Friday, August 07, 2009

Liverpool Will Be Title Favorites, No Matter What Sir Alex Says

Somewhat unbelievably, the most cantankerous old man in football, Sir Alex Ferguson, has already dismissed Liverpool’s hopes of winning the Premier League. Yet if the Overlord of English football feels it necessary to lay into Rafa Benitez’s side without a ball of the new season being kicked, it surely only means one thing: Liverpool are a major threat to Manchester United’s hegemony.

Ferguson’s critical assessment - “Liverpool have just had probably their best season for 20 years, finished up with 86 points and still finished four adrift. It will be hard for them to match that, let alone improve. Other teams will read Liverpool better” - is borne out of fear. For while the Anfield club have just lost a key figure in Xabi Alonso, it does not come close to the impact United will feel without Cristiano Ronaldo.

Liverpool fans have been ridiculed in the past for their regular pre-season refrain of ‘This is our season’, but 2009-10 really could, and should be. Never will they have a better chance of ending their league title drought, never will they be better prepared.

Benitez has improved his already formidable defence with the signing of Glen Johnson, and if he replaces Alonso with the exciting Alberto Aquilani and then uses the rest of his transfer budget to sign a striker and/or an out-and-out winger, then I believe Liverpool will win the Premier League by five or six points.

United, going for a record fourth consecutive title, will badly miss Ronaldo, no matter much they protest otherwise. You cannot take the Portuguese’s goals, assists and general aura out of a team and not weaken it. Replacing Ronaldo with Luis Antonio Valencia is akin to trading in a Ferrari for a BMW. Valencia is very good, but he will not score 20+ goals this season and that will put extra pressure on Ferguson’s strike force.

While United fans are now pretending they were never that bothered about Carlos Tevez, the departure of the Argentine has weakened their front line. An awful lot is resting on Dimitar Berbatov, one of last season’s most underwhelming signings, and Michael Owen, one of last season’s most underwhelming footballers.

United simply do not look the force that Liverpool do, no matter how much Ferguson tries to talk himself, and anyone who’ll listen, into it.

Chelsea will be the team to push Benitez’s men closest, and with a strong, settled side rejuvenated under the command of the now departed Guus Hiddink, they will start the new campaign infused with confidence. But the priority at Stamford Bridge is to win the Champions League, and while Carlo Ancelotti has the squad to compete on all fronts, I feel they will fall short of Liverpool.

Arsenal’s fate is reliant upon their next moves in the transfer market. If Arsene Wenger adds the commanding centre-half and defensive midfielder his team needs, they could launch a sustained title bid. However, with injury concerns over the returning Tomas Rosicky and Eduardo, and major upheaval at boardroom level, the environment at the Emirates does not seem conducive to success at present.

Will Manchester City break up the Big Four cartel? The potential is certainly there, and with their summer outlay, that should be the very least of their ambitions. However, I still feel it is unlikely. Mark Hughes has a massive job on his hands moulding his new-look squad into a cohesive unit, and whether he can handle the rampant egos in his dressing room, coupled with the elevated expectation levels foisted upon him, is highly debatable. I expect Hughes to be gone before Christmas, and replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Match Report: Lyn Oslo 0 - 2 Liverpool

Liverpool triumphed 2-0 today in Oslo over Norwegian outfit FC Lyn, with Rafa Benitez's men enjoying their second win of pre-season in comfortable fashion.

Andrey Voronin headed the Reds into the lead just before the interval, with David Ngog doubling their advantage on the hour mark. The Reds, resplendent in their new all-white European away kit, strolled through the Scandinavian sunshine with their only concern being an injury to Albert Riera, the extent of which is not yet clear.

However, it was the hosts who threatened early on, with Liverpool keeper Diego Cavalieri being called into action early on to tip an effort from striker Davy Angan round the post.

The keeper was forced to make a couple more saves before the Reds began to assert themselves, with efforts from Jay Spearing and Lucas Leiva going close. However, the hosts remained competitive and both teams had opportunities to take the lead before Voronin's effort opened the scoring.

