Monday, August 17, 2009

Match Report: Tottenham 2 - 1 Liverpool

Tottenham repeated their victory over Liverpool from last season as Sebastien Bassong clinched a 2-1 win.

Liverpool have been tipped to finally end their long wait for a title this term but they were unable to come away from White Hart Lane with even a single point as Spurs came out on top in an entertaining encounter.

Both sides struggled for fluency in the early stages but Tottenham settled towards the end of the first half and carved out a succession of good chances, with Robbie Keane twice denied by Pepe Reina as he looked to score against his former club.

The deadlock was then broken in sensational style just before the break as Benoit Assou-Ekotto struck a ferocious effort into the top corner from just outside the box that left Reina with no chance.

Spurs started the second half strongly as well but conceded an equaliser when the marauding Glen Johnson was brought down by Heurelho Gomes in the 56th minute and Steven Gerrard smashed home the penalty.

Tottenham shrugged off the disappointment to quickly restore their lead through Bassong's header and Liverpool could not force an equaliser as referee Phil Dowd turned away a late penalty appeal from Andriy Voronin

Japanese International Keisuke Honda Rules Out Liverpool Move

Japanese international Keisuke Honda is the absolute star player at Eredivisie side VVV at the moment, and his outstanding performances for the Dutch side haven't gone unnoticed by the rest of Europe.

The attacking midfielder is continually being linked with a number of clubs, with Wolfsburg, Liverpool, Ajax and PSV all reportedly interested in signing Honda.

However, the youngster has now made it clear that he is not yet ready to leave VVV for a move abroad, thus excluding Liverpool and Wolfsburg as his possible new destination.

"I'm extremely happy with life in the Netherlands. The people are friendly and it's nice and quiet over here. Therefore, I'm not leaving Holland for a club abroad," Honda quoted as saying by Eredivisie Live.

VVV aren't reluctant to let go of their star player, but have set a hefty €10 million asking price for the 23-year-old. The Venlo side's financial demands will probably prove to be too much for PSV and Ajax, meaning that Honda could stay at VVV after all.

Steven Gerrard Admits He Is ‘Desperate’ To Win Premier League With Liverpool

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has revealed that he is desperate to claim the league title with the Reds and has insisted that finishing top of the pile would mean the world to him.

“I'm desperate to get that photo of me with my teammates holding the Premier League trophy,” he told the News of the World.

“It does play on my mind how many years I've left to win it. I've turned 29 now, so I know time isn't on my side, but it's important I don't get obsessed by it.”

Rafael Benitez’s side will be hoping to build on last season’s second place finish and their skipper revealed what it would mean to him and the city of Liverpool to end the season as champions.

“You have to go into every new season prepared to do all you can to make it happen and I genuinely believe we can do it. This city would absolutely erupt if we did,” he explained.

“But because of the gap since we last won the title, if we achieve it, it would be bigger than the Champions League. Everyone at the club knows that and that's one of the incentives for doing everything to win it because we've seen what that kind of success means to the fans, and the players.

“It will just mean the world to me to win it at Liverpool. Moving to a different club and winning the league just doesn't enter my mind. I won't give up on it at Anfield.”

Although the Reds have lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid this summer, Gerrard is still confident they can challenge and insisted his side is very strong ahead of the new season.

“I honestly don't see a lot more changes being needed to the side, but we do have to find consistency from the first game. That showed last year when it was draws, not defeats which cost us,” he added.

"We are good enough to win it.

“Our keeper is the best in the world, defensively we're very solid and we've got matchwinners such as Fernando [Torres].”

Hertha Berlin Poised To Sign Liverpool’s Andriy Voronin For €3.5 Million

Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin is reportedly set to make his move to Bundesliga outfit Hertha Berlin permanent in a €3.5 million deal.

The Ukrainian spent last season on loan in Germany and enjoyed a successful spell, nettting 11 goals and finishing the season as the club’s top scorer.

Whilst Hertha were hopeful of making the signing permanent at the end of last season, talks broke down and the striker has since returned to Liverpool.

However, the News of the World reports that the German side have recently contacted the Reds and are now willing to match their €3.5 million valuation of Voronin.

The report also goes on to claim that Liverpool would be willing to cash in on Voronin, even though this would leave them with a possible lack of experienced striking options at Anfield.

