Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rafa Benitez: Premier League Is Liverpool's Priority

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez believes his side now has the experience to justify their billing amongst the Champions’ League favourites.

But the Spanish coach knows that even the Reds are expected to again punch above their weight in the premier European competition, it is the league that his own club’s supporters will judge him by.

Liverpool entertains Hungarian side Debrecen in the first match of the group stage this week, with the whole of Europe expecting them to overcome that initial hurdle with ease.

Benitez now expects the same from his side, but he admitted that while the focus naturally turns to the Champions’ League, it is the Premier League which will determine whether the fans judge him a success.

“It is important to approach every game and every competition trying to win, but at a club like Liverpool the priority for the fans is the Premier League, then Champions’ League, then FA Cup then Carling Cup,” he explained.

“That is the order for the supporters, but of course they expect us to perform in the Champions’ League, because of our success in this competition in the past.

“In a top side like Liverpool you need to be able to handle the pressure of that expectation. People expect us to beat Debrecen even though they are a very good side.

“We know that, and we have confidence we can deal with it now. We know we need to get off to a good start, we know that the first thing is to win this game and be in a better position on Thursday.”

Standard Chartered Deal Lets Liverpool Put Their Shirt On World Domination

The £80m raised by Liverpool's biggest commercial deal will be reinvested in the club, according to the new managing director, Christian Purslow. In his first interview since succeeding Rick Parry, Purslow said the four-year shirt sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered Bank would be the first step towards transforming Liverpool into "the biggest football team in the world".

Asked whether Standard Chartered's £20m a year would stay on Merseyside or go to Dallas and Montreal to fund the club's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Purslow said: "The fans will be relieved to know that Liverpool's revenues, profits and income belong to the club. I can assure you that as we drive forward our turnover, we will invest a sensible amount of that in our wage bill and our transfers. None of that money will go anywhere other than into the development of the club."

Purslow, who was brought in by Hicks after Parry was forced from office in the summer, knows there is much still to do. He made one pointed remark towards the club's old regime, whose shirt deal with Carlsberg was, at 17 years, the longest running in the Premier League but which, at £7.2m a year, was not the most lucrative.

"We have to strive to have the most successful commercial agreements in the market place," Purslow said. "We should not be satisfied with having OK agreements, agreements that run a long time but are not as economically advantageous as they could be. That is why we set ourselves a goal in terms of this key aspect – shirt sponsorship.

"I hate words like 'brand'. I don't want Liverpool to be the biggest brand in the world, I want to make it the best team in the world. But there has been a pretty clear link to being the best team and having the best performance off the field. That has not been our position, historically, but there is no reason why we cannot be the biggest, the best run and the most commercially successful football club in the world. But I stress we will pick our partners carefully and do deals consistent with our history and our soul."

The contract with Standard Chartered equals Manchester United's four-year £80m tie-in with Aon, who will replace AIG in 2010, as the game's most lucrative shirt deal. The £100m Arsenal received from Emirates in 2004 for a 15-year deal suddenly does not seem such good value.

In June, however, Liverpool announced a record turnover, of £159m, which was still £97m behind Manchester United. Arsenal and Chelsea have also broken the £200m mark. Anfield has 32 private boxes – Old Trafford can seat 9,000 corporate clients. That imbalance will not change without a new stadium, but Liverpool's Stanley Park project has been mothballed by the credit crunch and, according to Hicks, it will not begin again until financial markets improve. Even if the new stadium is finished in time for the 2018 World Cup, it will be six years late on original plans.

Purslow is optimistic that Liverpool can compete while playing at Anfield.

"Our year-end results have just been completed and profits [£44m before tax] were up substantially and substantially ahead of budgeted profits, so even without a new stadium Liverpool is growing and growing fast. But there is no doubt about it, when we have a new stadium it will be the single biggest quantum leap forward in revenue that I can see ahead of me. When we can secure sensible and affordable funding that doesn't burden the club unnecessarily, then we'll do the stadium."

Mascherano Back For Reds

Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano has been declared fit for Wednesday's Champions League clash with Debrecen.

Mascherano missed Saturday's 4-0 win over Burnley after picking up a pelvic injury while on international duty with Argentina, and he did not return from South America until Sunday following tests on the problem.

The combative midfielder has returned to training and he is expected to go straight back into the side for the clash with the Hungarian champions at Anfield.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez has confirmed he has a fully-fit squad to choose from apart from Nabil El Zhar and Alberto Aquilani.

"At this moment we have Nabil El Zhar and Alberto Aquilani injured and the rest of the squad is fit," said Benitez.

