Friday, September 11, 2009

Too Early To Write Off Title Chances, Says Rafael Benitez

Rafael Benitez has warned that it is too early to write off Liverpool's Barclays Premier League title chances.

The Liverpool manager believes his side can build on last month's 3-2 victory over Bolton Wanderers by embarking on an unbeaten run in the league. Liverpool lost two of their opening three matches, but Steven Gerrard's late winner secured a 3-2 victory at the Reebok Stadium and Benitez is backing his side to build on that victory.

"The team as a team has not played at the level we can but, hopefully, the win against Bolton will be a lift for us," Benitez said. "When you are not doing well you always need character - and the players showed character against Bolton.

"We controlled the game and although we conceded two goals, we scored three and came from behind to win. That is very positive and, hopefully, it will be a different situation for us now."

Asked what he felt the reason was behind Liverpool's mixed start to the campaign, Benitez added: "Two things. One was expectation. When we finished last season with 86 points, I think everybody was expecting this year to be ours.

"But the message is always the same - we have to think about one game at a time, try to get three points and then see what our position is each week. You cannot win titles in September, so you have to go to January and see where you are, and then April and May is when you will fight.

"The other thing was that pre-season was difficult with a lot of players returning at different times. We tried to manage the situation and then we had another international break, so we didn't have too much time. Then we started against Tottenham, who are doing well, so it was difficult."

Burnley are next up for Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday and Owen Coyle's side have already raised eyebrows by beating Manchester United and Everton this season.

"Burnley are a good team and have a very good group of players who know each other very well," Benitez said. "When you see a new team in the Premier League playing the way they are, it shows the manager is doing a good job and it will be a tough game, like always in the league.

"They have beaten Manchester United and Everton and that shows they are doing well, so you never know - anything can happen in football. We have a lot of confidence and are sure we can win, but I think that maybe they will feel they can get some points too."

Returning Fabio Aurelio Expects To Have To Fight For His Liverpool FC Place With Emiliano Insua

Fabio Aurelio admits he faces a fight to dislodge Emiliano Insua from the Liverpool left-back slot.

Aurelio has recovered from the knee injury that required an operation during the summer and ruined his pre-season preparations.

The Brazilian is now back to full fitness and is hopeful of being included in the squad for Saturday’s visit of promoted Burnley.

But Aurelio accepts his return will not be automatic given the current form of youngster Insua.

“He is playing really well and he was good last season as well so he has a lot of confidence,” said Aurelio.

“Seeing how well he is doing is not a surprise to me or my team-mates, as working with him every day you can see he is a player with quality and can do a very good job for the team.

“We have three left-backs with Emiliano, myself and Andrea Dossena so we all have to keep working hard and make it a difficult decision for the manager.

“I think this is very good for the team because if everyone is working hard then the team will win more games.”

Aurelio suffered the knee injury during a freak accident while playing football with his children in his back garden while back in Brazil.

He underwent surgery in his homeland and subsequently returned to Melwood to continue his rehabilitation, which will include involvement in a practice match this afternoon.

And Aurelio added: “I’m feeling good and I am working hard to try and get back into the squad for Saturday.

“The international break came at a good time for me because I’ve been able to work hard and not miss too many more games.

“I’m going to play in a practice game on Thursday and I hope to prove my fitness and be involved against Burnley.

“I’ve been training for two or three weeks now and I can’t wait to get back.”

Javier Mascherano And Lucas Leiva's Race To Play For Liverpool FC

Liverpool duo Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva face a race against time to be ready for Saturday's showdown with Burnley at Anfield.

The midfielders have been on international duty in South America and are not expected back on Merseyside until tomorrow after gruelling transatlantic flights.

Mascherano is making the 6,000 mile journey home from Argentina's World Cup qualifier in Paraguay, while Lucas has been with the Brazil squad in Salvador for their home clash with Chile.

Boss Rafa Benitez will assess their fitness when they finally return to Melwood tomorrow afternoon.

Benitez won't want to be without either of his newly established central midfield pairing against the Clarets but he won't take any chances as the Reds face a hectic schedule of six games in the space of 17 games.

The Reds manager will be particularly concerned about Mascherano's condition as the 25-year-old suffered a calf injury shortly after returning from international duty last season.

Although he picked up that problem playing for Liverpool, Benitez believed the fatigue of travelling thousands of miles to play for his country was a contributory factor.

If either are ruled out then Benitez may decide to drop skipper Steven Gerrard back into midfield.

Alternatively, he could turn to French youngster Damien Plessis or Wirral-born Jay Spearing.

Plessis has made seven first team appearances since arriving from Lyon two years ago but his last outing was in the Carling Cup defeat to Spurs in November 2008.