The striker arrived on Merseyside from Bayer Leverkeusen in 2007 on a free transfer but failed to make much of an impact, thus leading to his loan spell at Hertha.

Liverpool Continue To Fail To Strike Right Balance In Bid To Win Premier League Title

What does it take to knock Sir Alex Ferguson off his perch? Only three men have managed that in 17 seasons: Kenny Dalglish once, Jose Mourinho twice and Arsene Wenger thrice.

Does Rafael Benitez have the capability to join that shortlist? Received wisdom dictates that defeating the belligerent Scot demands the mental fortitude to survive his campaign of psychological warfare.

Received wisdom also dictates that this is where Benitez failed last season, that his premeditated attack on Ferguson's influence over referees and the fixture list in January was an act of hubris followed immediately by the inevitable fall - in this case four straight draws.

Ferguson had got under his skin. The taunts came rolling down the stands: "Rafa's cracking up". Received wisdom is bunk. That Rafa's rant is the hinge on which Liverpool's season turned is a soap operatic way of telling the story: entertaining rubbish. Benitez was perhaps misguided – and, for the most part, inaccurate – when inducing his public spat but, Machiavellian to the marrow, he cannot stop himself. Benitez is hooked on intrigue, inside his club or out. He was trying to be political. The only surprising thing was its brazenness.

Did it mean his team lost all motivation to beat Stoke in their next game?

Did they suddenly think their manager had lost the plot? What if Steven Gerrard's two efforts that hit the woodwork in that game had been struck with marginally more accuracy? Had, perchance, the psychological turbulence affected the flight of the ball? It's all nonsense.

'Mind games' is a convenient catch-all. The only time Ferguson has psychologically crushed an opponent was in the 1995-96 season when his wind-ups reduced Kevin Keegan to tearful on-air humiliation. So it is no surprise that Benitez has said he we would take on Ferguson again this season, should he feel suitably provoked.

"If it's necessary for our club, for sure," he said. "If I have to defend my club I will do it. How to do that is something that you have to analyse in each situation and each situation will be different. I think that we are a top side and we have a history and we are very respectful of other teams and we try to manage in the same way and if we have to fight, we have to fight."

Benitez hardly looked cowed when his side went to Old Trafford in March and demolished Ferguson's team 4-1. The reason Benitez lost the title is boringly simple: they could not close out tight games. In the league, they only won three games 1-0; Manchester United won an astonishing nine by that score. United expected the winning goal to come – Liverpool did not.

Liverpool's edginess going forward is down to there not being enough attacking depth in the squad. When it came to the crunch, and he needed a change striker, a pinch hitter, he was forced to turn to the inexperienced David Ngog.

In many respects, Liverpool are well equipped for the new campaign. The core of the team has been retained and reinforced. Dan Agger and Dirk Kuyt have signed new contracts. Javier Mascherano's Catalan-induced wanderlust has been curbed and Benitez has indicated the club will shortly speak to him about a new deal. Most valuable of all has been Fernando Torres' contract extension, announced on Friday, which commits him to Anfield until 2014.

Doling out lucrative contracts is, of course, an expensive business. But while the recruitment of Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani is believed to have cost £34.5 million, some £35.5 million has been recouped by the sale of six players, including the sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid. Which seems to put Benitez on a net transfer gain of £1 million for the summer.

At the end of last season Benitez said that United had 18-20 players of the same level, whereas at Liverpool he had only 15-18. Yet despite a summer in which he has effectively swapped Alvaro Arbeloa for Johnson and Alonso for Aquilani, he has declared himself satisfied with the numbers at his disposal.

"Maybe we need more experience in one position just in case but the squad is good. We're bringing in Andriy Voronin who is a player who can play between the lines and he has game intelligence and he proved in Germany that he's a good player.

"I think we have enough quality. We have players that maybe aren't so famous or weren't playing too many games in the Premier League. Players like Nabil El Zhar, Lucas, Emiliano Insua, Ryan Babel, they are growing and they have more experience in the Premier League."

Before last season, Benitez felt he needed a £20 million second striker to add subtlety to his attack, having sold a gangling target man who gave them a different attacking option.

In case you need reminding, Robbie Keane and Peter Crouch are in the Tottenham side on Sunday afternoon. If Benitez's change striker is really going to be Voronin then the same old frustrating problems will recur – barring Torres' hamstrings and Gerrard's groin developing miraculous durability.