Liverpool are heavy favourites to get their campaign off to a winning start against Debrecen, but Benitez is refusing to take anything for granted against the Hungarians.

Asked about the threat posed by Debrecen, Benitez said: "It's difficult to say but they have won eight games in a row, they're doing well, have some confidence and play good counter attack. They have some pace and players with ability.

"Everyone is saying we are at Anfield, we are favourites and have to win, but you never know in these games.

"I read some interviews with their players and they are really, really excited about coming here and want to play well.

"So, we are favourites but we have to prove this on the pitch."

Lucas Feeling The Love At Anfield

Brazilian midfielder Lucas believes he is winning over the Liverpool fans after being given a tough time by sections of the Anfield crowd last season.

The 22-year-old's form dipped during the Reds' prolonged spell of poor home form which eventually cost them the title.

Lucas has burst back onto the scene this season however as a stronger and more determined player who has even handled the tough job of stepping into Xabi Alonso's shoes.

He has been ever-present this term and is expected to anchor midfield again on Wednesday night when Liverpool open their Champions League group phase campaign with a home clash with Hungarian champions Debrecen.

Lucas said: "Nobody likes to be criticised, but such things happen in football. In many ways it has been a good experience for me because I am strong physically and mentally now.

"I can play with more relaxation and patience. I can be calmer because I know the fans are supporting me more.

"If (manager) Rafa (Benitez) had wanted me to leave, he would have said so. But he always said he had confidence in my football and I was improving.

"I am now a better player than when I arrived. I did some physical work in the summer to put on some kilos to help me play in the Premier League, and that has helped me a lot."

He added: "I am trying to improve all the time, I am feeling more confident and I will be able to maintain this level."

Lucas has played his part in keeping the Liverpool midfield ticking over in the absence of Alonso, who completed a big-money move to Real Madrid over the summer, but the Brazilian who moved to Merseyside from Gremio in July 2007 insists he offers something different from the Spain midfielder tactically.

UEFA Approve Plans To Ban English Clubs From Champions League If They Don't Control Spending

UEFA have approved plans to bar high-rolling Barclays Premier League clubs from the Champions League if they spend beyond their means.

Michel Platini has got his way on 'financial fair play' rules that in principle will ban clubs from spending more than they make from their revenues.

The aim is to end the trend of rich owners buying into the game and transforming the fortunes of a club, as has been the case at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich Manchester City under Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheik Mansour.

Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal kick off the group stages of the Champions League this week knowing they will be under more scrutiny from 2012-13, thanks to the decision by the UEFA executive committee.

Platini, president of European football's governing body, has been accused of particularly trying to break England's dominance in Continental competitions.

The new rules would also be applied to the Europa League and across clubs from all associations.

"We don't want to kill or hurt the clubs, on the contrary we want to help them in the market," said Platini.

"The teams who play in our tournaments have unanimously agreed to our principles.

"The owners are asking for rules because they can't implement them themselves, many of them have had it with shoveling money into clubs and the more money you put into clubs, the harder it is to sell at a profit."

UEFA believe current levels of spending cannot be sustained, but their new rules will only be applied to their competitions rather than domestic championships.

The Premier League have agreed new financial reporting methods that will help to monitor when clubs might be hitting trouble.

There will even be powers for the League to veto transfers if the board does not feel they are viable.

But linking expenditure to income, as with the UEFA plan, has been rejected.

UEFA have appointed former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene to lead its campaign to control excessive spending by Europe's top football clubs.

Dehaene, who led Belgium's government from 1992-99, will be the chairman of UEFA's Club Financial Control Panel.

The panel will monitor the accounts of clubs which play in the Champions League and Europa League. It will include about nine experts who are independent from clubs or leagues.

Lucas - I'm No Alonso

Liverpool midfielder Lucas does not think he should be compared to former Anfield ace Xabi Alonso.

The 22-year-old was recruited by Rafa Benitez from Brazilian side Gremio in 2007 but was not employed as a regular starter in his first two seasons with the club.

However, after Alonso left for Real Madrid over the summer, Lucas has been given the responsibility of filling the hole in central midfield left by the Spaniard.

Despite being viewed as a direct replacement for Alonso, he has stated that his game is very different from his predecessor's.

"I knew when Xabi left that people would compare (us) but anyone who knows football knows I am not the same player as Xabi," Lucas said.

Lucas believes he has a more attacking mentality than the influential Alonso, who would often anchor the midfield and use an array of passes to create attacks.

He added: "I try to play more forward and Xabi is a good passer.

