Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rafa Steps Up Centre-Back Hunt

Liverpool are eyeing Dynamo Kiev's Pape Diakhate and Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Amorebieta as Rafa Benitez searches for a centre-back.

Benitez has injury concerns at the back with Daniel Agger currently on the sidelines while Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel both required treatment after the pair were involved in an accidental collision in the Reds' 2-1 defeat at Spurs on Sunday.

Benitez has been linked with bids for Hull City's Michael Turner and Portsmouth's Sylvain Distin but now fresh reports say Kiev's Diakhate and Amorebieta of Bilbao are on his wish-list.

Senegal international Diakhate would cost at least £7million while it's thought Amorebieta is available for around £10million.

Benitez is waiting to see if Carragher and Skrtel will be fit for the Reds home clash with Stoke on Wednesday after both players, who were carrying injuries before Sunday's game, needed stitches during the defeat at White Hart Lane.

"Martin wanted to continue," the Liverpool boss added. "We were a little bit worried but he did well. We had to change him in the end because he had a problem. He has had stitches.

"Carra also needed stitches so we will have to see how they are for Wednesday's game."

Liverpool Eye Athletic Bilbao Defender Fernando Amorebieta

According to The Sun, Liverpool dispatched scouts to check on Fernando Amorebieta in Athletic Bilbao's 2-1 defeat to Barcelona in the first leg of the Supercopa de Espana on Sunday.

The Reds are reportedly keen to bolster their defensive options following a defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur in their opening league fixture, and the 24-year-old appears to be well-placed on manager Rafael Benitez's shortlist.

It is believed that a fee of €11.5 million would be enough to capture Amorebieta, who is a product of Athletic Bilbao's youth ranks.

Hull City defender Michael Turner, who impressed in Saturday's league clash against Chelsea, is also rumoured to be a target of Liverpool, with the Tigers also rating him at €11.5m.

European Champions Barcelona Line Up Liverpool's Albert Riera

Barcelona are lining up a bid for Liverpool winger Albert Riera as time runs out to do deals for Arsenal duo Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Eboue.

Nou Camp boss Pep Guardiola conceded at the weekend that a move for Fabregas was unlikely to come off, but the club's deal-maker Txiki Begiristain has not ruled out snaring him before Tuesday night's Battle of Britain Champions League tie between Celtic and the Gunners.

Emirates boss Arsene Wenger insists his captain is not for sale and using him at Parkhead would cup-tie the 22-year-old from playing for anyone else in the Champions League this season and effectively crush a deal. The same goes for Eboue, who is seen by Barca as a candidate to provide defensive cover.

A deal for Fabregas seems almost impossible but technical secretary Begiristain has yet to concede defeat, saying only that a deal was 'very complicated'.

The Spain midfielder's versatility is attractive, but Barca will turn to cheaper options if, as expected, they fail to land him. Liverpool winger Riera has been floated by Begiristain as a left-sided reinforcement following difficulties in landing Juan Mata from Valencia.

Riera, 27, impressed at Anfield after signing from Espanyol for £8million last summer.

Barca has struggled to bring in the right players this summer, including Liverpool's Javier Mascherano, adding just Maxwell and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan.

Begiristain warns the quality of candidates he is looking at means they may ultimately make no more major signings before the close of the transfer window at the start of next month.

'The players we want are not cheap,' said Begiristain. 'We must look at alternatives and see what is better. The squad will be added to only if we value the player.'

Lucas: Liverpool FC Must Bounce Back Quickly From Spurs Defeat

Brazilian youngster Lucas Leiva admits Liverpool must bounce back quickly with two home wins in a week if they are to wipe away the memory of their losing start to the new Barclays Premier League campaign.

Liverpool went down 2-1 yesterday at Tottenham, a team who beat them twice last season in the league and Carling Cup.

The game ended with assistant manager Sammy Lee ’sent off’ after a touchline row with the fourth official, and boss Rafael Benitez complaining that Liverpool were robbed of two penalties.

Now Liverpool face two Anfield dates to put things right, against Stoke on Wednesday and Aston Villa next Monday.

Lucas said: “Everyone is very disappointed but we haven’t got time to think about this for long.

“We have another game on Wednesday, and then next Monday, and we have to put the defeat by Spurs behind us.

“We must look forward and we now have two games at home in front of our own fans. We must aim to get six points.”

Liverpool only lost two league games throughout last season, so another slip-up in the next week will see the club engulfed in criticism.

And Lucas has not forgotten how tough Stoke made it for Liverpool last season at Anfield by forcing a damaging goalless draw, one of the several poor home displays that ultimately cost Liverpool the title.

Lucas said: “It will not be easy against Stoke because they will get men behind the ball and they won’t give us space.

“We had two draws against them last season so we know what to expect.

“But at home we will have a lot more possession than we had at Spurs and hopefully we will create more and score more goals.”

He added: “We knew it would be a difficult match at Spurs for us but in the first half we did not play well.

“Spurs were pressing high and that made it difficult for us but we did not keep the ball well enough.

“We had a plan to play deep, to wait and then try to play on the counter-attack. But we only had a few promising attacks and did not create much.”