Liverpool have the best starting XI in the country, and if they all stayed fit all season they would win the title. But the disparity with the second XI, especially in the attacking areas, is vast.

Imagine the various second strings competing in their own league: Liverpool's would struggle to get into the Europa League. And that, to use a memorable phrase, is a fact.

Where's the money?

According to Liverpool’s most recent accounts £21.7 million was injected into the club for transfers after July 2008. About £8m of this was spent on Albert Riera, but it is believed Rafa Benítez was promised £20m to spend when signing his new contract.

Liverpool’s sales since then total £47.5 m. Robbie Keane was returned to Tottenham for £12 m, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa went to Real Madrid for a combined £33.5m

Benítez has spent £17m up front on Alberto Aquilani and £17.5 million on Glen Johnson.

Contract renewals, agents’ fees and signing-on fees may account for part of the remainder, but simple math suggests Benítez should have around £25m more to spend.

His pursuit of Barry and Tevez suggests he thought he did before Tom Hicks and George Gillett agreed to pay back £60m of their £290m loan this year.

Javier Mascherano Has Put Barcelona Behind Him, Says Liverpool Manager Rafa Benitez

Rafael Benitez insists Javier Mascherano will shrug off the disappointment of his aborted move to Barcelona to help spearhead Liverpool's title challenge.

Liverpool begin their Premier League campaign against Tottenham on Sunday and Benitez is relieved to be able to call upon Argentina captain Mascherano for the match, having lost fellow midfield lynchpin Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid.

While Alonso was eventually granted his dream £30 million move to Spain, Mascherano was told he would not be leaving Anfield despite expressing his preference for a switch to Barcelona.

Benitez admits now that there were many times during a fraught summer, during which he believes Mascherano's head was turned by his international colleague Lionel Messi.

But with the player still having more than three years left on his contract, Benitez was in a position of strength when refusing to do business.

Speaking about the saga, Benitez said: "Javier has a very good friend in the national team and that is Messi.

"Messi was on to him every day and that is not easy, but Javier knows what we think of him and he will be okay."

Now that Mascherano has opted to stay, Benitez is expected to work out a new contract for the player, who had appeared to fall out of love with life in England in the light of Barca's interest.

Benitez added: "I talked with Javier, his agent and Barca. It is normal they see him as such a good player, and an option for them.

"We told Javier he was so important for us and we wanted to keep him. We were not talking about any price.

"He was a bit disappointed as it was a fantastic opportunity with a big club. But he is happy here, and as a player and a person you can trust him 100 per cent."

Benitez, meanwhile, believes as many as six teams could be challenging for the top four places this season, potentially disrupting the traditional order.

He said: "We can always talk about the top four, but Manchester City are doing a very good job and have bought some excellent players. I can understand why Mr. Ferguson at Manchester United is a little bit worried.

"Aston Villa and Tottenham have also spent some money, so there will five, six or more fighting now.

"But we have signed Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani, that is all, we are different.

"The important thing was to try and extend the contracts of key players. And that is what we did.

"We had 86 points last season to finish second, and we have more or less the same squad, so maybe we can do the same again or better.

"But we will need to improve at home, and Johnson as an attacking full-back is the sort of player who can make the difference in difficult home matches when opponents are defending.

"We have lost Sami Hyypia, he will be a big loss because he was a good player, but if Skrtel and Carragher are fit I thought we could manage.

"As for our title chances, the players know we were very close last season and they want to improve. We know what this team can achieve and they will be ready."

Liverpool's Rafa Benítez Confident He Can Manage Merseyside Expectations

Rafa Benítez's six years in English football can be measured by buzzwords. If his first two years were dominated by "rotation" and zonal marking, his fifth will be best remembered for his "facts".

There are the old stalwarts of "possibilities" and "game intelligence." To that list, add his leitmotif for the coming season: "managing expectations."

It seems a phrase straight from the corporate jargon handbook, equal parts meaningful and meaningless. On Merseyside, though, it makes sense. Benítez, a victim of his own success, suddenly finds himself with plenty of expectations to manage.

Last season brought with it Liverpool's first genuine title challenge for seven years. For the last three months of the campaign, they were unquestionably the best team in the country, destroying Manchester United, the eventual champions, at Old Trafford, and humiliating Real Madrid. That is the barometer by which they will be judged.

