Monday, August 31, 2009

Steven Gerrard Shocked By Liverpool’s Premier League Start

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has admitted he has been shocked by his side’s start to the season, which has seen them lose two of their opening four games.

An opening day defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and a home loss to Aston Villa mean Rafael Benitez’s men have lost as many games already as they did for the entirety of last season.

Speaking to the club’s official website, the skipper admitted he was shocked by the Reds’ start but backed his team to still challenge for the title.

"To lose two games was a bit of a shock to us all but it's all about reactions,” he said.

“We know we have got a good team, a team that is capable of fighting for the title and we have got to go and prove that now,” he stated.

The Merseysiders flirted with defeat again yesterday, coming from behind twice to beat Bolton Wanderers and Gerrard claimed his team had shown huge character to win the game.

"It would have been difficult going into the international break, if we didn't get the result we wanted, and this was all about a reaction to the Aston Villa defeat, and I thought we got that,” added the skipper.

"We played really well, showed character and deserved the three points.”

The 29-year-old also confessed that the Reds had been poor in the defeat to Villa, and even conceded that his own display had been below-par.

"Against Villa, we never showed enough character and we didn't play well enough. I certainly didn't play well enough, on a personal level, and this was all about individuals and the team reacting,” explained Gerrard.

“The manager questioned the whole team after Monday and rightly so. We were no way near good enough and we didn't play close to our standard.”

Gerrard - Rafa Right To Criticise

Steven Gerrard has shrugged off suggestions that Rafa Benitez singled him out for criticism and feels Liverpool got their just rewards after twice coming back to beat Bolton on Saturday.

The Reds responded to Monday's disastrous 3-1 humbling by Aston Villa as Gerrard netted a thunderous winner at the Reebok to reignite the Merseysiders' 20-year-long quest for domestic glory and silence a few critics along the way.

It had been widely stated that boss Benitez had been one of those to slate the 29-year-old talisman after the Villa defeat, especially when the Spaniard admitted the England international had been below his normal high standards twice this term.

But Anfield's pride and joy dismissed claims that he alone was on the receiving end from the manager, while claiming strong words in the camp had the desired effect on the team at Bolton.

Gerrard said: "The manager questioned the whole team after Monday's home defeat by Aston Villa, and rightly so. We were nowhere near good enough and we didn't play close to our standard.

"There has been a lot of soul-searching this week. The manager asked for character, determination and intensity and I think he got the three things he wanted from us all.

"We have had a couple of good meetings this week and we couldn't wait for this game to come around.

"We went behind twice but again we showed what character we have in this team.

"Going behind twice there are times when you think you are not going to get a point, never mind three, but we got our rewards in the end and we could have ended up scoring four or five."

Gerrard added: "We now go away on international duty and when we get back we will have a few new faces back in the squad with the lads who have been out injured, so that will give us a boost.

"We played so well last season and everyone was expecting us to start strongly again and win matches, but we all expected that ourselves.

"To lose two games already was a bit of a shock to us all but it is all about reactions. We know we have got a good team, a team that is capable of fighting for the title and we have got to go and prove that now."

Benitez's Problems All Add Up To Some Clever Accounting At Anfield

Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow claims Rafa Benitez had a transfer budget of £20million this summer which, on initial scrutiny, does not quite add up.

Liverpool sold Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sebastian Leto for a total of £36m and bought Glen Johnson, Alberto Aquilani and Sortis Kyrgiakos for a total of £39m, leaving £17m apparently unspent.

Even for a club whose accountants were forced to warn over the summer their income might not be sufficient to meet their debts, this seems a maths error too far.

The explanation is that Liverpool have taken a cue from Arsenal's management, which presents Arsene Wenger with a transfer budget that is also expected to cover the cost of extending the contracts of current players.

Thus, Robin van Persie's signing-on fee and wages came out of Wenger's £15m summer transfer budget.

So Benitez saw £17m spent on new contracts for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

Nevertheless, given the majority of Johnson's £18m fee was forgiven debt on Peter Crouch's move to Portsmouth, it could be argued Benitez had no new money to spend.

Glen Johnson Is The New Cafu

Glen Johnson netted his second goal for Liverpool against Bolton on Saturday, and it was a real beauty, too.

The former Chelsea right-back lashed home a stunner from 25 yards to equalise at the Reebok Stadium, and with his left foot, too. The goal came just 10 days after his acrobatic effort against Stoke at Anfield.

