Sunday, July 26, 2009

Gerrard Makes Scoring Return

Steven Gerrard swept away the stress of his courtroom battle to score a trademark goal on his return to action on Friday night.

Just hours after being found not guilty of affray by a jury at Liverpool Crown Court, the Reds captain made a surprise appearance in a pre-season friendly at Tranmere.

In a Liverpool XI otherwise comprised of reserves and youth players, Gerrard scored his team's first equalizer in a 2-2 draw at Prenton Park, blasting home a low drive from outside the box.

The news will have been welcomed on the other side of the world, where Rafael Benitez and the rest of his first-team players are currently engaged in a pre-season tour of the Far East.

Benitez was told of Gerrard's acquittal during a training session and said: "We are really pleased. He is very important for us and he can now focus just on football.

"We are all pleased at the club and over here at the training camp.

We have been supporting him all the time and were just waiting for the decision. Now he can concentrate just on football and hopefully play at the same level as last year."

This has not been the smoothest of pre-seasons for Benitez, and the Far East tour this week has been dogged by a succession of problems.

Injuries to Martin Skrtel and Nabil El Zhar which forced the players to return to England for treatment have come on top of the continued transfer saga surrounding Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Alvaro Arbeloa.

But as he prepared his side for Sunday's friendly against Singapore, Benitez was relieved that the cloud hanging over Gerrard has now been swept away after he was acquitted at Liverpool Crown Court following an incident in Southport on December 29 last year.

Gerrard has missed the Far East trip because of the week-long trial, and will be reunited with his team-mates next week when Liverpool return to the UK.

Speaking outside court after the verdict, Gerrard said: "Can I just say how pleased I am with today's verdict.

"I'd like to put this case behind me. I'm really looking forward to the season ahead and concentrating on football.

"I'd like to say a big thank you to my legal team, my friends and family and to everyone at Liverpool Football Club for supporting me."

Benitez also confirmed that Real Madrid target Alonso was fit following an ankle injury and ready to play against Singapore.

Benitez, who also has Yossi Benayoun back from an ankle problem, said: "I am very happy to have Yossi and Xabi back. They are working very hard, the tempo of the session was fantastic and the fans really enjoyed it.

"We are trying to step up our training every day, especially for the international players. Today we had three teams playing against each other. It was good competition and pleasing for me to see."

Real Madrid To Sign Alvaro Arbeloa From Liverpool Next Week

Real Madrid could be set to sign Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa as early as next week.

The Spanish right-back could be about to make a return to his native country in a deal worth around €5 million (£4.5m), according to a report in The Sun today.

Officials at the Santiago Bernabeu have recently expressed their ongoing interest in signing the former Deportiva La Coruna stopper this summer.

Los Merengues' sporting director, Jorge Valdano, said, "Arbeloa is a basic part of our plans."

Fellow director Miguel Pardeza commented in the last few days, "Liverpool do not really have the desire to let him go, even though he has just a year left on his contract.

"But there is a month to go in the market and anything can change, and I would not deny that we would very much like to have Arbeloa."

Meanwhile, Arbeloa's agent, Manuel Garcia Quillon, has said he expects the matter to be resolved soon.

"Discussions with Real are not over and I expect a solution early next week," Quillon said.

Liverpool have already installed a replacement for Arbeloa in the form of ex-Portsmouth defender Glen Johnson.

Ryan Babel Can Be One Of Premier League's Best - Liverpool Legend John Barnes

Liverpool legend John Barnes believes Ryan Babel could be a key player for the club next season.

The Dutch wide-man hasn't quite cemented himself a first-team place since joining the Reds, but started his pre-season well this summer, scoring against Thailand on Wednesday.

Barnes, now manager at Tranmere Rovers, believes Babel is capable of becoming one of the very best in England and could be pivotal to this season's Premier League push.

"Ryan is a fantastic player," Barnes told the club's official website.

"What we need to do is find how to get the best out of him because getting the right environment which suits the players is the most important thing.

"He is a great player and if we can find the right blend and formation for him to show us what he can do I believe he can be one of the best players in the Premier League."

Barnes was also full of praise for Reds manager Rafael Benitez and is optimistic the club can add a 19th league title to their trophy cabinet this season.

He continued, "You look at what Liverpool achieved coming so close last year and it just goes to show what a great job 'Rafa' has done at the club. We want to have a serious challenge year in year out and hopefully this next season will be the one."

Liverpool FC Legend Kenny Dalglish Defends Manager Rafa Benitez’s Singapore Rotation

Some Singaporeans are going to be left crying into their Tiger beer tomorrow. There is clamour here for Rafa Benitez to throw all his star names into action from the start when they take on the national team (noon kick-off UK time).