Dutch winger Ryan Babel created the goal, with a powerful run down the left flank capped with a cross to the far post that the Ukrainian nodded home.

Five changes for the Reds followed at half-time, but the disruption was minimal, and Andrea Dossena sparked a well-worked move to allow Ngog to double the visitor's advantage.

The Italian was picked out by a superb ball from Javier Mascherano, before surging into the area and cutting the ball back for Ngog to finish clinically.

Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard came off the Liverpool bench late on, but there was no further scoring. The Merseysiders did go close with a couple of late efforts, as Martin Kelly had one shot which shaved the post, and the game was completed in relative comfort by Rafa Benitez's men.

Liverpool Play Down Injury Scare To Albert Riera

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez does not believe the ankle injury sustained by Albert Riera against FC Lyn last night is serious.

Riera had to be stretchered off after falling awkwardly during Liverpool's 2-0 win in Oslo.

It was the last thing Benitez needed on the day Xabi Alonso was unveiled as a Real Madrid player.

However, with nine days to go before the start of the new season, Benitez is confident 27-year-old Riera will be fit to face Tottenham on Aug 16.

Benitez said: "He twisted his ankle but I don't think it is serious. We had to take him off but it is always better to be careful about these things."

Meanwhile, midfielder Alberto Aquilani's medical today could prove to be a pivotal point in his career and Liverpool's future.

Benitez has identified the Italy international as the ideal replacement for Alonso, who completed his £30m move to Real Madrid on Wednesday.

Liverpool and Roma have already agreed a fee, believed to be in the region of £20m, but the 25-year-old must now pass the physical examination.

That will not be as straightforward as it might as the player, who made only 14 league appearances last season, has not played since Roma crashed out of the Champions League against Arsenal on March 11.

He underwent surgery on his right ankle in May but must prove he is over the injury if Liverpool are to justify spending two-thirds of their income from the Alonso deal.

Everything You Want To Know About Alberto Aquilani

Is He Worthy?

Potentially, Aquilani is the ideal player to replace Xabi Alonso. He has refined feet, an excellent positional sense and he also has a good shot on goal. The only doubt: his physical condition. Too often he has been out injured. In any case, he has the personality to play for a club like Liverpool, even though he will have to learn to be more consistent.

On The Pitch

Alberto Aquilani is a central midfielder with offensive tendencies, with good feet (he can use both, even though the right foot is his favourite). He has also been employed as a classical, between-the-lines playmaker, but he has shown his best form when given full control of the midfield.

He's a very dynamic player, he has a good long-range shot (many of his greatest goals have been efforts from outside the area) but he’s also good at getting into the area untracked. He makes his presence felt on the pitch, he has a good temperament, despite his injuries, he doesn’t exactly fear the physical battle and he has, like all Italians, a strong positional sense.

He almost never loses his head (even under pressure); this is demonstrated by relatively low yellow-card count (nine in the league since playing for Roma) and he has never been sent off.

Off The Pitch

Aquilani has always been described as a calm and reserved lad. Hailing from the Roman quarter of Montesacro (where he’s considered an idol), he doesn’t like to be in the spotlight, he’s a pretty simple person, very tied to his family (he has a tattoo with the initials of his closest family members). Then there is his girlfriend, actress Michela Quattrociocche, who has recently tattooed the player’s initials on her neck to show her love for Alberto.

He won’t have problems adjusting to England, even though certainly Rome was his home. He’s not the type who talks a lot in the dressing room or on the pitch. In the Eternal City he was very well liked. Being an intelligent person, he’ll manage to find his space also in Liverpool…

The Man & The Fans

Despite being just one year younger than Daniele De Rossi, Aquilani is still considered the boy in the group at Roma. The fans have always liked him, especially for being a Roman 100 per cent.

