Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool FC Can Still Mount Title Challenge

Liverpool FC's title bid is in the balance just a few days into a campaign when they were being hailed as Premier League favourites.

Two disturbing defeats inside the first nine days of the campaign - by teams with genuine hopes of breaking into the top four - has seen boss Rafa Benitez turn on his senior stars and demand more responsibility.

But the defeats at Tottenham and then against Aston Villa at Anfield have brought to a head a summer of change at Anfield that has been largely kept very much under wraps.

Not any more. Major changes in staffing at Anfield, the club’s academy and the Melwood training complex have created a sense of upheaval.

Now the financial problems of American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which has deprived Benitez of the funds to buy a much-needed top striker, are taking their toll.

Benitez, unhappy it is believed at the easy access to dressing room secrets by TV pundits who are friendly with his top players, has now called for "greater responsibility" from his star names.

Liverpool FC players, predictably, have jumped to the defence of a side already six points behind the leaders.

Midfielder Yossi Benayoun said: "Of course we are disappointed. We did not expect to lose to Villa but it was just one of those nights when everything went against us.

"Now we know we have to improve on Saturday at Bolton. Against Villa we did not play like we can play, we didn’t move the ball quickly enough as we did to beat Stoke last week.

"Last season we only lost two league games, so of course we are not pleased. But we have to show we are still a strong team with character to recover from this.

"It is all about hard work and effort, working from game to game and we know we can do better than this.

"Normally a club like Liverpool FC will lose only two or three games (a season). Of course everyone will ask if we are strong enough to win the league, but there is still a long way to go and everything can change.

"Not only the senior players must do better, everybody needs to work harder. I am sure we have enough quality, enough good players to do it (win the title).

"We have a game now against Bolton and maybe then it is a good time to go on an international break and try to come back stronger."

Benitez looked to his top men for the right leadership, and that cannot hide the fact that Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano are in the firing line.

Benitez also dismissed criticism of his style of play and the quality in his squad.

He said: "There is no doubt that senior players must take on more responsibility, while I have no problem with the system we use. It won us 86 points last season and we only conceded 10 goals from set-pieces.

"But there are things that must be improved. Maybe our focus, we must now win our next game and then things can change.

"There were too many people involved with mistakes for the goals (against Villa), the own goal was unlucky and we maybe could have done better for their second defending the corner.

"And, as for the penalty, it is better if the player (Gerrard) can stay on his feet and then the outcome could be different.

"This is now a test of character. We have to show we have enough quality for a title challenge and we must win against Bolton and do the right things in matches.

"The squad is more or less the same one that took 86 points last season. So we know we can do it, but we must do things properly from the beginning of games."

New signing Glen Johnson was equally defensive, saying: "Obviously this is not the start to the season that we wanted but it was only the third game and there is a long way to go.

"It is still the early part of the season so we are not going to beat ourselves up at the moment. Of course, we would like to have a few more points but it’s not to be so we will just keep going."

He added: "I definitely believe that teams like Aston Villa and Tottenham and Manchester City will take points off the so-called big four this season.

"Bolton is a hard place to go next but hopefully we will start there the way we started the second half tonight by going at them from the first minute and getting the three points."

No Need To Change Defensive Outlook - Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez insisted he will not change his defensive system – despite conceding three more goals from set plays last night.

All five of the goals shipped by the Reds this season have come from set pieces – including a free-kick, a corner and a penalty in last night’s home defeat by Aston Villa.

But the Reds boss insisted he does not need any more height in his back four, nor does he need to change his much debated system of zonal marking.

“We are a team that tries to play football and we have players with quality,” he rapped.

“If you have too many big lads it can become difficult. We try to play it on the ground, try to move the ball – and we had a lot of chances trying to play it this way.

“Eighty-six points (last season’s final Premier League total) prove that it is a good system. To concede only 10 goals last season from set pieces also proves it is a good system.

“Obviously we can always improve and we will try to improve.”

But the Reds boss did condemn his players for making “too many mistakes.”

It was Villa’s first win of the season, and ended Liverpool’s 31-match unbeaten league run dating back to December 2007.

Benitez said: “In the first 20 minutes we created plenty of chances and played well. Then we conceded the own goal and started to make more mistakes.

“We have lost and we know we have to improve. I felt we had a chance when Fernando Torres scored, but the penalty finished it. It was a clear penalty.

