Monday, September 21, 2009

Torres Answers The Call For Goals

They were talking about it at the Burnley game last weekend, despite a four-goal win. They were asking Dirk Kuyt about it after the Dutchman had made himself the third-highest European Cup goalscorer in Liverpool's history midweek. Rafa Benitez fielded numerous questions about it yesterday at his press conference, and a few more pre-match. It was the topic for discussion as far as Liverpool were concerned. And now it can stop.

Fernando Torres had already scored three goals in four league games this season prior to today, yet still there was talk that the Spaniard was struggling. They were saying he was rattled by the increasingly close attentions of defenders, drained by a gruelling schedule which encompassed Euro 2008 last summer and the Confederations Cup this one, and frustrated by his side's stuttering start to the Premier League season. He hadn't scored in, wait for it, two games. Two whole games. Burnley at home and Debrecen at home; no goals for Fernando. Crisis.

Well, not quite. It took just twenty minutes for the Spaniard to end his micro-drought, and in typical fashion too. James Tomkins is fairly highly-rated as young defenders go, but Torres made him look amateurish with a drop of his shoulder, a burst of pace, and a powerful poked finish that flew past Robert Green on his near post. 1-0. Crisis over.

Liverpool were far from their best yesterday, especially in a first half that yielded two goals apiece, and saw the likes of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel seriously unnerved by the pace and direct running of West Ham teenager Zavon Hines. But if the Reds defence still has question marks hanging over it, with zonal marking bound to be high on the agenda (again) following Carlton Cole's second equaliser, Torres was in the mood to erase just about every doubt that ever existed about his game.

His movement, so under-appreciated during his goal-less games, dragged West Ham's defence all over the pitch. His strength saw Tomkins, and Danny Gabbidon, bounced around like skittles, and he always looked likely to add to his tally as the game wore on and Liverpool monopolised possession. Where the likes of Yossi Benayoun & Lucas Leiva seemed reluctant to shoot when presented with the chance, Torres was always looking to pull the trigger. Only last-ditch defending prevented him from scoring a second.

That was, until the 75th minute, when substitute Ryan Babel, who had looked to get at the shaky Herita Ilunga from the moment he was introduced for Dirk Kuyt, clipped in an inviting cross from the right wing. Torres' eyes lit up, his spring was too much for Julien Faubert, his header too good for Green. 3-2. Crisis well and truly over.

Benitez had played down the significance of his striker's lack of goals - two games, may I remind you - by praising his all-round game; here he combined both. His performance was standard stuff, hard-work, energy, dedication, intelligence - the goals merely iced the cake. Benitez's belief in his fellow Spaniard has always been unwavering, and his contribution today shows why.

With Torres unable to collect his man-of-the-match award as he received treatment for a knock to his thigh - not serious, apparently - it was left to skipper Steven Gerrard to collect the champagne, and to sum up his team-mate: "We were never worried about it [the lack of goals]," said Gerrard. "We know how good Fernando is and he showed that yesterday."

Torres Targets Title In "Best Competition"

Fernando Torres is sure the English top flight is still the world's greatest league - and is determined to help Liverpool become its champions once again.

The division has changed beyond recognition since the last time Liverpool were crowned champions in 1990, with the influx of superstar foreigners like Spanish striker Torres placing it in the eyes of many above any other leagues across the globe.

Such feeling has cooled somewhat after a summer which has seen the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso arrive in Spain to boost the Primera Division's box office appeal.

But for Torres, who spent 12 years playing in his homeland with Atletico Madrid, there is no doubt that England is the place to be.

"As a competition it is the best one,'' Torres told the Press Association.

"When you are talking about organisation, respect, and having all the stadiums full every weekend, it is really nice to see that.

"In Spain they have some of the better players in the world, but as a competition, it is not as big as the Premier League.

"I was playing in Spain, and I can tell you honestly, the Premier League is a much better competition.''

Liverpool will be hoping for success both at home and abroad this year, but with the prospect lurking of Manchester United overtaking the record of 18 titles the two clubs jointly share, Torres admits that the Premier League may have to take priority.

"We know that for the fans, for the club and for the majority of the players, the Premier League is a fantastic competition and we have had plenty of years not winning it, so maybe it is the priority,'' he said.

"We don't feel the pressure, but we know it would not be the best for Liverpool fans to see Manchester United with more English titles than us.