Glen Jonson’s goalscoring exploits got Mirror Football thinking about some of the finest attacking full-backs past and present. Here's their top six:

1) Cafu
The Brazilian bombed up and down the right flank for Roma and Milan all day long, earning his nickname from Cafuringa, a speedy Brazilian forward of the 1970s. Cafu didn't score that many goals, netting just nine during his time in Serie A, but he helped Brazil win two World Cups, and also won the Scudetto with both Roma and Milan, and the Champions League with the Rossoneri.

2) Roberto Carlos
Cafu's twin on the left flank for Brazil, Roberto Carlos is best remembered for his breathtaking banana kick against France at the Tournoi in 1997, when he bamboozled Fabien Barthez from a free-kick almost 40 yards old. In 371 games from Real Madrid, he scored an impressive haul of 47 goals, winning three Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles.

3) Ian Harte
The Irishman is the top scorer in Premier League history to have played exclusively at full-back, netting 28 goals in 219 appearances for Leeds United. Ten of them came from the penalty spot, with a large portion of the rest coming from free-kicks, including a memorable effort against Arsenal at Highbury in 2003 to help Leeds escape relegation. He got another 11 for the Republic of Ireland.

4) Josimar
For football fans of a certain age, the sight of the Brazilian right-back rampaging down the right wing was one of the memorable images of Mexico 86. He scored two stunning goals at that tournament: a long-range effort against Northern Ireland (on his debut) and a crafty angled strike against Poland, before demonstrating one of the most exuberant celebrations of all time.

5) Sergio Ramos
The Spanish right-back rose to fame at Sevilla before joining Real Madrid in 2005. In four seasons at the Bernabeu, Ramos has netted 18 goals and created countless more with his raids down the wing and his immaculate crossing. It might have something to do with the fact that he used to play as a striker as a teenager before he became a defender.

6) Stuart Pearce
Psycho scored an impressive 99 goals during his career, a fair few of them from the spot, but the Nottingham Forest left-back was also deadly from set-pieces, perhaps none better than his piledriver in the 1991 FA Cup final. Pearce also netted a thundering header against Peterborough that helped Forest seal promotion back to the Premier League in 1994.

Liverpool's Rivals Will Suffer Soon, Says Benitez

He has been in the firing line like no other Barclays Premier League manager this week, but Rafa Benitez is adamant that others will be keeping him company before long.

The Liverpool manager looked a picture of despondency at Anfield on Monday night as he reflected on a second defeat in three games so far and conceded that productivity levels had to be raised significantly.

The smile was back on his face yesterday, though, placed there by a rousing training-ground response from his players and growing conviction that the misery of defeat will be visiting his main title rivals more often than usual.

While Manchester United looked untouchable at times on their way to another Premier League crown last May, Benitez is convinced the emergence of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa will prevent any repeat and keep even the defending champions within reach.

Predicting the most open title race for years, before today’s game at Bolton Benitez said: ‘A lot has been made of our two defeats so far, but it is clear to me that the others at the top are going to suffer the same problems and come under the same pressure.

‘Any side at the top can lose games this season, and you will see it happen. It won’t be like before, when some team reels off 10 or 12 wins and is out on its own in top place. It is going to be a lot tighter and a lot more competitive, and that is why we need to remain calm as well as positive.

‘I know everyone was expecting us to have nine points after three games and be champions by September, but it doesn’t work like that. Even less so this season.

‘We were all really disappointed losing to Villa on Monday after making so many mistakes and not playing to our true level.

‘But we have addressed what went wrong with the players, and they have reacted exactly as I hoped. When you have players of character and quality, you know they will look at a situation like this and want to do something about it. That’s exactly how it has been in every session, a real determination and no one pulling out of challenges.

‘I didn’t name anyone when I said senior players had to accept more responsibility, but everyone seemed to think I was referring to Steven Gerrard.

‘The fact is 80 per cent of those on the pitch were senior players, and I made it clear that we needed more from all of them. There had to be an improvement in all areas, and the signs this week suggest we are going to get it.

‘We’ve got to start winning games, but I am confident people will be writing a different story about Liverpool in a few weeks.’

Benitez is reluctant to disrupt Gerrard’s partnership with Fernando Torres up front but admits he may be forced to consider switching his skipper to a deeper role, if Liverpool continue to lack creativity in midfield.