“We now know that we have to go to Bolton on Saturday and win. Everything could change if we do that, our confidence will improve.”

Benitez added: “We were not playing well, and we were up against a team who are excellent on the counter-attack.

“Their keeper (Brad Friedel) made some great saves, but when that happens we just have to make more chances.

“This squad is virtually the same as last season, so I believe it is good enough to mount a title challenge. But we must do more, we must win at Bolton.

“We will have to sit down and analyse every player now, and make sure we do the right things in our next match. But our senior players must take more responsibility.”

Villa boss Martin O’Neill said: “That was a terrific effort from my team. At 2-0 we were in reasonable command of the game, although you are never in command at Anfield.

“But when they scored we got a penalty straightaway, a clean penalty, and we were back with our two goal lead.

“That gave us confidence, discipline and shape to our team and we deserved to win.

“Brad Friedel was outstanding. He rolled back the years. He was fantastic against his old club to perform like that at Anfield.

“He will be delighted with himself, and rightly so, and we are delighted with him.”

“It was a fantastic performance from the whole side and we fully deserved the victory.”

Former Reds keeper Friedel admitted the 3-1 win tasted particularly sweet after they were hammered 5-0 at Anfield last season.

“It was the right time for us,” he said. “We’d been getting a few bullets in the press lately and didn’t have a good start. But to come here and win, no matter how we did it, was fantastic.

“It’s not revenge but it’s pleasing to put in a performance because last year we just didn’t turn up.”

Liverpool FC Must Use Power Of Positive Thinking, Says Legend Ian Rush

After losing only two games throughout the whole of last season, we’ve now managed to lose two in the space of just 10 days.

Which means that Liverpool have to adopt a positive mental outlook in every game from here on in.

The Reds were held to too many draws last season.

But the margin for error in the modern title race is so slim that draws are no use any more.

United won the Premier League title last season despite losing four matches.

And that’s because they drew five fewer than Liverpool throughout the course of the campaign.

The three points for a win format means that a defeat – even a home defeat as desperately disappointing as last night’s – is not as damaging as it might otherwise have been.

It’s accepted that the games we drew at home last season against the likes of West Ham, Fulham, Stoke and Hull cost us the title.

But losing two and winning two of those games would have given us a better points return than remaining unbeaten in all four.

That’s why I think it’s far too early to be writing Liverpool off as credible title challengers as some people already appear to be doing.

And it’s a times like this that the supporters’ influence can be vitally important.

They will be feeling low after last night – and they pay their hard earned money so are fully entitled to express their views.

But if they keep the faith they can help the team come through a difficult spell.

It’s also important that they get behind Lucas and don’t undermine the lad’s confidence. He knows he made a mistake last night and he will be hurting more than anybody.

But the simple fact is we need the Brazilian to play a significant role for the next few months until Aquilani is fit to play a part and he will be able to do that far more effectively with the fans behind him.

It’s unfortunate that he should have been involved in such a pivotal moment last night, because there were signs before then that the fans were starting to warm to him.

He has had an excellent pre-season and has been one of our better players in the first two Premier League games.

I just hope this little setback doesn’t knock him back again.

The finger was pointed at some of the senior players last night for not accepting enough responsibility, but I also think it’s the players on the bench like Babel, Voronin and Ngog who have to be doing more.

The squad is not as strong as we would like, everybody accepts that, but that means players not seen as first choice regulars have to do more to convince the manager they are worth a starting berth.

Yossi Benayoun has done it and his example is one that some of the fringe players should follow.

There will be an undoubted mood of gloom and despondency after last night.

But it simply means that we have to go to Bolton on Saturday and win.

It’s perhaps a little early to be talking about must-win matches, but I’m afraid draws really aren’t much use any more – even at this early stage.

And that is perhaps the one positive to come out of last night – we now have to be positive every game.

Rafa Benitez Unimpressed By Liverpool Mistakes Against Aston Villa

Liverpool succumbed to a 3-1 loss at Anfield on Monday evening when a flurry of costly errors were capitalized on by Aston Villa.

A Lucas Leiva own goal, coupled with a Curtis Davies header and an Ashley Young penalty saw the tie swing in Martin O'Neill's men's favour, and Fernando Torres' strike to bring the tie to 2-1 was insufficient to spark the comeback that Rafael Benitez craved.

Following the final whistle, the Spaniard was swift to seek an exit down the Liverpool tunnel, but spoke to ESPN where he talked of the "mistakes" his side conceded.