"But I think we are on our way, we are doing everything in our power to win trophies and we will see what happens at the end of the season.''

The Spain striker said he was looking forward to giving the fans something to celebrate.

"I think the supporters cannot imagine what it would be like,'' Torres added.

"I saw when Liverpool won the Champions League, all the people around the city, and I remember when Spain won the European Championship and millions of people were in the street. I think it will be something similar.

"Twenty years with no trophy in the Premier League is a long time, so it is very exciting for all of us.''

Liverpool did not make the best start in their mission, suffering two defeats in their opening three league games.

But recent victories over Bolton, Burnley and West Ham, along with a winning start in last week’s Champions League match against Debrecen, has given the side some momentum and Torres believes they are heading in the right direction.

"We are recovering the confidence now after winning four games in a row,'' he said.

"We have to keep on like this, but also improve, and keep working hard because there are difficult games coming.

"But we are on our way. There are some players injured and they will come back soon to help the team, but we don't have time to think in terms of the recovery of players and improving then - we have to win now.

"If we lose points in the coming weeks it will be very difficult to stay at the top come January and February.''

Somebody likely to play a key role in the weeks to come is midfielder Lucas, who has been given a run of starts since Alonso's departure and who Torres believes is becoming an integral part of the first XI.

"He is an international from Brazil, and this is not easy,'' Torres said.

"He is a fantastic player and he has to make a step forward now because Xabi has gone.

"He has the responsibility to become an important player for Liverpool and he has a real chance this season.

"He is playing in almost every game and we have real confidence in him.

"I am sure that he will get better in the future because he is still young. I hope he can be one of the best players for us this season.''

Win's The Thing But Rafa Still Searches For Answers

So, Rafa Benitez kept Liverpool on the fringes of the title race and staved off any immediate backlash. Both the club and their supporters are demanding far more from their manager in terms of a domestic challenge for honors, notably the title.

But the signs are not good. Let's not kid ourselves. West Ham have made their worst start in the league for six years, had only scored three goals prior to this match, but still managed two comebacks against a Liverpool team that continues to show defensive frailties.

Twice the Hammers came back from behind, until Torres finished them off. It was not an impressive display, despite the positive post-match comments from captain and manager. There is plenty of work to be done behind the scenes to get it right.

Benitez made it a hat-trick of wins in the Premiership but he is still searching for answers. One of them is Fernando Torres. He was on fire with his two goals, and if he continues in this vein than Liverpool have hope. But are those hopes slim or realistic?

Benitez made copious amounts of notes, stroked his goatee, and lived on the very edge of his technical area for long periods of a game his team dominated but without really seeing off the Hammers. There is no more committed Liverpool fan than Kevin Keegan. But he is not convinced. Far from it.

As ESPN's studio analyst, Keegan mentioned the lack of strength in depth in comparison to their title rivals, but went into far greater detail about the dysfunctional zonal marking from set pieces.

Astonishingly this season, Liverpool have conceded all nine of their goals against from set pieces. Benitez refuses to switch his defensive system, and when he once tried to, it made it even worse. But it gives opponents encouragement, and makes his team nervous whenever there is a corner.

Before this match, I put forward the scenario, that should Benitez foul up in the title race then the American owners would run out of patience and review his position. I also ventured that Jose Mourinho would be the No.1 choice should that day arrive - of course it might not - when Benitez is replaced. That caused an almighty debate, and while some thought it might happen, many Liverpool fans have not lost faith in their manager.

Benitez was asked before the game what he wanted from the match at Upon Park and he remarked instantaneously "a win". In the modern game, that is all that counts...winning. How a team wins can almost becomes an irrelevance. But if you look beyond the result, then this wasn’t an impressive Liverpool, and nowhere near the standards of much of last season.

As for West Ham, I did agree with the view that Zola's main task is to keep them away from the relegation dog-fight. But I fear that will be hard to achieve. So, survival will be their priority and Zola will do well to keep them clear of such a nasty struggle.

There was one other major talking point for me, and that was the Hammers' two-touch penalty. Did Diamanti touch the ball when he slipped before striking the penalty for a second time? Kevin Keegan made the point that you could have looked at a video ten times and might still not come to the right conclusion, with only the professionals able to assess whether the peculiar flight of the ball was caused by a double hit.

It wouldn't have made such a decision any easier with fourteen refs on the pitch, let alone fourteen. But video playback at least provides the opportunity to re-assess several important issues on the field.