"We have to manage the expectations," said Benítez. "We know the situation. If you talk about the title, everybody is saying that we have to win it this season. But I don't think so. I don't feel any extra pressure because we haven't won anything for three seasons. We have to be realistic, we want to be in the top four and to be contenders.

"I was asked the same questions this time last year, and I said we wanted to be in a good position come January. We were, and we stayed in a good position all the way through to the end of the season. We have to have that same approach this season."

It is hardly the optimism Liverpool's fans, laden with hope after the rousing crescendo to their last campaign, wish to hear from their manager.

Benítez, though, has hardly had the sort of pre-season to inspire such a mood. His team have failed to impress, he has sold Xabi Alonso, the conductor of the attacking orchestra that swept all before them from March until the end of last season, and his replacement, Alberto Aquilani, will not be fit until October.

The club were boosted on Friday by the news that Fernando Torres has signed the new, £110,000-a-week contract he agreed in May, tying him to Anfield until 2014, but that, along with Steven Gerrard's acquittal on a charge of affray last month and the £17.5 million signing of Glen Johnson, has been a rare fillip in a summer tempered by doubt.

Benítez has not received the financial backing he perhaps expected when he signed his own new contract in March. His side look short of options in defence and attack, the spectre of injury to Torres or Gerrard still unthinkable. There has been no marquee capture to complement his strike duo, to turn the draws that cost Liverpool so dearly last season into wins.

Benítez has thus far stopped short of criticising the club's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, for their failure to provide a budget of any sort beyond what he himself has raised from sales. It is clearly an issue he is not prepared to go to war on, at least not yet.

"You have to sign the players you need," he said. "To bring in a big, big name, you often have to change everything. There aren't many managers in the world happy with the amount they have to spend, but to me that just mean you have to work harder. It does not impact on my commitment at all."

Liverpool To Hand Unsettled Javier Mascherano Pay Rise

Liverpool are reportedly set to hand midfielder Javier Mascherano a pay rise, after refusing to allow him to leave Anfield this summer.

It was widely documented that the 25-year-old was keen on a move to Spain, and Barcelona in particular, but manager Rafael Benitez would not sanction a deal, largely because of the expected departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid.

Whilst that deal did indeed go through, Mascherano remains on Merseyside and, speaking to the Sunday Express, the Liverpool boss admitted his player may be disappointed to miss out on the chance to move to the European champions.

“I had to talk to Javier a little bit. Barcelona is a top side, so if a club like Barcelona, who won three trophies in the last year, are interested it’s not easy for any player,” explained Benitez.

“But we knew from day one that we didn’t want to sell him. He’s an important player for us.”

The Spaniard also revealed that with the midfielder now back from international duty, talks could begin over a potential new deal.

“He has come home now, after playing for his national team, and we will talk,” he added.

“It’s important that he sits down now and we have time to talk.”

The Sunday Express speculates that Mascherano can expect a “substantial hike” on his £80,000-a-week wages, as the Reds attempt to placate their midfield man.

Brown Warns Reds Over Turner Chase

Hull boss Phil Brown has once again warned Liverpool counterpart Rafa Benitez to forget about landing Michael Turner on the cheap this month.

The Tigers were narrowly beaten 2-1 at Chelsea on Saturday and while Brown was disappointed to lose so late on, his more immediate task is hanging on to Turner and Andy Dawson before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Liverpool have already made one bid for the centre-half but Brown insists it remains nowhere near City's valuation.

The 25-year-old had an awesome battle with Drogba but won the Chelsea striker's respect with a glowing performance and while Brown is realistic when it comes to the prospect of keeping his top stars, he insists they won't be sold on the cheap.

"You do desperately try and hang on to your better players," said Brown. "People have classed the price tag on Michael Turner as ridiculous at £10 million. I think he is worth that to us, it might not be worth that to somebody else, but he is to us.

"As far as we are concerned that is how big a player he is for us. Michael played 38 games for us last year and never missed a minute. He is being courted by bigger clubs because of the way he can defend.

"Against Chelsea there was another example of that, but not just from him but also from Anthony Gardner and Dawson. But I thought it was a good collective, defensive performance from us against Chelsea."