Monday, August 10, 2009

Lack Of Summer Signings Dents Liverpool's Title Dream

It was only a friendly, and in the great scheme of things this match means less than zero.

Yet the look in Rafael Benitez's eye afterwards, as he cautiously fielded questions about his summer transfer spending, suggested that more significant issues were raised at Anfield on Saturday than mere defeat to middling Spanish opposition.

The Liverpool boss watched in horror as Jamie Carragher, his only fit senior defender, inevitably limped out of the game after just 14 minutes, with a twisted ankle that required a scan yesterday afternoon.

The prognosis is not serious, but still the Reds will have to wait until at least Wednesday for the swelling to go down to get a clear idea of whether their stalwart will be fit for the opening day of the season.

But with Benitez's two other centre-halves Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger both in a race against time to shake off injuries - and with both clearly far from match fit after missing big chunks of pre-season - it raises the immediate question of resources at Anfield.

It is clear the Merseyside club require a fourth centre-half after the departure of Sami Hyypia in the summer, and yet it is equally clear that there is no money to buy one.

That is a painful situation for Benitez, because he has made a profit in the transfer market this summer, and rightly would expect to reinvest that money generated.

Indeed, when renegotiating his new contract last April, one of the key elements before the Spaniard put pen to paper on a five-year deal was the availability of funds to make the significant signings this summer he felt were required to finally bring the title to Anfield after a wait of 20 years.

At the time, the club's American owners let it be known there was £40million to spend, plus anything Benitez raised in sales. Instead, he has not even been able to spend everything he raised, and the £40m has gone to the banks to reduce debt and secure a refinancing deal.

It is a difficult situation for the manager because he knows he is so close to a title-winning side, perhaps on two or three quality players away.

But his dealings this week will be revealing. It is clear the Anfield boss will try to sign a centre-half, and he revealed at the weekend that he has already been in talks with Phil Brown over Hull's Michael Turner.

Yet he also indicated almost as clearly that he simply doesn't have the funds to meet the £11m asking price, and will instead have to shop in the bargain basement, represented by the £3m rated Portsmouth defender Sylvain Distin.

Benitez tried to make light of the situation after the defeat by Atletico Madrid, but it is clear that the financial crisis at Anfield is a huge problem for him...and the club's prospects.

"We were supposed to have some money but I will not talk about figures. On the record or off the record when you talk about figures I think it is clear. I will not say anything. I don't have the answer," Benitez explained.

"We just have to manage with the players we have, and we will try to be ready just in case we can sign someone, but you never know. It depends on the prices."

Despite his caution, Benitez there was clearly revealing his frustration at the lack of funds available, and he even admitted that he is in talks with the owners over simply getting the money to spend he has raised through selling players this summer.

So far, he has no indication that the money will be made available, hence his talk about making do with the players he already has.

It is a desperate situation for Liverpool, who were in their best position for 20 years as genuine title contenders, and yet face going into the season with a smaller, less well-equipped squad than last season when they finished second.

Liverpool's poor pre-season results have illustrated the problems Benitez faces, and not least here, with Atletico's top class strike duo Kun Aguero and Diego Forlan getting a goal apiece as they exploited the inexperience of teenage centre-half pairing Danny Ayala and Mikel San Jose.

But at least there were some positives. Fernando Torres appeared to pull up in the second half with a hamstring problem, but afterwards Benitez insisted it was not serious, and probably just a minor ankle problem.

He also stated that he was 80 per cent confident that two of Carragher, Agger and Skrtel will be available for the opening day game against Spurs and the peculiar threat Peter Crouch will pose.

Torres looked far from match fit in this game, but he still could have scored three or four, and as he gets into the swing of the season will surely again be a devastating threat for Liverpool.

Lucas too, showed that he can fill the gap left by Xabi Alonso's departure and the two-month injury lay-off for new signing Alberto Aquliani, with a good late goal and an energetic attacking display from midfield.

But perhaps the most important indicator of how Liverpool will fare this season - and perhaps over the next few years - will come in the transfer market this week. If Benitez has no funds to make the signings he needs, then it could be a long, hard season.