Benitez was rightly aggrieved because he had seen the TV replay; we were led to believe during commentary. However, didn't the Premier League ban TV monitors from he dug out or its vicinity to avoid managers being able to have a second view, something the referee is deprived of?

Personally, I think Sepp Blatter and his UEFA counterparts have got this wrong. It's time to have video playback seen by a professional in the stands to make a more valid judgement.

Liverpool Must Cut Out Defensive Mistakes To Win Title, Says Fernando Torres

Fernando Torres wants to write another chapter for his new autobiography covering a Liverpool title-winning season.

But after conceding two more sloppy goals at Upton Park, the Spanish striker admitted the Reds must first have another read of the old-school defensive manual.

Torres scored a magnificent double in a pulsating game which explains the worldwide popularity of the Premier League.

His opening salvo was a stunning individual effort, the second a perfect header at the end of flowing team move. The £26m forward, labelled “unstoppable” by West Ham centre-back James Tomkins, was the difference between two-attack minded teams.

But that gap should be greater for a club intent on winning the title. The enduring appeal of our top-flight is the helter-skelter nature of games and the frequent defensive shortcomings.

And Liverpool, who have now conceded nine goals in six matches without anchorman Xavi Alonso, again contributed fully to the non-stop entertainment at both ends.

The pace of West Ham winger Zavon Hines terrorised the visiting rearguard as the sluggish Jamie Carragher was robbed in possession before the 20-year-old hit the post and then brought him down for the penalty. The other members of the Big Four will have watched with interest.

Since losing two of three first three matches this season, Rafa Benitez’s side have responded by winning the next four on the bounce.

But Torres acknowledged the way to win titles is not the Harlem Globetrotter-style of scoring more than your opponents every week.

“We have to keep winning games which is the main thing but the next target is to keep more clean sheets,” he said.

“That will be good for the team and good for Pepe (Reina). We have to improve in defence and keep more clean sheets.”

Dirk Kuyt agreed. “I think the main problem for us was that we allowed them to come back in the game through our own mistakes,” said the Dutchman.

“That is something we have to be aware of for the next games.”

Yet this game provided the best 45 minutes of the season so far. After the dashing Hines spurned the first chance in the second minute, El Nino demonstrated the goalscorer’s art after 20 minutes by breezing past Tompkins and poking home a shot at the near post.

“My mind was to try to cross it as soon as possible because I was on my left foot,” Torres said.

“I was looking for a teammate but I didn’t see anyone so I just kept going and managed to score, which was nice for me but more important for the team.”

The lead only last nine minutes before Carragher attempted a shoulder nudge on Hines only to find the lightning West Ham winger was half a yard too quick and could only push him in the back.

Alessandro Diamanti converted from the spot. Liverpool regained the lead after when Kuyt got a touch to a Stevie Gerrard header but the Dutchman generously - and unusually for greedy strikers - wants the goal credited to his team-mate.

“I touched it but if it is possible I will give it to Steve,” he said. “It was a great header and I was there at the second post if the ball goes wide. If we can give it to Steve, I will be glad.”

In a day of giving away goals, Carlton Cole then rose above three Liverpool defenders to head home the second equaliser from a Mark Noble corner with again no player on the post.

After an hour, Benitez made a telling change when he replaced Kuyt with Ryan Babel. The Dutchman destroyed the tiring Herita Ilunga and floated over the 75th-minute cross for Torres to seal the three points.

“Maybe the second goal was my favourite,” said the Spaniard. “It’s a team game, not just individual play. A fantastic cross by Ryan Babel. It is easy for a striker when the cross is as good as that. It’s very pleasing to score two goals when the team work hard and the team win.

“We have not the best start of the season but we are in a good moment now. It’s four consecutive games of winning in a row, so we have to think that we can get more points and move forward because we have the Chelsea game coming soon. I hope there will be many more goals.”

Even on a day when the District Line was closed causing transport chaos, the longest queue of the evening was to praise Torres.

England Under-21 defender Tomkins said: “I played against him last year and when he is on top of his game, he is the best striker in the world. As a defender you know that and being young myself, I don’t think it gets any tougher than that. When he is on his game, he is unstoppable.

“He is clever with the runs that he makes. He is not just good technically; he is good in the air and strong as well. He has got all the attributes of a top striker.”

Kuyt said: “He is a great player. Some people were talking about him not scoring for a few games but he is one of the best strikers every week even if he doesn’t score.”