"Of course, we miss him (Alonso) but now he is at Real Madrid and we hope he will do well there. We have to now think about our squad."

Ian Rush: Liverpool FC's Ryan Babel Can Learn From Yossi Benayoun

Rafa Benitez asked his players to do their talking on the pitch and Yossi Benayoun responded brilliantly at Anfield on Saturday.

The Israeli was excellent against Burnley and fully deserved his hat-trick.

Ryan Babel could learn a lot from Benayoun.

Rather than moan about not being in the side every week, Benayoun knuckled down and was determined to take his chance.

Benayoun is not an automatic pick at Liverpool but he has given his manager a major selection dilemma for tomorrow night.

In contrast others have made Benitez’s job easy because when they have played they haven’t done enough to earn a regular spot.

As far as I’m concerned Benayoun is an excellent squad player.

He is one of those players who can come off the bench and win you a game.

He’s similar to Vladimir Smicer and I think there are certain teams he’s perfect to play against.

Burnley were ideal opponents for Benayoun and they just couldn’t handle him.

It looked to me as if Burnley had said ‘if we stop Torres and Gerrard we won’t lose the game’.

Torres was really well marshalled and they seemed to be doubling up on him at every opportunity.

Even when he got away from his marker he had someone else closing him down and it was a tough afternoon for Torres.

But he deserves great credit because he put in a lot of hard graft for the team and it was a very unselfish performance.

People might not appreciate just how much space he created for Benayoun.

You need to have a football brain and the Israeli is a very intelligent footballer – some of his movement was excellent.

With Burnley preoccupied with keeping Torres quiet, both Benayoun and Kuyt were able to make the most of the space with some great runs.

I thought it was a very good performance and it was pleasing to win 4-0 without either Torres or Gerrard being on the scoresheet.

It says to teams that even if you stop Gerrard and Torres we’ve still got the ability to hurt you.

Academy Football: David Amoo And Tony Silva On Target As U18s Hit Back

Goals from David Amoo and Tony Silva saw Liverpool under-18s bounce back from successive defeats to beat Barnsley 2-0 at the Kirkby Academy.

Rodolfo Borrell’s side had been beaten by Leicester City and Nottingham Forest, but they secured their second victory of the FA Premier Academy League campaign as Amoo, buoyed by his inclusion in Liverpool’s Champions League squad put them on the road to three points.

Following last week’s defeat, Liverpool started slowly, but goalkeeper Chris Oldfield cleared one cross from underneath the bar and Andre Wisdom was in good form at the back as Barnsley were stronger in the early days.

Christopher Buchtmann almost got on the end of Amoo’s cross on 10 minutes, but five minutes later the same combination helped Liverpool take the lead.

The London-born Amoo finished off Buchtmann’s excellent cross.

The former Millwall youngster was in fine form and from his cross Michael Ngoo fired over.

Liverpool suffered a big blow Alex Cooper was stretchered off on 25 minutes. Borrell’s side was rocked a bit by the injury and took time to get back into their rhythm.

But Krisztian Adorjan fired over and Ngoo shot wide as Liverpool ended their first half with a flurry of chances. Adorjan also saw a header from Amoo’s cross tipped superbly onto the bar by Barnsley keeper Jevan Hodgson.

Ngoo was also denied by Hodgson and fired wide from Buchtmann’s pass.

Despite a host of chances it wasn’t until the 71st minute that Liverpool sealed the points when substitute Silva finished off after being set up by the impressive German midfiedler Buchtmann.

Amoo also went close to scoring again and in the end Liverpool were well worth their victory.

Home-grown Rule Introduced

The Premier League have introduced a home-grown player rule which will come into effect from next season, alongside a limit on squad sizes.

From the 2010/11 campaign, the 20 Premier League clubs have voted to introduce measures which will see all teams required to have eight home-grown players out of a squad of 25.

Chief executive Richard Scudamore confirmed the changes, with clubs only able to make alterations to their squads during the two transfer windows.

"As of next season clubs will be required to have a squad named of up to 25 players, of which no more than 17 can be over the age of 21 and not home grown," Scudamore said.

"The definition of home grown is trained for three years under the age of 21 by somebody in the English and Welsh professional system.

"Clubs will have to declare their 25 at the end of August when the window shuts and then again at the end of January."

Players who are aged under 21 are eligible over and above the limit of 25 players per squad.

Scudamore does not believe the move will encourage clubs to hoard young foreign players and claims the England team will ultimately reap the reward.

"It's not in the club's interests to stockpile players. It will make buying home-grown talent more attractive," he said.