Obviously, compared to the likes Totti and De Rossi, the Roman people’s love for him is different. Aquilani was not considered to be on their level, but he was still very well seen by the Roma fans. The phrase most often said to describe him was: “He’s good, but too often injured…”


Roma needed to get some money. Few people thought it would be up to him to pack his bags, especially because he was considered a 'son of Rome'.

Nevertheless, Liverpool could certainly represent the ideal place for Aquilani to make a jump in quality. A new environment, a new coach, and a team that seems to suit his qualities. In Rome, each time he came on the pitch, he was called on to make the difference; in Liverpool, he’ll have more time.

Value For Money

The price paid by Liverpool for Aquilani (about £18 million) is good value, because the boy has much room for improvement and, above all else, was born in 1984.

Roma certainly have done a great deal economically, but if the player will do well on the pitch, Liverpool will also say that they have not spent too much.

The boy, on paper, is worth the money spent to bring him to Anfield.

Expert Opinions

Ubaldo Righetti (former AS Roma player, 1980-1987 and voice of Roma Channel): “Aquilani has not betrayed Roma, absolutely not. It was a painful choice, both for the club and the lad. He is from Rome, he loves Rome and he never would have left, but in life you have to make choices. Roma need money and the lad needs to have new experiences. The club has always taken care of him but they had reached a point where they had to make some decisions.

"I think Aquilani will do great things at Liverpool. English football is different to Italian football but Aquilani has characteristics that will allow him to adapt himself well. He just needs to find the consistency he lacked in Rome. Certainly he will need to adapt but, knowing him, I know he will do his best. If he finds continuity, he will do exceptional things at Liverpool.

"He’s going to a team of a very high level, one of the best clubs in the world, for him it’s a great new opportunity which he has to take with both hands.”

Attilio Tesser (Aquilani’s coach at Triestina, 2003-04): “He immediately showed he was not only able to play as a central midfielder but also in one of the vertices of a diamond formation, and he immediately showed great temperament. I’d also like to underline his very positive family environment. His parents are exceptional people.”


It’s said that, in the past, Aquilani almost became a Lazio player.

Here’s what he said in an exclusive interview to Calcio2000 – November 2007:

“I want to clear up this story about Lazio because it’s been talked about a lot. As a child I played with Spas Montesacro, my local team. One day I accompanied a friend of mine to the training, without even knowing that that team was a satellite club of Lazio.

"A Lazio observer asked me to train, I did it and, at the end of the training, they said they wanted to get me. But I did not sign anything with Lazio, I simply went to training with a friend.

"After refusing to join the Biancocelesti, I waited for a month, and then Roma proposed me to join their youth ranks. It should be clear to everyone: I don’t and never will support Lazio in any way.”

Benitez Hails Aquilani Addition

Liverpool closed in on the signing of Roma's Alberto Aquilani on Thursday with boss Rafael Benitez insisting the midfielder will "excite" the fans.

The 25-year-old Italy international also received the backing of former Liverpool defender John Arne Riise, a team-mate with the Rome club.

Aquilani is due on Merseyside for a medical and to complete a £20million deal that will give him a four-year contract.

Benitez, who has completed the sale of midfielder Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, said: "Roma have allowed us to talk with him, so that's good and positive. He is a player with the quality we are looking for.

"He can play a little bit higher (further forward) than Javier Mascherano - maybe between him and Steven Gerrard.

"He is a good passer, the final ball is good, and he also works. If he can settle down properly in England he can be a very good addition.

"I think the signing should excite the fans. He won the under-19 European Championship with his country, and the under-21 too. He has some trophies, including the Italian Cup.

"I always remember one game - England versus Italy Under-21s at Wembley, and he was man of the match in a 3-0 win."

Aquilani's departure from Roma comes with the club captain Francesco Totti claiming: "Alberto will be missed very much by everyone here."

Liverpool-Bound Alberto Aquilani Is ‘More Dangerous’ Than Xabi Alonso – Riise

John Arne Riise, a former Liverpool player now plying his trade at Roma, believes team-mate Alberto Aquilani has what it takes to be a success in the Premier League.