Stoke's Ryan Shawcross Is A Target For Liverpool

Rafa Benitez has switched his search for defensive reinforcements to Ryan Shawcross and is considering a £5million bid for the 21-year old Stoke centre-back.

Already linked with Hull central defender Michael Turner and Portsmouth's Sylvain Distin, the Liverpool manager's need for cover at the back became more urgent after Jamie Carragher limped off with an ankle injury against Atletico Madrid on Saturday.

He joined Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger as doubts for next weekend's Barclays Premier League launch.

Shawcross is 6ft 5in and was snapped up from Manchester United 18 months ago, quickly proving his worth in Stoke's first Premier League campaign last season.

Carragher, meanwhile, will have a scan today and Benitez's assessment that there was an 80 per cent chance of at least two of his three injured central defenders being fit to face Tottenham at White Hart Line on Sunday.

Spanish youngsters Danny Ayala and Mikel San Jose, who went on for Carragher in the 16th minute, were pitched in against Atletico Madrid, but Liverpool need proven Premier League pedigree if they are to go one better than last season and finally carry off the title after a 20-year wait.

Benitez conceded he is working on a limited budget and defended last week's £20million outlay on injury-prone Roma midfielder Alberto Aquilani, out for up to two months after ankle surgery.

'I know how easy it is to lose players to injury, and we do need cover,' he said, after seeing Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan fire Atletico two goals up before the industrious Lucas pulled one back. 'I have some ideas and will discuss them with the club, but it depends on prices. If we need something, we will talk to the owners.

'Aquilani would have cost up to £30million normally, but we got him cheaper because of his operation. I have no worries about his fitness record. He was on the wrong end of a bad tackle, and that can happen to any player.

'The point is we have signed him for five years, not five games, and everyone I spoke to in Italy said he would be a fantastic player for us.'

Club-By-Club Preview: Liverpool

2008-09 Record

Premier League 2, FA Cup rnd4, Carling Cup rnd4, Champions League QF


Rafael Benitez His eccentric behaviour — silly spats with Sir Alex Ferguson he could never win; his inexhaustible internal politicking and some rum selections — distracted from what was Liverpool’s best season of the century. Still, what he’s building may yet be special.

Artists or artisans?

There is no more thrilling Premier League combination than OJ Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Doubts remain over Liverpool’s defensive prowess but since Dirk Kuyt turned provider they look more balanced and more potent than ever.

Crowd puller:

Fernando Torres Had Torres not suffered two hamstring injuries last season, Liverpool might have overhauled Manchester United. In the end he had to settle for 14 goals from 20 starts to confirm he is one of the most fearsome strikers in Premier League history.

Feuding with:

Sir Alex Ferguson Silly old grudges die hard. For reasons still unclear, Benitez chose to play mind games with the man with a degree in mind games (University of Ochaye, 1986). ‘Do I think he is nervous?’ asked Benitez in January. ‘Clearly.’ Yes, clearly.

Squad analysis:

Goalkeepers 1 Diego Cavalieri, 25 Pepe Reina

Defenders 2 Glen Johnson, 5 Daniel Agger, 12 Fabio Aurelio, 22 Emiliano Insua, 23 Jamie Carragher, 27 Philipp Degen, 32 Stephen Darby, 34 Martin Kelly, 36 Steven Irwin, 37 Martin Skrtel, 38 Andrea Dossena

Midfielders 8 Steven Gerrard, 11 Albert Riera, 15 Yossi Benayoun, 19 Ryan Babel, 20 Javier Mascherano, 21 Lucas Leiva, 26 Jay Spearing, 28 Damien Plessis, 31 Nabil El Zhar, Alberto Aquilani

Forwards 9 Fernando Torres, 10 Andriy Voronin, 18 Dirk Kuyt, 24 David Ngog, 29 Krisztian Nemeth

Players in: Alberto Aquilani (AS Roma) £20m, Glen Johnson (Portsmouth) £17m, Chris Mavinga (PSG) undisclosed, Stephen Sama (Borussia Dortmund) free

Players out: Xabi Alonso (R Madrid) £30m, Alvaro Arbeloa (R Madrid) £3.5m, Sebastian Leto (Panathinaikos) £3m, Jack Hobbs (Leicester) undisclosed, Sami Hyypia (B Leverkusen) free, Jermaine Pennant (R Zaragoza) free

Steven Gerrard And Fernando Torres Key To Liverpool Title Challenge, Admits Rafa Benitez

If the title race is decided by individual brilliance, Rafa Benitez has no doubt that Liverpool’s two-decade wait for the championship will end next May.