Liverpool’s visit has even managed to knock swine flu off the front pages with The New Paper dedicating seven pages of coverage to the Reds’ stay in the former British colony.

Their front page headline yesterday issued the plea: “Dear Rafa, Please play your best 11”.

Inside they urged fans desperate to see their heroes to sign an online petition, saying: “How would you feel if the likes of Glen Johnson, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina only play a half, Fernando Torres plays just 10 minutes and Xabi Alonso doesn’t play at all?

“That was exactly what happened on Wednesday when the Reds played against Thailand.

“With captain Steven Gerrard already missing the tour and Martin Skrtel out injured, don’t you think you deserve the biggest bang for your buck?”

However, they aren’t going to get their way.

Benitez used 26 players against Thailand in Bangkok and it’s likely to be a similar story tomorrow.

With 30 degree heat and intense humidity, few are likely to feature for more than a half.

To fans here this might be the biggest match of their life but for Benitez it is just another step on the road to ensuring the Reds are ready for the start of the Premier League in three weeks.

Reds legend Kenny Dalglish, who is on the tour in his role as club ambassador, believes any criticism of the manager’s selection policy is unfair.

“The most important match coming up is the one against Tottenham,” he said.

“That is the one the players are being prepared for.

“It’s been difficult for Rafa to manage the situation with players coming back to start pre-season at different times with different levels of fitness.

“The Spanish lads and Andrea Dossena only rejoined the squad last weekend.

“You could never expect any player to come back and after two days training start a game, let alone play the full 90 minutes.

“The fact those players played any part at all in Thailand was a real bonus for everyone.

“I’m sure it will be much the same on Sunday. The players will have another couple of days training and 15 or 20 minutes game time behind them.

“They might be better prepared to play for a bit longer but the best person to make that judgement is Rafa.

“I don’t think the people in Thailand or Singapore should take it any other way.

“It’s certainly not Rafa trying to be ungrateful or disrespectful in any shape or form. It’s just a fact of life.

“Wherever these games had been played it would have been exactly the same.

“Rafa knows the players best and the last thing he wants is for anyone to not be fit for the first game against Tottenham.

“We’ve already lost Martin Skrtel with a hamstring injury and we have to protect against losing anyone else.

“I know Rafa will manage the situation well with his knowledge and intelligence. The best team for a particular game might not be the biggest names.”

Dalglish was speaking alongside Xabi Alonso at an Adidas coaching clinic held at Victoria Junior College yesterday.

They were joined by Liverpool academy coaches Mike Garrity and Carl Macauley who put the youngsters through their paces.

One of the many banners welcoming the stars read ‘Don’t go Alonso, don’t be like Owen’.

Uncertainty over the future of both Alonso and Javier Mascherano is dragging on but Dalglish insists it’s had no impact on the Reds’ preparations.

“I don’t think it has any affect at all,” he added. “The players are used to speculation. It’s a fact of life and you have just got to get on with it.

“From what I’ve seen the players are doing superbly well. They have trained well and look in good shape. I just think it’s fantastic for Liverpool to come here and get closer to the people who support this football club.

“It’s a great thrill for the children to see the likes of Xabi Alonso and spend a bit of time with him.”

Tomorrow’s opponents Singapore are ranked 127th in the world – 10 places below Thailand – but they have enjoyed an upturn in fortunes since former Notts County keeper Raddy Avramovic took over in 2003.

The Lions held Australia to a goalless draw here last year and for the first time they reached the third round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

Having knocked out Palestine and Tajikistan their hopes were dashed as they finished third in the group stage behind Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

Their squad includes English-born duo John Wilkinson and Daniel Bennett.

Wilkinson is a 29-year-old former Exeter City midfielder who opted for Singaporean citizenship after marrying a local girl, while Bennett changed his nationality in 2002 and the defender has had two spells with Wrexham.

Skrtel Injury Worry For Liverpool

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel could miss the start of the Premier League season after suffering an injury in Wednesday's 1-1 draw with Thailand.

A scan revealed the 24-year-old has strained his hamstring and he is expected to be out for three weeks.

Striker Nabil El Zhar, 22, also limped off in the same game after spraining a medial ligament in his right knee, which will keep him out for four weeks.

Both players have flown home and will miss Sunday's match against Singapore.

Full-back Glen Johnson will also sit out the final friendly of the club's Far Eastern tour in order to rest his Achilles injury.

However, Real Madrid target Xabi Alonso and Israeli star Yossi Benayoun successfully came through training after recovering from ankle injuries and will be available to play.

Liverpool get their season underway on Sunday, 16 August against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, a match which Skrtel is now doubtful for.

The Slovakia international featured 30 times for Liverpool last season and his absence would be a major blow to manager Rafael Benitez.