The Norwegian international, who has a thunderous left-footed shot, admitted to The Daily Express that upon his own move from Liverpool to Roma, he had little idea who Aquilani was, but it did not take long for him to learn of the Italian's ability.

Riise, 28, opined that Aquilani is the greater threat than Xabi Alonso, as he "runs more than Xabi" and gets into the box more.

“When I first came to Roma, I didn’t know a thing about Aquilani," Riise stated. "I knew all about Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Philippe Mexes, of course, but Aquilani was the player who surprised me the most in my first months with what he could do.”

On the specific capabilities that make Aquilani stand out, Riise said, “He’s really good on the ball, with good passing, good movement, he works hard and is a good professional. He likes to have the ball at his feet but not because he likes to dribble, he just wants to keep the team moving. He never stands still, he’s always on the run.

“He certainly runs more than Xabi and is probably more dangerous in terms of getting in the box and trying to score goals.

“When I came to Rome he was my neighbour and helped me out a lot. He’s a good friend. Liverpool will be getting a very good player.”

Riise also believes it will not take long for Aquilani to adapt to a league that focuses more on pace, power and physicality than Serie A.

“There is an obvious difference between the Italian and English leagues. Here it is more tactical whereas in England you’re playing 90 minutes up and down, up and down, and there is more emphasis on power and physical force," the Norwegian explained.

“But Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t all about physique, and he has been the best player in the Premier League in recent seasons. Everyone can adapt. It just takes time. The key is how long it takes. I was lucky. I fitted in quite quickly when I joined from Monaco. Alberto is someone who wants to make the most of his talent and wants to prove himself, so if Liverpool come in for you, it is very hard to say no.”

Kuyt Promises Reds Will Fight On

Dirk Kuyt insists Liverpool will "fight on" following Xabi Alonso's £30million move to Real Madrid.

Spain international Alonso completed his move to the Bernabeu on Wednesday as he signed a five-year contract with the Primera Liga giants.

The departure of the influential midfielder has led some to question the Premier League title credentials of Liverpool, who are set to sign Roma's Alberto Aquilani as a replacement.

But while Kuyt recognises Alonso played an important role for the Reds, he insists the club can cope without his former team-mate.

The Dutch forward told Nettavisen after Wednesday's 2-0 friendly win over FC Lyn in Oslo: "Alonso has been great for Liverpool, but we will fight on."

Liverpool have suffered a disappointing pre-season and Kuyt recognises it was important to react to a recent 3-0 setback to Espanyol by defeating Lyn.

Rafa Benitez's team begin their league campaign at Tottenham on August 16 and Kuyt is confident last season's runners-up will be in good shape.

"We are happy with the result after the defeat against Espanyol," he told Liverpool's official website. "It's always good to have another game come up quickly and we won 2-0.

"Maybe it could have been a little bit more but at the end of the day it was a clean sheet and a good performance.

"Sometimes you lose to a team like Espanyol and you just have to get over it. There's still a week and a half to go until we play Spurs and that's the most important game for us.

"If we win against them then we've had a good pre-season - if we lose, we've had a bad pre-season."

Kuyt has captained Liverpool a couple of times in pre-season but, while he feels privileged, he acknowledges he is behind Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher in rank of command.

"It means a lot to be captain of Liverpool," he said. "Obviously I know that Stevie is No.1 and we have Jamie as well.

"With so many changes in pre-season everyone needs to play and I've had the armband a couple of times - it's a great honour."

Anas Sharbini & Mario Mandzukic: Rafa Eyes Free-Scoring Croatian Duo For Liverpool

Reports in Croatia suggest Liverpool are closing in on Croatian duo Anas Sharbini and Mario Mandzukic in the wake of the sale of Xabi Alonso.

The latest Croat star to be linked with a move to the Premier League is 22-year-old NK Rijeka midfield star Anas Sharbini. Celtic reportedly made a tentative enquiry in January but Liverpool are being strongly linked in the Croatian press after the sale of Xabi Alonso. The player should also be available at a knock-down £3m as his contract expires at the end of the 2009/10 season.