"It was a frustrating night, we started well and we had chances. We had one mistake and at the last minute of the half we had another one. Then another mistake, [that] they scored [from].

"When we scored our goal, at 1-2, everything could have been different. We had another mistake and another two [goals to chase].

"I was 100 per cent sure we could turn it round, but it was the right moment for them to have the penalty," he shared.

Liverpool were second-best in the first-half, but Benitez revealed that he was pleased with the second-half reaction.

"I thought we improved in the second half. We were working harder, playing better, the goalkeeper played well, but we showed character."

Liverpool's two losses in three games equals the number of defeats they accrued throughout the entirety of the 2008-09 Premier League season, but Benitez refused to get drawn into campaign comparisons.

"It's a different season. Things can change."

Liverpool Set To Move For Arjen Robben After Manchester United Show Interest

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is believed to have stepped up his interest in Arjen Robben, after reports yesterday suggested Manchester United were keen on the Real Madrid player.

The Spaniard has long been an admirer of the winger, and could go head-to-head with his bitter rival Sir Alex Ferguson over the player's signature.

The Holland star is out of a favour at Real Madrid and is eyeing a return to the Barclays Premier League.

The Dutch international is believed to be valued by his club at around £18 million. Manchester United, still yet to spend much of the £80 million received from Real for Cristiano Ronaldo, would have no problem meeting that valuation if they decided it was a fair price.

Robben was close to joining United before he signed for Chelsea from PSV Eindhoven in 2004 and would provide the speed and goals neither Antonio Valencia nor Nani can offer.

In contrast, Liverpool might struggle to come up with the money required before the transfer window shuts in seven days' time. Club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have spent the summer restructuring the club's debts, with the consequence that Benitez has been told their will be no more money to spend.

However, the former Valencia boss will hold out hope his employers will still make some funds available. Benitez has not spent all of the £30 million received from the sale of Xabi Alonso to Madrid, and in light of the club's poor start to the season might be able to persuade both men that the club needs to spend some money in order to compete with their rivals .

Additional funds could also be raised through the sale of Ryan Babel. Benitez is believed to be losing patience with the youngster, and a bid of around £8 million might tempt the club to sell the underperforming winger to fund a move for Robben.

The 25-year-old has been outstanding in pre-season games for Real but coach Manuel Pelligrini is having trouble accommodating him with new arrivals Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema.

Benitez is believed to have been a long-term admirer of Robben's ability, and Madrid even considered offering the Dutchman as part of the deal for Alonso as they attempted to sign the midfielder earlier this month.

Arsenal and Turkish club Galatasaray have both expressed interest in the winger in the past. Robben's father, Hans, has previously ruled out the possibility of his son joining Spurs.

Benitez, however, will be confident of persuading Robben to join him at Anfield, and may see him as the world-class winger he has been looking for, at a price more affordable than previous targets David Silva and Franck Ribery.

Sporting Gijon Make Loan Offer For Liverpool Keeper Charles Itandje

Tired of a lack of playing time at Anfield, Charles Itandje looks set to leave Liverpool before the end of the summer transfer window next week.

French newspaper L’Equipe reports that Sporting Gijon have made a loan offer for the goalkeeper.

Itandje is keen on a move from Anfield and since the arrival of Brazilian keeper Diego Cavalieri has not even made the substitutes bench on a regular basis.

The 26-year-old custodian also angered many at the Merseyside giants by laughing during the Hillsbrough memorial service last April.

Liverpool Loan Out Hungarian Duo Krisztian Nemeth & Andras Simon

Liverpool have allowed Hungarian strike duo Krisztian Nemeth and Andras Simon to leave the club on loan for the remainder of the season.

20-year-old Nemeth will join Greek side AEK Athens while Simon is heading for the Spanish second division with Cordoba CF.

Both players initially signed on at Anfield from MTK Hungaria back in 2007 although they have so far been unable to make a competitive appearance for Rafael Benitez's first team.

Nemeth had been particularly impressive during Liverpool's pre-season tour of Switzerland and Asia this summer, where he grabbed a brace against Singapore in a friendly last month.

Powerful striker Simon has been capped at Under-19 level for Hungary and also starred at the UEFA U17 Championships back in 2006.

The two young starlets will now be desperate for regular first-team football over the next nine months in a bid to progress their Liverpool careers.