Reina added: “His first goal was unbelievable goal - out of this world. But it is no surprise to us - that is what he can do.”

Benitez, who has seen his compatriot score five goals in the last six games, warned his 25-year-old can only get better.

“It is too early to talk about him winning the Golden Boot this season, he has to keep playing at this level and we will see what happens,” he said.

“He clearly has pace and mobility and he can use these things. He has to improve some things but I am not going to say what they are.

“Our Spanish players were in the Confederations Cup and the other players were training for 19 days before they came back to train with us late.

“We had to be careful with them and Torres was the top scorer and we were pushing him a bit but now, with all the prevention work with the physios, we are taking care of him.”

Aston Villa’s Defenders The Best, Says Fernando Torres

Not since the days when footballs were made of head-me-if-you-dare heavy leather has something in the game caused so many defenders migraines. But even Superman has kryptonite. Fernando Torres can be neutralised — how to do so is the surprise.

You make him face a certain Premier League side and they are not Manchester United, not Chelsea and not Arsenal. There is one team the world’s deadliest centre-forward feels ineffective against: Aston Villa. During his brief but goal-studded career in English football, Torres has embarrassed Nemanja Vidic and got the better of the likes of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, yet put him in with Curtis Davies and Carlos Cuellar and — in his own mind at least — the Spaniard becomes tame.

“Last season we won against Chelsea, United and Arsenal but always you have some defenders who are really hard for you. The Aston Villa defenders, for me, are really difficult. I don’t know why,” Torres said. “I have never had a good game against them because they are very, very aggressive and are doing man-to-man over almost the whole pitch. I hope we can win away against them because at home we lost 3-1 [this season]. They are probably the hardest defenders for me.”

The Spaniard made his confession when launching his autobiography (Torres: El NiƱo — My Story) at Anfield on Thursday. In the defeat last month that he mentioned, he got his first goal in five encounters against Villa. Until then, they were the only team in the Premier League Torres had faced more than once and failed to score against. He was marked by Davies and Cuellar, who were also his opponents when he drew a blank against Villa (albeit in a 5-0 Liverpool victory) in March. Martin Laursen, Olof Mellberg and Gary Cahill are the other Villa centre-backs Torres has faced since moving to England in 2007.

He has scored 53 times in 90 appearances for Liverpool (before the win against West Ham) and earned a level of affection from fans of rivals clubs in England which, despite his achievements, was not afforded to Cristiano Ronaldo during his spell in the Premier League and has also eluded another prodigious forward imported from abroad, Didier Drogba.

Asked for the reasons, Torres pointed to his onfield conduct. The Spaniard has not been involved in a diving scandal while playing in England and has seldom taxed the patience of match officials, being booked just once in the league last season, despite a committed style of playing. “I think players have to show respect to everyone, not just the fans of their own team,” he said in reference to himself, Ronaldo and Drogba. “That is where respect is important, being honest and trying to play football just like a sport to enjoy — not doing the other things.”

Having picked out England and Brazil as the sides he feels will present the biggest obstacles to Spain at next year’s World Cup, Torres strengthened the mutual admiration pact between himself and the English when he discussed styles of play. Despite nursing a black eye from a brawny encounter with Burnley’s Clarke Carlisle and Andre Bikey last Saturday, the striker said he loved the muscular dimension to football in the Premier League. “Here the defenders are more honest,” he said. “They’re fighting for the ball, but they are honest. They’re just trying to fight to keep the ball. Here in England you fight and I really like this type of football.”

Riera Rues Gruelling Pre-Season

Liverpool winger Albert Riera believes the Confederations Cup played a part in their stuttering start to the season.

The Reds are getting their season back on track with four wins on the trot after losing two of their opening three Premier League games, the same number of defeats they suffered throughout the whole of last season.

Liverpool's Spaniard-heavy squad looked disorientated in their early fixtures as defeats to Tottenham and Aston Villa threatened to de-rail their title bid almost immediately.

In the summer, Spain played five matches en-route to their third-place finish in the Confederations Cup in the summer, meaning a grueling pre-season regime for those involved.

With key players Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Riera himself a part of the Spain set-up, the winger believes the competition may have effected Liverpool's early performances.

"The pre-season was hard and sometimes you start the season in not the best condition and maybe we have had that this year with Liverpool," Riera told The People.

"But now things are becoming better and we have more confidence now.