Sharbini’s talent was brought to public attention in the 2007/08 season after a superb campaign in which the attacking midfielder scored 11 goals in 28 League appearances (27 starts). This superb form led to a call up to the Croatian national squad as a reserve in case of injuries for Euro 2008. He’s yet to play for his country at full international level but recently earned a call-up after impressing in the U21 side.

The young star enjoyed another excellent season in 2008/09 with 14 League goals in 27 League appearances but is reported to be desperate to leave the club. Sharbini’s goal tally was only bettered by two other players last season. The talented star has started the 2009/10 season in sensational style with a hat-trick in the club’s opening league match and a further strike in their Europa League qualifying defeat to Ukrainian outfit Metalist. Dinamo Zagreb are said to be keen but potential suitors include Liverpool, Ajax, West Ham, Salzburg, Hamburg, Aston Villa and Trabzonspor.

Sharbini is a technically gifted, quick, two-footed playmaker and could prove a bargain buy for a number of clubs needing to add creativity to their ranks for a knock-down price. Rafa Benitez is looking to strengthen his midfield options with bargain buys and the fact the youngster can also play in Steven Gerrard’s 2nd striker position is an added bonus.

The Croatian star’s father was born in Damascus but moved to Rijeka in the 1980’s, therefore Sharbini could have opted for Syria at international level but instead chose the country of his and his mother’s birth. At 5 ft 11 he is not as lightweight as compatriot Luka Modric so may settle quicker in terms of the physical nature of British football. He is also renowned for his set-piece capabilities and has been tagged the ‘new Boban’ by the Croatian press which is high praise indeed.

Interest is growing in one of Croatia’s brightest young talents Mario Mandzukic this summer. The Dinamo Zagreb striker was expected to move to Werder Bremen but reports in the German and Croatian media suggest the deal has fallen through due to the player’s price-tag thought to be £12.8m.

The player’s agent Ivan Cvjetkovic has confirmed that the player wants out. He told German newspaper Bild, “We have told Dinamo that Mario wants to leave the club.”

A stumbling block may be the players recent appearance in the Champions League qualifiers although the club’s exit at the hands of Austrian champions Salzburg means the club are more likely to sell.

Interest in England has been growing and the player revealed his ambition when he declared, “My goal is to join a strong club where I will continue to progress.”

Mandzukic finished as top goal scorer in the Croatian league following 16 goals in 28 league appearances (27 starts). This haul didn’t include any penalties and explains why he is so highly-rated in his homeland and now Europe. He has started this season in the same vein with 2 goals in his first two league appearances and a strike one goal in Europe. The 23-year-old joined Dinamo in the summer of 2007 as a replacement for Arsenal bound Eduardo da Silva and has been a big success after scoring 29 goals in 59 league appearances for the current Croatian champions.

The 6 ft 1 striker was born in Slavonski Brod but started his career with German outfit Ditzingen before returning to his homeland to join NK Marsonia. Mandzukic did not feature in the first team before leaving to join NK Zagreb. In two seasons with the club, the tall striker scored 14 league goals in 51 appearances before Dinamo made their 1.3 million Euro move.

Mandzukic finished last season in excellent form with 8 goals in his last 10 league appearances and has proven to be a huge success as Dinamo have won back to back league and cup doubles since he joined. He’s renowned as an excellent finisher who is sharp in the box and is now a regular member of the Croatian international squad.

The 23-year-old has scored once in 5 international appearances and that goal came against England in the 4-1 home qualifying defeat back in September 2008. He’d been on the pitch just 6 minutes when he scored.

Man City were linked with the striker when Sven Goran Eriksson was in charge. Portsmouth and Tottenham have also had the exciting new striking talent scouted on numerous occasions. He would be an excellent alternative to Fernando Torres at Liverpool as he is capable of playing the lone striker role and is an excellent link-up man.