It was Liverpool’s first opening-weekend defeat for six years, with just a Steven Gerrard penalty to their credit. That cancelled out Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s brilliant opener for Spurs, who then won the match from a Sebastien Bassong header.

Lucas added: “We had more possession and more chances in the second period, but we were disappointed to concede twice to set-pieces.

“Maybe we should have had a penalty when Andriy Voronin was fouled, but we know that wasn’t good enough.

“It is only one game and there’s a long way to go, but that performance was not good enough.”

Benitez agrees that it is good that Liverpool are quickly back into action after the disappointment of White Hart Lane.

And has urged his players to turn things around quickly.

He said: “The positive thing is we have another game in three days, and you can change everything.

“We know we have to win the next game, and then everything will change.

“But we did not play well. We are disappointed. We showed more character in the second-half and we were a threat, but it was still not enough.”

Liverpool have serious injury problems. Daniel Agger missed the Spurs game with a back injury, and both Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher needed stitches in head wounds.

Fabio Aurelio is a long-term injury, while new boy Alberto Aquilani will not be fit for two months.

Midfielder Yossi Benayoun had missed training during the week with a rib injury, but did well enough when he came on as substitute to replace the ineffective Ryan Babel against Tottenham.

Benitez said: “Ryan was trying to do well. We decided to use him because Yossi had a problem with a (bruised) rib and during the week he was not training.

“So we decided to use the pace and ability of Ryan and he was trying to do well. Afterwards when the game was open Yossi was also a big influence for us.

“We had a lot of injury problems before and during the game, and we were not comfortable because we were not well organised. We were trying to adjust to new positions, too many of them.”

Xabi Alonso’s Absence Was There For All To See

WHEN Rafael Benitez said Liverpool were trying to manage expectations about the forthcoming season, this probably wasn’t quite what he had in mind.

A season in which many have tipped the Anfield outfit for the championship began in a manner that highlighted the shortcomings they must overcome if they are to end that long wait for the title.

This result may have been the same as last season’s visit here, but the circumstances were entirely different.

Last November, Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp admitted his side had been “slaughtered” before snatching a last-gasp victory.

Yesterday, however, only the heroics of Pepe Reina prevented Liverpool from being on the receiving end of a beating akin to their Carling Cup humiliation nine months ago.

Certainly, there must be something about the White Hart Lane air that has caused Liverpool to press the self-destruct button in such alarming fashion in recent visits.

But the reasons for this defeat are deep-rooted, a consequence of a summer of under-investment, significant departures and less than ideal preparation.

The sight of Benitez turning to Andriy Voronin to help rescue a point would have surely been a worrying sight to supporters, no matter how well the Ukrainian fared at Hertha Berlin last season.

As it was, Voronin should have been awarded a penalty in the closing moments that could have earned Liverpool an undeserved draw.

Steven Gerrard had already pulled the visitors level once from the spot after Benoit Assou-Ekotto fired Tottenham into a spectacular first-half lead, only for a towering Sebastien Bassong header to win the game moments later.

But given Liverpool’s patchy pre-season form, this early setback should not be regarded as a surprise. And that in itself should give cause for concern.

Benitez’s side started slowly last season but at least continued to eke out results. Now, just a weekend into the new season, they are already playing catch-up on all their main title rivals. Improvement must be immediate.

They have only themselves to blame. When they weren’t running into each other, Liverpool’s defenders were too often diving into last-ditch challenges when a touch more poise would have sufficed, and that recklessness led to the two free-kicks from which Tottenham ultimately scored.

Debutant Glen Johnson was a rare positive for Benitez, but that the full-back was often Liverpool’s most attacking outlet spoke volumes for a spluttering forward line in which Fernando Torres was hounded out by Bassong and Ledley King.

While Johnson attracted criticism for his performance in England’s 2-2 draw against Holland in midweek, Ryan Babel impressed against his Anfield team-mate in Amsterdam.

It was enough to earn the Dutchman a starting role but a dismal outing did little to strengthen his claims; his replacement Yossi Benayoun was infinitely more effective.

After a poor second season, Babel has entered the last-chance saloon at Liverpool and he will have to improve on this showing, although in mitigation he isn’t the only player for whom that applies.

With Xabi Alonso departed and new £20million signing Alberto Aquilani sidelined until at least October, opportunity is knocking for Lucas Leiva in central midfield.

The Brazilian often polarises opinion among the Liverpool support, but his performances during the closing months of the last campaign and pre-season form suggest a corner may have been turned.

Yet no matter how tidy and busy Lucas was for the most part, it’s clear the midfield is crying out for the composure and creativity of an Alonso.

Concerns over Liverpool’s central defence were allayed when both Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were passed fit, but that situation was threatened after 15 minutes when the duo challenged for the same ball, leading to a sickening clash of heads.

Carragher returned after a brief trip to the dressing room for some stitches to a cut while Skrtel soldiered on until the 75th minute after a hefty blow to the jaw.