"We're not going down the route of a nationality test but what this will mean is that you just can't buy a team from abroad.

"We think it will give clubs an extra incentive to invest in youth. We think that one of the benefits will be that it will help the England team."

All 20 Premier League members also agreed to adhere to a set of financial reporting rules designed to protect the viability and sustainability of the clubs.

"They will all have to annually submit accounts and future financial information," said Scudamore.

"At all times the board of the Premier League will be applying a test which basically says this: can the club fulfill its fixtures, pay off its creditors when they are due and also to meet obligations to the Premier League's contracts and partners?

"If the board believes a club is at risk of not meeting those obligations, it has to then step in and agree a budget for the running of that club. Any transfers can be embargoed.

"It's absolutely crucial that these clubs are run as ongoing viable concerns. These financial rules apply immediately.

"This is tied in, and we passed the rule during the summer, to a 'fit and proper person test'. At our club meeting last week, the clubs absolutely endorsed our position of not linking expenditure to income."

Sports Minister Welcomes New Rules

Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe has welcomed the Premier League's new rules on home-grown players and club finances as being good for the long-term health of football.

The 20 clubs have agreed to name 25-man squads with at least eight players 'home-grown' - trained for three years under the age of 21 in England or Wales.

Top-flight clubs will also have to pass an annual financial test to prove they can repay their debts.

Sutcliffe said: "I welcome the Premier League's introduction of a home-grown player quota for squads and its implementation of strengthened financial reporting rules.

"These moves will encourage clubs to develop and bring through young talent and help ensure clubs are financially stable."

Clubs that do not pass the test may find themselves blocked by the Premier League from making new signings and have to agree a new budget.

Sutcliffe added: "I am pleased the Premier League intend to impose tough sanctions on clubs that take big financial risks that could threaten their future.

"Clubs must be sustainable for the long-term health of the game in this country."

Government ministers would like the Premier League to go even further but view Monday's announcement as a big step in the right direction.

The Premier League however have opposed UEFA president Michel Platini's plan that clubs should only be allowed to spend what they earn.

League chief executive Richard Scudamore said: "At our club meeting last week, the clubs absolutely endorsed our position of not linking expenditure to income."

Benitez: "Too Soon" For Premier League Quota System

Rafael Benitez has expressed concern at the speed in which the Premier League have introduced a quota system for home-grown players.

The Liverpool manager will take charge of his 300th match since joining the Reds as another Champions League campaign starts tomorrow with a Group E clash against Hungarian champions Debrecen at Anfield.

He has had to contend with quotas in European football for several years, but now he fears for the overall quality of the English game.

The new regulations mean there will have to be eight home-grown players in every 25-man league squad from next season. The 20 Premier League clubs met last Thursday to agree the introduction of the rule.

Benitez said: "Maybe it has been brought in too soon. In the Champions League we had two or three years to increase the numbers of ome-grown players. The problem in England is that there is a big gap between the academies and the first team, the reserve league is not filling this gap.

"It may now be difficult to maintain quality, but we will continue to do our best. The number of players is not the point, the quality is the point. But if they have decided this maybe they have been thinking about this rule for a long time.''

Benitez added: "Similar rules have been introduced in the Champions League, first four, then six now eight home-grown players in each squad. We were all given three years to make these changes slowly. Now it will be different, and quicker. It all depends on the players. Not the amount, more the quality.

"If a top side has to find eight players from the academy straight away, it may well be difficult. Academies do not produce too many in England, (home-grown) players tend to play in the lower divisions because they may not be good enough for the very top.
"Clubs have to bring in the best young players from around the world at a young age to produce the quality (in the academies), and we have been expecting some sort of rule change like this. People talk too much about the age of players and where they are from. They forget about quality, the Premier League is the best league in the world because of the quality, not because of where the players come from.

"When they decided to put this rule in place, maybe they have been thinking about it for years. Sooner rather than later, with the Champions League rules changing, we expected something similar here. Players like Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard - when they were 17 - were playing in the first teams, but not too many because the level is too high.

"Most players need time. But between 18 and 21 years of age, the reserve league is not good enough for them. In two or three years' time we will see what the quality of the league is like then.''

Liverpool have one of the highest numbers of foreign players in the country, and can only just manage to meet the current Champions League criteria of eight home-grown players in a 28-man squad.

The likes of Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing, David Martin, Martin Kelly, David Amoo and Nathan Eccleston are academy players in the Champions League squad, but none are close to Premier League level yet.

Benitez will put those concerns behind him for the visit of Debrecen, on their Champions League debut.