Why Liverpool Had To Sell Xabi Alonso To Catch Manchester United

Allowing a player of the quality of Xabi Alonso to leave is never done lightly.

But his departure may not be the disaster many Liverpool supporters believe it to be.

Rafa Benitez has already re-invested £15million of the Alonso cash in Roma’s Alberto Aquilani, who the Liverpool boss hopes could be the key to the Premier League title.

Benitez could yet live to regret the decision to sell to Real Madrid, even given the admirably inflated price-tag of more than £30million, but beyond the inevitable disappointment of losing such a popular player, the Anfield boss has compelling reasons to cash in.

When he looked at last season’s failed title challenge Benitez will have identified three areas that needed surgery. Two were obvious, at full back and wide midfield.

But the third will surprise many fans, who assume that the club’s midfield was their strength last term. On the surface, the Alonso-Javier Mascherano partnership was one of the strongest in the Premier League, but a closer look at the statistics from last season suggest otherwise, given the importance of the two base midfielders in the diamond formation all top teams now employ.

Between them, the pair scored just THREE league goals all season. Compare that to Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher at United who managed seven in a side who got goals from all over the field.

What Fletcher and Carrick also provided was an ability to get forward into the penalty area unmarked, and beyond the opposition back line into space, which created numerous chances for United.

For Liverpool, who beat Lyn Oslo 2-0 last night, neither Alonso nor Mascherano could do that, because their style in sitting deep is so similar.

But it is crucial when Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are always so heavily marked to exploit the space afforded to other players deeper in the midfield.

It seems the Liverpool boss decided that Mascherano has the edge because of his mobility and aggression in fulfilling the covering role both must do.

The Anfield manager has been left casting around for a midfielder who can pass and defend, and still get forward beyond the opposition back line.

Aquilani appears to have those qualities, but Italians have not always been successful in the Premier League, and his injury record is a cause for concern.

There is one other part of the equation though, that does suggest it is a disastrous time for Liverpool.

So far, the Spanish coach has raised in excess of £40m by selling players this summer, and that could exceed £50m if he sells Ryan Babel or Andrea Dossena.

If Aquilani passes a medical, at a fee of £15m it will only take the manager’s spending to just over £30m.

Depressingly, that suggests Liverpool’s finances are not going on the players required for the push to get beyond United, but on the club’s mounting debts.

Xabi Alonso Hails Liverpool FC Fans For Five Years Of Support

Xabi Alonso bade Liverpool a fond farewell after completing his move to Real Madrid last night – admitting it will be “really difficult” for the Bernabeu fans to match his reception at Anfield.

Alonso was presented as a Real player last night after signing a five-year contract after Madrid finally met Liverpool’s valuation of around £30million.

And after completing his medical at the Bernabeu, 27-year-old Spanish international said: “I am very grateful to Liverpool fans, they were very warm during my five years. It will be really difficult to match their appreciation.

“I really enjoyed those five years, but a few months ago I took that decision as I thought it was the right moment to find a fresh challenge, to look for a new club.

“That’s when Real Madrid came along. Luckily a deal has been done and I’m very happy.

“It is a personal challenge I felt is necessary for my football career.”

Alonso was unveiled at the club’s training ground yesterday evening, then joined dup with his new team-mates for their evening session.

“It’s a very happy day for me,” Alonso added. “It’s an important step in my career to come to a club like Real Madrid.

“I’m very happy to be part of this club and I was very excited for this day to arrive.”

Reports suggest Alonso’s relationship with Rafa Benitez disintegrated after he professed his desire to leave.

However, Alonso insists he has nothing but respect for his former boss.

“I have repeated over and over again that the relationship was a professional one, of mutual respect, a normal one between coach and player,” he said.

“I respect him and thank him for the opportunity he gave me.

“The goodbyes were quite brief, everything happened very quickly and I didn’t have time to say goodbye properly. I want to return to say goodbye to my team-mates and Rafa.”