"It could have been the Confederations Cup or it could have been because you have to work really hard in pre-season so the first games then won't be the best because you don't feel at 100 per cent.

"But the most important thing is the present and we are feeling really confident and things are coming like last year."

Liverpool are hoping to end a 20-year title drought this season and overtake rivals Manchester United in the record number of titles won after the Red Devils equaled their haul of 18 last season.

"We know we have to win the Premier League, definitely, and fans are behind that a lot," added Riera.

"But we want to fight for everything, not just the Premier League. We want to win everything."

Reds Ace Not For Sale - Benitez

Rafael Benitez has once again insisted that Javier Mascherano is not for sale and wants him to extend his stay at Liverpool.

The Argentina international was heavily linked with a move to Barcelona in the summer before Xabi Alonso completed his transfer to Real Madrid, ending any hopes Mascherano had of leaving Anfield.

Reports have been circulating Merseyside that the 25-year-old is unhappy with not being allowed to leave the club, resulting in him being confined to the bench for a few games this season.

However, Benitez has insisted the midfielder is happy at Liverpool and he is determined to keep Mascherano at the club for the foreseeable future.

"I have told the managing director that he is very important to us and we want to keep him, and we will look at his contract when the time is right," said Benitez.

"He is a key player for us and he will be a key player for us during the season.

"I think he is working very hard and in one or two games he was playing well but the team was not doing really well in the other two. It's more the team than just one player.

"He has to play at the level he was before, but he has enough time to do that, and we know he is a key player for us, and will be for a long time."

Hicks Emerges With Little Credit But City Still Bank On Bellers

The bullish noises coming from Anfield last week that Liverpool is now on course to be the richest, most popular club in the world were tempered a little bit by their timing.

Having worked so hard to seal one of the most lucrative sponsorship deals around, Liverpool's owners would surely have been eager to have announced it a few weeks ago when Rafael Benitez might have been able to find some way to spend some money.

Instead, to the dismay of everyone at the club, Benitez was left with £1.5m to spend at the end of the summer when he had again shown his mastery of the transfer market by selling Xabi Alonso for £30m. Then, amazingly, a few weeks later, Liverpool announce they will be bringing in £80m over the next four years in a deal with Standard Chartered, which, appropriately given the club's financial situation, is a bank.

Of course, it came too late for Benitez to strengthen his squad but there is always January, by which time Liverpool may need to strengthen given their unpromising start to the season. Benitez will, of course, be blamed for this, even by those who should know better like Ronnie Whelan, who claimed on RTE last week that the side facing Debrecen had cost £250m and wondered why the manager had replaced Alonso with Alberto Aquilani who, as far as anyone can tell, has always been injured. The man he should ask is Tom Hicks.

With the transfer window closed, Hicks showed up last week to purr optimistically in his soothing Texan drawl.

If the Liverpool credo used to be that the club "exists to be a source of pride to its supporters -- It has no other purpose," Hicks has modernised that too.

"Our goal is to have less debt than any of the top clubs and that's a commitment we have made and will continue to make," Hicks said last week, an interesting statement considering the club was saddled with their current massive debt when he and George Gillett took over.

But Tom reappeared last week to make some new promises. With some reports questioning if Liverpool's new stadium would be built by 2018, Hicks made the right noises but pointed out that the "global financial markets" were not conducive to building anything right now.

When Tom Hicks took over Liverpool, the global financial markets were in love with guys like Tom Hicks and the new owners promised that the stadium would begin almost immediately, before deciding that they needed some new and impressive plans before anything could happen.

As they were working on those plans, the global financial markets that had been so kind to Tom Hicks imploded, thanks to men like Tom Hicks.

Tom now says he "doesn't know about the dates", a departure from a previous statement when he was able to give the date when the stadium would be built but not when it would be started.

Most of us would have assumed things worked the other way where a start date is set with a rough idea following of when the thing could be finished.

But then again most of us had no idea of the world of Tom Hicks until he came along, swiftly followed by the sub-prime credit crunch and the collapse of everything that was built on the highly leveraged philosophy. We would have assumed that to buy a club like Liverpool, you had to have a lot of money and we would have been wrong about that too. So we should say nothing.

We thought clubs were bought by people like the men who bought Manchester City, but Tom now says their plans to buy every good player they can is "unsustainable". When it comes to things being unsustainable, we should probably listen to Tom Hicks.