Spearing came on against PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid in the Champions League last season but has yet to make his Premier League debut.

Spearing was on target yesterday as the first team squad members not on international duty and the reserves battled out a 1-1 draw in a practise match at Melwood.

Nathan Eccleston fired the reserves ahead from the penalty spot but Spearing equalised.

Left-back Fabio Aurelio came through unscathed and is set to make his comeback from injury against Burnley.

Goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri was also involved after returning to Melwood. The Brazilian spent some time back home in Brazil following the recent death of his father.

Steven Gerrard Can Help England Win World Cup, Says Rafa Benitez

Liverpool FC boss Rafa Benitez reckons England will be among the favourites to win the World Cup next summer, wherever Fabio Capello decides to play Steven Gerrard.

Benitez, who saw his adopted country and his homeland Spain qualify for the South Africa finals on the same night, knows he is walking a difficult diplomatic line when questioned about potential winners of the tournament.

But the Spaniard is sure that Liverpool skipper FC Gerrard will be the key to England’s success in whichever position he plays.

Benitez said: "England have qualified, so have Spain. In Spain I’m being asked the same question as here - who will win the final?

"There are three or four countries who have the quality and the power to win in South Africa. England is one, so is Spain!"

Gerrard is now playing on England’s left side and gaining considerable praise, which was not the case when the Anfield boss used the player in an identical position a couple of seasons back.

The Liverpool FC captain scored twice in the 5-1 defeat of Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday that confirmed England’s participation in next summer’s finals.

Benitez said: "I have been here for years talking about Gerrard’s best position. He is playing on the left for England and that is not a problem.

"It was not a problem when he played on the left for Liverpool, despite what people said.

"But he can play in the centre of midfield or as a second striker, it does not matter where he plays because he is a key man for England anywhere.

"England are doing well, winning games and scoring goals, so everyone involved wants to play and to be part of a winning side.

"Steven is playing well and scoring, so he will also be happy now, I’m sure."

He added: "Capello is doing a fantastic job, he has a well-organised team and he is trying to keep the balance between all the players he has, particularly in the middle.

"So for Gerrard to play on the left, he knows he has some freedom to cut inside.

"Capello is doing a good job, but not just with Steven. He is doing it with the rest of the squad also."

And on the criticism of Liverpool FC full-back Glen Johnson’s defensive abilities, Benitez added: "Glen has been really good from the first day he arrived here at Liverpool, and for England you can see his offensive mentality and the quality of his crosses.

"I was surprised by the criticism of his performances, he is a very good player.

"He can be better, yes. But he is keen to learn. Fabio Capello has been supporting him and 100% we will do the same.

"Some times he is so good at attacking that it makes it very difficult for opposing defenders to stop him. Some times he does not need to worry about defence!

"But he is a decent defender, although he can improve. But he is very good going forward and that gives his game very good balance."

Reds Teenager Targets First Team

New Liverpool teenager Jakub Sokolik admits it is a dream come true to have moved to Anfield and hopes to have earned a first-team place in the next three to four years.

The Czech Republic starlet signed for the Reds in August after leaving Banik Ostrava, who are reportedly to receive £1million if the defender makes an appearance.

Sokolik confesses his move to Rafa Benitez's Premier League club has come as a shock, but the 16-year-old is also determined to make an impact.

He told deniksport: "It is a dream come true and I take it as a massive opportunity.

"So far it is just a chance. I know that I have a long, long way to go to get into Liverpool's first team.

"I have a plan that I would like to get into the first team within the next three to four years. Now it is up to me to do my best and achieve it."

Steven Gerrard: Michael Shields Inspired My England Performance

Steven Gerrard today reflected on one of his most satisfying nights in an England shirt – after revealing he took inspiration for his heroics from Michael Shields.

Liverpool skipper Gerrard scored twice last night as England thrashed Croatia 5-1 at Wembley to book their place at next summer’s World Cup finals in style.

Those headers took Gerrard’s international tally to 16 in 76 appearances and he clearly took great contentment from the standing ovation he was given when substituted late on.

But the in-form midfielder admitted he was just as pleased by the news earlier in the day that Shields’ horrific four-year ordeal had been ended with a royal pardon.

“Its fantastic news both for Michael and his family,” said Gerrard, who returned to Melwood today to start preparations for Saturday’s clash with Burnley.

“I’m really pleased for all of them. It was a good day for me, scoring two goals and qualifying for the World Cup having switched on the television earlier in the day and seeing the news about Michael. It gave me a real boost.

“It’s certainly one of the most satisfying nights I’ve had playing for England. We’ve had some good nights under Sven – particularly in Germany – and I’ve scored goals in the European Championships and the World Cup finals but this was very good.”