El Zhar has only started four games since arriving at Anfield from French side St Etienne in 2006 but Benitez recently handed the Moroccan a new deal to tie him to the club until 2012.

Midfielder Steven Gerrard, who missed the Reds' Far East pre-season tour in order to attend a court case, will not join up with the club for the Singapore game despite being found not guilty of affray.

"We were in touch with him every day and knew what was happening and we were confident everything would be okay," said Benitez.

"Now we need to take care of him, he must rest.

"I have to protect my players. We have already lost two to injury, Martin Skrtel and Nabil El Zhar."

Fans in Asia had been disappointed at missing out on seeing Gerrard whose image was used prominently in promotional material to sell tickets.

"I'm sorry for the fans that we can't bring Gerrard but he is the captain of the team so he is a key player for the rest of the season," added Benitez.

"I hope the fans can respect the decision. We have other big names like Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano and they are all here."

Memory Loss Latest Of Liverpool FC Defender Phillip Degen’s ailments

It seems that Philipp Degen has a selective memory.

The Swiss right-back insisted this week he is not injury prone and is relishing a “new start” at Anfield after his first campaign was a nightmare.

Degen managed just two senior appearances last season and both were eventful.

He collided with Sami Hyypia in the Carling Cup match against Crewe and broke two ribs and punctured his lung.

When he returned for the tie with Spurs he suffered a broken metatarsal.

After returning to action back in January he was swiftly sidelined again after picking up a foot injury playing for the Reserves.

“Last year was a very sad year for me," Degen said.

“I have never had a season like last season before when I was injured all the time.

“I came to a new club wanting to show what I could do but it wasn't possible.”

This is the same player who only made 10 appearances for Borussia Dortmund in the 2007/8 campaign as he spent most of the campaign on the treatment table.

Roma Lay Eyes On Liverpool Striker Andriy Voronin

Roma have laid eyes on Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin as head coach Luciano Spalletti steps up his striker search.

According to Il Corriere Dello Sport, Voronin, who has returned to Anfield following his loan spell at Hertha Berlin, is admired by Spalletti.

The Italian coach recently claimed he wanted "a striker who can play on the wings with speed". Voronin fits the bill, and the Giallorossi are ready to make a move.

The report suggests Liverpool would be willing to sell the Ukrainian hitman to Roma, but the Italians do not have the cash to buy at the moment. A loan deal is being mooted, but voices surrounding Voronin suggest he only wants a permanent three-year deal. Voronin is currently on €2 million-per-season at Anfield, but the Giallorossi would only be able to stretch to €1.5m.

A part-exchange deal involving Lupi midfielder Alberto Aquilani has also been mooted. The Italians have already claimed Aquilani may be sold for the right money, and recent reports implied Liverpool were eyeing the Roman as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, who has been linked with Real Madrid.

The third option Roma have is a co-ownership deal. Liverpool could offer the Giallorossi a stake in Voronin plus €15m in return for Aquilani.

No official comment regarding the deal has been made.

Benitez Holds Alonso Talks

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has held talks with Real Madrid target Xabi Alonso and has urged the midfielder to stay at Anfield.

Spanish giants Real have made no secret of their desire to take the £35million-rated Reds star to the Bernabeu as they look to continue lavish summer spending.

Liverpool have stood firm and refused to budge from their valuation of Alonso, despite the Spaniard admitting he was flattered by Real's interest.

Benitez held talks with the 27-year-old on Friday during the Reds pre-season tour of Asia and has used supporters' admiration as an example of why he should stay.

"I talked to Xabi yesterday and told him, as he can see here, that the fans love him and I said to him, 'maybe you have to stay," Benitez said on Saturday.

"You can see he is a really good player and I'll be really pleased if he stays. All the players and his team-mates want him to stay. If we keep Xabi I will be very pleased."

Alonso has received rapturous support from fans in Singapore and he is expected to play some part in Liverpool's game against the national team on Sunday.

Rafa Benitez Is Right To Get All Godfather With Real Madrid Over Xabi Alonso

Real Madrid's sporting director Miguel Pardeza is livid. He "cannot understand" why Liverpool are asking £35million or "more than we are willing to pay" for Xavi Alonso.

Well, it might just be that Alonso has years left on his contract. Or that Real have distorted transfer fees out of all proportion, are desperate to sign a top Spanish player and Pardeza himself admits there is no one else on the market with Alonso's playmaking skills.

But I'd like to think Rafa Benitez might deliver Senator Pat Geary's speech from Godfather II, when Michael Corleone asked why his family should have to pay more than they want to in a deal.

"Because I intend to squeeze you. I don't like your kind of people. I don't like to see you come here with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, trying to pass yourselves off as decent. I'll do business with you, but the fact is I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself and your whole freakin' family."

If so, he'll speak for everyone in football.