It has taken the Spaniard five seasons to construct a squad capable of slugging it out with Manchester United and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League for the whole nine months.

Yet it is the understanding between Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres that really gives Benitez the belief that 2010 will be the Year of the Kop.

The Reds manager is a keen student of the Anfield history against which every Liverpool team is measured.

And he feels Gerrard and Torres will walk in the footsteps of the great Liverpool forwards of the past.

Benitez said: “If you look at the Liverpool teams who consistently won the title they always had very strong players with a winning mentality.

“But what they also had were players who could make the difference when it mattered.

“I remember the Liverpool of Toshack and Keegan. Then there was Dalglish and Rush. The last time the title was at Anfield it was Barnes and Beardsley.

“Gerrard and Torres can be like those players.

“For me, our strength will always be our team. But while it is true that teams win titles, sometimes matches are won by individual players – and great players can win big matches.”

Cristiano Ronaldo is the current World Footballer of the Year, but Benitez feels both Gerrard and Torres are in a group of players who could be recognised as the No.1 player on the planet.

Gerrard, still recognised as a world-class midfielder at international level, has reinvented himself as a second striker behind Torres for Liverpool – providing ammunition for the Spanish marksman as well as proving himself to be a finisher of some quality.

Benitez added: “Ronaldo is a good player, clearly, but I would not say he is the best in the world.

“Kaka is up there, so are Messi and Rooney, and I believe Liverpool have two who could be the best in the world in Gerrard and Torres.

“If you analyse the goals they have scored when they have played together over the past two years I think you would say it’s amazing.

“Gerrard, playing as a midfielder, was scoring around 11 goals a season and then he moved wide on the right and scored maybe 21. Last season, playing as a second striker, he scored 24.

“Clearly he is much more dangerous playing just behind Torres – and I think Torres is also a better player when he has Gerrard behind him

“Thirty-three goals came from Torres in his first season and last year, despite injuries, he still managed 17.

“That gives me a lot of confidence and the understanding between them will be even better this time.”

The gloves came off when Benitez clashed with Sir Alex Ferguson as Liverpool challenged United all the way to the wire last season.

But the Liverpool boss has still identified United as the team to beat – despite the loss of Ronaldo.

He said: “Clearly United have lost something because Ronaldo and Tevez have both left the club, but they still have a lot of quality.

“Maybe Berbatov will be fantastic this season and they still have Rooney, who will become even more important to them now.

“Ferguson also has some money to spend and maybe if things are not going so well then he will make a big signing.

“Our team progressed well last season and it was good that we were part of the title race until the very end.

“It has been a long time since Liverpool were champions – too long for a club like this.

“What I am looking for is an even bigger improvement so we can take that final step.”

Benitez Shrugs Off Defensive Worries

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez is convinced that his defensive injury problems will clear up before next weekend's opening league game of the season at Spurs.

Jamie Carragher and Fernando Torres picked up ankle problems in the Reds' 2-1 friendly defeat to Atletico Madrid, and will be carefully monitored this week ahead of Sunday's trip to north London. Benitez, who has lost Sami Hyypia and Alvaro Arbeloa this summer, also has injury problems over defenders Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio with which to contend.

"We will keep an eye on him (Carragher) for two or three days to see how he reacts, but I feel he will be OK. Hopefully, Agger or Skrtel will be fit too," said Benitez.

"Jamie's injury is not serious, just a twisted ankle. But with our injury problems which include Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, we felt we needed to take him off as a precaution, just in case."