‘Putting Stevie in the centre of midfield again is an option,’ he said. ‘It depends on circumstances, but it is something we have done before. I still have every confidence that Javier Mascherano and Lucas will continue to operate well together in the middle, but it helps that Stevie can change from one role to another without losing effectiveness.

‘One thing that we must strive to do is to avoid dropping points in drawn games. The focus has been on our two defeats, but it was the number of draws last season that cost us in the end.

‘If we can cut those out, it will make a big difference.’

Liverpool FC Must End A Hungarian Jinx In Champions League

Debrecen VSC being drawn out of the final pot to complete Group E of this season’s Champions League will hardly have sent shivers down the spine of Liverpool fans the world over.

Yet Hungary is traditionally one of Liverpool’s unhappiest hunting grounds. The Reds have never won there in four attempts.

Emlyn Hughes is the only man in a Liverpool shirt to score in Hungary, although his strike against Ferencvaros in the Fairs Cup in September 1970 levelled the match at 1-1.

Between 1967 and ’74 the Reds played Ferencvaros three times in Europe, losing the first 1-0 and drawing the last 0-0.

And prior to that hat-trick to forget Bill Shankly’s all conquering Reds side famously played out a 0-0 stalemate against Honved at Nep Stadium in March 1964, before winning the return leg 2-0.

But Rafa Benitez’s Reds won’t have to venture as deeply into the Hungarian wilderness as first thought.

Debrecen VSC’s current stadium – Stadion Olah Gabor Ut – boasts a capacity of just 10,200 which means that they will be forced to play their Champions League games in Budapest, almost 150 miles away.

That away tie on November 24 will be the Reds last away fixture of this year’s group stages after first visiting Fiorentina (September 29) and Lyon (November 4).

Most importantly all three away fixtures are followed by comfortable breaks before Premier League duties resume, a problem which has worried Benitez in the past.

Avoiding tiring trips was top of the Liverpool bosses Benitez’s wish list before the draw in Monaco yesterday.

He said: “The important thing as always is that the travelling isn’t too bad, we don’t have too far to go for any of the games.”

Liverpool FC To Hit 100 Team Milestone In This Season's Champions League

Liverpool will reach a European century in this season’s Champions League.

Friday’s draw in Monaco gave them the unusual prospect of three clubs they have never faced before in European competition.

The Reds will face Lyon of France, Fiorentina of Italy and the Hungarians Debreceni in Group E – a welcome distraction after recent seasons which have seen the Reds regularly face the same clubs.

That will take their tally of European opposition to a round ton.

Including English opponents, the Reds will take their proud European total to 105 after they have played Lyon in October.

Boss Rafael Benitez, however, was delighted to avoid any torturous journeys.

“You know in the Champions League there will always be difficult games and tough teams to play against,” he said.

“Lyon might not have won the league last season but before that they won it many years in a row, so we know they have lots of good players who can play good football.

“Fiorentina are an historic club in a nice city. I know from experience they have fanatstic supporters because I spent some time there when Claudio Ranieri was the coach.

“And we have experience of Hungarian football because of our relationship with MTK, so if Debreceni have won their league then we know it means it's because they're a good side.

“The important thing as always is that the travelling isn't too bad, we don't have too far to go for any of the games. We're just looking forward to starting the competition now.”

Benitez will also be pleased at the scheduling of the matches.

In previous campaigns the Reds boss has been unhappy at Champions League away games being followed by away games in the Premier League, with little preparation time in between.

But this season’s first Champions League trip, to Fiorentina on September 29, is a Tuesday night, five days before the trip to Chelsea which has been put back to the following Sunday.

Chelsea must also play away that week, 24 hours after the Reds, in Cyprus against APOEL.

The short trip to Lyon is on Wednesday November 4, but the Reds’ match that weekend has already been moved to Monday night at home to Birmingham, then the longest trip, to Debreceni’s 10,200 capacity stadium on November 24, is on a Tuesday, with the following game a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, again on a Sunday.

Liverpool’s Champions League Group E fixtures: Sept 16 Debreceni VSC (H), Sept 29 Fiorentina (a), October 20 Lyon (H), November 4 Lyon (a), Nov 24 Debreceni VSC (a), December 9 Fiorentina (H).