Victory preserved England’s 100% record in Group Six and, not surprisingly, instantly fired belief that Fabio Capello could end up masterminding a route to victory in South Africa.

Should they carry on playing with the same kind of style and swagger which carried them past a competent Croatia side, they will have nothing to fear in the finals but Gerrard is not allowing himself to get sidetracked by such thoughts.

“We know expectations are going to go through the roof now but it’s just important for us to keep playing the way we are playing,” he said. “We are just trying to improve all the time under this manager. We know we’ve got the players to go there and do well but it’s important we don’t take our foot off the gas.

“If we keep moving forward in the right direction – as we are now – I’m confident that we can achieve something going into the World Cup next year under Capello.”

It is the first time in more than two decades that England have secured a place in a major tournament with time to spare – Group Six will be concluded next month with games against Ukraine and Belarus – and Gerrard believes that is a real sign of progress.

“It’s nice to get the qualification out of the way early,” he agreed. “To qualify so early and win a game so comfortably makes me feel more confident about the way we are going forward as a team.

“But last night the most satisfying aspect for me was how well we played both with and without the ball. People forget how good a team Croatia are and we have beaten them comfortably in the end.”

Ayala: Dad Keeps My Feet On The Ground At Liverpool

Daniel Ayala has revealed that his father prevents him from becoming carried away with how well he is doing at Liverpool and makes him strive to always want to improve.

The youngster made his first team debut on the opening day of the current campaign against Tottenham Hotspur, two years after joining the club from Sevilla's youth side.

"It doesn't matter how well I think I have played or how well other people have told me I have done, my father always has his own opinion. I could help keep a clean sheet or I could score a goal and still he will find things that I must do better," he told the Liverpool club magazine.

"I thank him for this because it pushes me on. It makes me look to want to be better in everything I do on the pitch and in training. I love that my father has these expectations for me because I appreciate his advice and try to do what he tells me to do."

Moving to England has been a step that Ayala is pleased to have made as he was forced to crank up a level as soon as he arrived on Merseyside.

"I had been in the academy at Sevilla and straight away when I joined Liverpool, the club decided that I would join the reserve team," he continued.

"That was an immediate step up in quality for me from what I was used to in Spain. It was good for me, it was a very big challenge at an important moment in my career.

"I improved a lot playing in the reserve team. But now I have to keep improving. I have come a long way, but I still have even further to go.

Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez: Video Technology Can Help Prevent Horror Tackles

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez wants the football authorities to introduce video technology to help referees with marginal decisions.

The Spaniard's comments come after the furore surrounding the two-match ban handed to Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva for diving in the Champions League play-off against Celtic.

Benitez thinks that the crackdown on 'simulation' is positive, but he is more concerned that UEFA aren't cracking down on bad tackles, and feels that video technology and bans must be used to prevent over-aggressive tackling as well as diving.

"Diving is something that if you can, you have to stop," Benitez told The Liverpool Echo. "We have to stop this and to use the video is good, but I’m really concerned about this decision.

"Someone diving gets a two-game ban but very bad tackles only get a three-game ban. You have to have the right balance.

"I've always been in favour of using the video more often. But as well as diving we must use the video more to stop the bad tackles."

Shields Ser For Anfield Invitation

Liverpool plan to invite pardoned Michael Shields to be their guest at Anfield in the near future - maybe even for Saturday's home game with Burnley.

Reds fan Shields was given a royal pardon this week after spending four years in prison having been convicted in Bulgaria for the attempted murder of a barman.

Shields was arrested in the Bulgarian resort of Golden Sands in May 2005, having travelled there on holiday after watched Liverpool beat AC Milan in the Champions League final in Istanbul.

Shields always professed his innocence and was eventually returned to the UK to serve out his 15-year sentence in a British jail.

But the campaign to overturn the judgement continued, and gathered support from the Anfield club - in particular local-born stars Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.

Now the Shields family and their support group have won their fight to have the 22 year-old released.

And Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has revealed the club's plan to invite Shields to Anfield.

He said: "Everyone in Liverpool is really pleased (with the pardon), it is a situation we have all been trying to change for a long time.

"The players, the club and the people in Merseyside have been pushing. Hopefully things will be really good now and the family will be relaxed and he will enjoy life.

"We have had contact with them before, and we will do so again. We have supported them from the first day.

"We are trying to set up something for him to come to a game, but you cannot push him too much. The main thing is how he feels, but if he does want to come, we would be pleased and we will invite him.

"We are all just delighted he has been released. If he wants to see some games we will invite him.

"His family have shown great dignity as they have handled this situation, sometimes it is difficult to know how to behave but they have done really well.

"Big names here have shown support, players who can make an impact."