The collision disrupted what little rhythm Liverpool had gathered during a pedestrian first quarter, and allowed Tottenham to assume the initiative with only the reflexes of Reina preventing an embarrassing half-time scoreline.

Robbie Keane, surprisingly selected ahead of fellow former Liverpool striker Peter Crouch, helped justify Benitez’s wisdom in sending him back to London by twice spurning chances to open the scoring.

Unmarked and six yards from goal, Keane met a Luka Modric cross from the left with a header on the half-hour that, even allowing for Reina’s heroics in repelling the ball, was too close to the goalkeeper.

Keane was similarly at fault minutes later when put through by another Modric pass, Reina flinging out a left arm to deflect the ball to safety.

But the goalkeeper could do nothing to prevent Tottenham forging ahead a minute from the break. After Skrtel fouled Wilson Palacios 25 yards from goal, Tom Huddlestone drove the subsequent free-kick into the wall.

However, a fortunate ricochet off Emiliano Insua’s face presented the ball invitingly to Assou-Ekotto, who arrowed a venomous volley into the top corner from the edge of the area.

Liverpool at least showed a bit more fight in the second half. Dirk Kuyt and Torres combined to tee up Gerrard for a daisy-cutter that skimmed narrowly wide, but Reina had to be alert to turn over a dipping Palacios drive.

Benitez’s side were gifted a route back into the game on 56 minutes. Johnson, again marauding down the right, did well to work into the box after cutting between Assou-Ekotto and Huddlestone but was going nowhere when unwisely upended by Tottenham goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.

Gerrard kept his nerve from the spot, but parity lasted just three minutes thanks to another self-inflicted wound.

Carragher fouled Jermaine Defoe on the Tottenham right and, from the resultant Modric free-kick, was beaten to the ball by Bassong, who looped a header into the top corner.

Voronin’s late penalty shout after being bumped over by Assou-Ekotto was too much to bear for Sammy Lee, the Liverpool assistant manager venting his spleen at fourth official Stuart Attwell to such an extent he was sent off by referee Phil Dowd. The midweek visit of Stoke City has already become a must-win for Benitez’s side.

We Must Improve All Round – Benitez

UNHAPPY Rafael Benitez admits his Liverpool side must improve after they opened their title challenge with a dismal defeat at Tottenham Hotspur.

A 56th-minute Steven Gerrard penalty was sandwiched by Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s spectacular opener and a towering Sebastien Bassong header to condemn Benitez’s side to a 2-1 loss, their third defeat at White Hart Lane inside a year.

It was only the fourth time Liverpool had lost in their last 34 opening day fixtures, with the most recent previous setback coming at home to Chelsea in 2003.

And Benitez accepts his players have to significantly raise their level for the visit of Stoke City on Wednesday, a game the Spaniard accepts his team “has to win”.

“We didn’t play well, especially in the first half,” said the Anfield manager. “We were much better in the second half, we pushed harder and had more options in the final third.

“But clearly we have to improve if we want to win these kind of games.

“We have to improve in the middle, both in keeping the ball and passing the ball, and understanding between the strikers and the midfielders have to be better.

“It’s too early to make too many judgements and we have another game on Wednesday, so we have to improve for then. We have to win the next game.”

Benitez dismissed suggestions his team had felt the pressure of being among the title contenders after seeing all of their main rivals win over the weekend.

“We knew that we were playing against a good team so we needed to perform and play well, but we didn’t lose because of any pressure,” added the Spaniard. “We were just not comfortable with the ball.

“The team were not comfortable in possession during the first half. It wasn’t one player, it was all of them. We were not doing our job. It’s difficult for one or two players if the rest aren’t at the level.”

Asked if Liverpool had missed the departed Xabi Alonso, Benitez responded: “We won a lot of games last year without him. We have enough quality in the squad and we have to prove this.”

Liverpool Should Have Had A Second Penalty – Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez was adamant his side should have been awarded a second penalty in their 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

Spurs won the game courtesy of goals by Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Sebastien Bassong with Steven Gerrard grabbing the Merseysiders’ goal from the spot.

However, the Spaniard believed the Reds should have had another penalty late on after Andriy Voronin appeared to be pushed off the ball by Assou-Ekotto.

Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, Benitez insisted it was a definite spot-kick that his team had been denied.

“It was a penalty. It was 100 per cent. Everybody could see it was a penalty,” fumed the Liverpool boss.

“Anyway the first half was not the best for us, the second half much better.”

Benitez also rued Liverpool’s inability to stay on level terms, after Gerrard’s equaliser, but insisted he was happy with his side’s work rate.

“It’s a pity when you score, you draw and after you concede another from a free kick, it’s very difficult but I’m disappointed because I think second half we worked really hard,” he explained.

“I think second half we were much better, we had two or three situations when we were a threat, we were dangerous but still we had too many problems with the two centre backs.”

The Spaniard would not be drawn on whether his side had missed Xabi Alonso but insisted that they must improve for their next fixture.

“I think in some games we won without Xabi Alonso so it’s not fair to talk about this now,” he added.

“It’s too early, we have to improve, we think that the second half was positive so we will try and do the same things in the next game, we will try to play better football if we can.”