrival in Bangkok yesterday proved that love is undiminished.

The arrival of the Spaniard along with Ryan Babel and Jamie Carragher at a press conference in the team’s stunning Royal Hyatt Erawan Hotel sparked a major scrum and that was just amongst the waiting local media.

Outside hundreds of fans had queued for hours in the searing 33 degree heat and energy-sapping 70% humidity to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Most were decked out in the club’s colours with some even boasting swine flu protective face marks adorned with the LFC crest.

For Ayre, the Reds’ arrival for the week-long tour of Thailand and Singapore was the culmination of nine months hard graft for him and his commercial team.

”Having lived in Malaysia, Hong Kong and China nobody is more aware than me of the power of Liverpool Football Club and of football generally in Asia,” he said.

“Commercially we have a genuine opportunity to do really well here.

“The big difficulty was choosing where to go. Thailand is a great example of a market where we have lots and lots of fans but there are plenty of others. But by choosing Thailand and Singapore we captured most of South East Asia and made it possible for fans from other countries to come and see the team.

“We started planning this trip last October and a lot of work has gone into it.”

This tour will undoubtedly raise the Reds’ profile and provide a welcome boost to the club’s balance sheet but Ayre insists there is much more to this trip than trying to flog more replica shirts.

“It’s less about what we are trying to get out of it and more what we are trying to put in,” he said.

“We build our business on the basis of having fans all around the world who support us and contribute by buying.

“Touring is about giving a bit back and that’s why we’ve brought a really strong squad here.

“Liverpool have been coming on tour to Asia for many years. But the difference now is that we are trying to be a bit more commercially aware.

“We are making sure people know we are here and try to make a bit more of an impact so we continue to grow in that way.

“Most of the tickets for these matches were sold through Adidas outlets rather than the traditional route of selling through ticket agencies. We also used Carlsberg and other retail outlets.

“We also attracted local sponsors with the likes of Tesco, Honda and the tourist authority of Thailand.

“They are taking the opportunity to be associated with Liverpool in this short period.”

Liverpool Insist Asian Tour Is About Fans, Not Money

Liverpool have insisted that the fans, not commercial opportunities, are the reason that they are undertaking their Asian tour.

Many see tours such as this as purely for financial benefit, but the Reds' commercial director, Ian Ayre, told the club's official website, "We have a duty to contribute to these football markets and to our supporters over here.

"We have in place a strong legacy program encompassing many different initiatives and which can be broken down into different areas. For example, we have a knowledge transfer program at which Rafa [Benitez] will meet coaches from Thailand and Singapore, I will be meeting representatives from the local businesses and the medical team will also be having sessions.

"We will be running a kids' program with open training sessions to try and show people what we do and how we do it.

"The important thing is that when our plane lands back in Liverpool there will still be things going on in our name over here which we can continue to support."

Liverpool's first match on tour is against Thailand on Wednesday, before they fly out to Singapore.

Steven Gerrard 'Launched Volley Of Punches'

England footballer Steven Gerrard launched a volley of uppercut punches at a man in a row over music, a court heard today.

The millionaire star "totally lost it" and attacked Marcus McGee, 34, "with the style and speed of a professional boxer" in a 2am bar brawl, it is alleged.

Gerrard was at the Lounge Inn in Southport, Merseyside on 29 December to celebrate Liverpool's 5-1 demolition of Newcastle United hours earlier.

The Reds' captain, who scored twice in the game, was enjoying a night out with a party of friends including Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish, 58.

But trouble flared when Mr. McGee refused to hand over a card controlling the CD player.

The victim was in charge of music for the venue after being given the card to pick songs for a staff party in an adjacent room to Gerrard's group.

David Turner QC, prosecuting, told Liverpool Crown Court Gerrard asked McGee for the card, saying: "Here y'are lad. Give me that lad."

Mr. Turner said: "Mr. McGee took offence at his attitude and the expression 'lad' and he refused.

"Not many people on Merseyside, or indeed anywhere else, would refuse a request from Steven Gerrard but Mr. McGee did.

"There can be no doubt that this refusal astounded Steven Gerrard.

"He walked away back to his party but the CCTV shows how much his mood had changed.

"He was no longer the centre of that high-spirited party.

"He was clearly walking around pondering, musing over what had happened - about the man who said 'no' to Steven Gerrard."

Several minutes later CCTV showed Gerrard returning to the victim who was sitting alone at the bar and allegedly confronting him with the words: "Who the f*** do you think you are?"

Mr. McGee stood up and the pair were head to head, Mr. Turner said, "in the sort of hostile confrontation that is often seen between professional footballers".

The barrister added: "Steven Gerrard had clearly lost his cool: he was angry with Marcus McGee."

The situation attracted the millionaire's friends.

One, John Doran, who has admitted affray, pushed McGee away but "could not resist following through with his right elbow into Mr McGee's face", said Mr. Turner.

"We say at this stage Gerrard totally lost it.

"Almost immediately after the blow from John Doran, in fact within seconds, Steven Gerrard joined in the attack with a succession of well aimed uppercut punches delivered with the style and speed of a professional boxer rather than a professional footballer."

In police interview Gerrard said he punched Mr. McGee because he believed he was going to be attacked.

But warning the seven women and five men of the jury, Mr. Turner said: "If you consider Steven Gerrard was or even may have been acting in self defense you will acquit.

"But we say on this occasion Steven Gerrard's fists, not his feet, did the talking.

"This was never self defense in a hundred years."

Gerrard sat in the dock throughout the proceedings listening carefully and looking straight ahead.

As well as Doran, of Woodlands Road, Huyton, Merseyside, five other men admitted affray.

They were Accrington Stanley footballers Robert Grant, 19, of Enstone Avenue, Litherland, and Ian Dunbavin, 28, of Guildford Road, Southport.

Ian Gerrard Smith, 19, of Hilary Avenue, and Paul McGrattan, 31, of Linden Drive, both Huyton, admitted affray.

John McGrattan, 34, of Rimmer Avenue, Huyton, admitted threatening behavior after denying affray.

Proceedings will resume tomorrow morning when it is expected Mr. McGee will give evidence.