And the Anfield chief insists that he knew full well that new signing Alberto Aquilani would miss the opening weeks of the campaign, and is equally certain he will become an instant hero with the fans.

Aquilani, who was able to convince Liverpool after a stringent medical, that his ankle injury is not a long-term worry, will miss the first four to eight weeks of the campaign.

Benitez said: "When we were talking (to Roma) about Aquilani we knew he was recovering from an operation and would not be able to play for the first weeks of the season.

"But we can wait for him. We have enough midfield and offensive players to cope, and when he does start to play everyone will see what a clever player he is.

"Aquilani has great quality.

"We had to think about players who could make a difference for us. He is a very good player on the ball, and hopefully he can produce the sort of passes that we missed last season.

Certainly at home against packed defences when we could only draw important matches."

Lucas Focused On Reds Future

Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva insists he is focused on earning a first-team place at Anfield, despite previously admitting he is considering his future.

The Brazil international confessed on Friday that he could be interested in a return to his homeland after receiving interest from Corinthians.

Former Gremio ace Lucas has started only 25 Premier League games since his £6million move to Merseyside in 2007.

But the 22-year-old scored in Saturday's 2-1 pre-season defeat to Atletico Madrid at Anfield and he now says that, in the wake of Xabi Alosno's move to Real Madrid, he is determined to help Liverpool achieve success.

"Of course I was happy to score against Atletico, although I would rather the team have won the game instead of me getting the goal," he told the club's official website.

"But it was good for me to start and end the pre-season well.

"Sometimes I hear things said about me, but to be honest I don't care too much. I only care about the team and the squad.

"Now I have to focus on the forthcoming season and continue to work hard and improve.

"I will try to prove I have the quality to be in the team and hopefully help Liverpool win the title."

Aquilani Is Just Fab, Says CapelloI

England boss Fabio Capello last night hailed Alberto Aquilani as the perfect replacement at Liverpool for Xabi Alonso.

And Capello should know, having given midfielder Aquilani his debut when he was in charge at Roma.

The England manager said: “I know Aquilani very well as I gave him his first game at Roma.

“He’s a really interesting player and, at 25, this is a good moment for him to move from Italy to England. His style of play is the same as Alonso’s.”

Italian international Aquilani is joining Liverpool for £20million to take over from Alonso, who finally moved to Real Madrid last week in a £30m deal.

Aquilani has passed his medical with Liverpool and agreed a five-year contract at Anfield.

Meanwhile, Alonso – who spent five brilliant years at Liverpool – has revealed he ended his illustrious reign in just two hours.

That’s how long it took the Madrid-bound Spanish star to thrash out an exit strategy with boss Rafa Benitez.

Alonso said: “Yes, my departure was very hasty. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to say goodbye properly.

“But I will return to bid farewell as soon as I have the chance.”

Rafa Tracks Simon Church

Reading striker Simon Church during the season - with a view to signing him next year.

Former Liverpool boss Roy Evans has spoken to Rafa Benitez about the talented captain of Wales Under-21s.

Evans, who is the Wales assistant boss, rates Church, 20, highly and has told Benitez to keep an eye out for him in the Championship.

Meanwhile, disgraced keeper Charles Itandje is leaving Anfield to join Greek side Panionios on a free transfer.

Liverpool have been looking to move Itandje on since he angered fans by laughing and behaving in an inappropriate way during the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

The Frenchman, 26, had already dropped to third in the pecking order at Anfield following last summer's capture of Diego Cavalieri.

Rafa: My Top Target

Rafa Benitez has revealed Glen Johnson was always a target for Liverpool - because he is English.

England star Johnson was Liverpool's first summer signing, an £18million capture from Portsmouth.

But the Kop boss, who usually recruits from abroad, has revealed it was vital to snap up the former Chelsea star because he is a homegrown player.

Quality Benitez said: "We tried to find an offensive defender who could improve us and help us in our home games.

"We have talked about the number of draws we had last year and a lot of teams come to Anfield and play very deep.

"Johnson has quality, he has power and we were trying to find a player with these kind of attributes who was English as well.

''We need eight British and local players for the Champions League list so it was important for us to get Johnson."