Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rafael Benítez Says He Is Not Worried About His Position At Liverpool

Rafael Benítez today shrugged off the growing pressure on his position at Liverpool ahead of Sunday's game against Manchester United at Anfield. Liverpool desperately need a win after four consecutive defeats, and Benítez will give Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Glen Johnson - all groin injury victims - as long as he possibly can to prove their fitness.

The match, though, will be overshadowed by fans' unrest over the team's poor performances and the continued ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. A protest march is being planned and Hicks and Gillett will be the subject of increased security but Benítez said he was not worried about losing his job should the team fail to win on Sunday.

"I am relaxed in terms of my position," he insisted. "I know how we are working every day, the players know, too. In the past we have been very good and the situation and players has not changed too much.

"It is about confidence and winning that first game. If we want to change things we must focus on football and not what is going on off the pitch here."

Benítez has kept his team in for extra training sessions this week, but insisted the players' attitude had been good. "They know the situation. They know what they must do and they will try to do everything we are asking of them.

"I have had great support from Steven [Gerrard]. He is a leader, he wanted to prove something in the week against Lyon, he wanted to play despite the injury problem. That shows the right mentality and what we expect from any player at Liverpool.

"The team is not as bad as people think. We have beaten United without Gerrard and Torres and we know that we can beat anyone. We have total confidence in that.

"When you are not winning, you cannot be too negative with players. When I push the players it is when I know that we can improve and they are already doing well. When we are not doing well we have to analyse carefully and not to push too hard."

Benítez has had support from the former Liverpool player Kenny Dalglish, now the club's ambassador and academy figurehead.

"I have talked with Kenny. We both have experience, but he knows this club and what happens here. He knows that if we work hard then everything will be fine," said Benítez. "Every week everything changes. The pressures from the critics is to be expected. It is part of the game and you have to adapt to the situation.

"But it is results that matter. I understand that, the only way to respond is to do the right things on the pitch.

"Actions change things. It is time for everyone to be positive and it is up to the players to make the difference."

If Liverpool lose on Sunday it will be their worst run since the club was relegated from the old First Division in 1953.

But Benítez maintains a change of fortune is only a win away. "As a manager you know that sometimes there will be good moments and bad moments, and at this time we know that we have to improve. But it is only a matter of time. If we win a game then everything changes.

"This game against Manchester United is just the right opportunity. It is a massive game, the fans will be right behind us from the first minute to the last.

"When people talk about our squad not being strong enough, I maintain that we are better than people think. If we have half a dozen players who are injured, then things will be difficult.

"If you take five players out of United, Chelsea or Arsenal, it will be very difficult for them to win games. The best way to regain confidence and to improve our situation is to beat Manchester United."

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool Are Better Than People Think

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez thinks his side are still well capable of beating Manchester United on Sunday and ending their catastrophic run of four consecutive defeats.

The Reds can reduce the gap between themselves and United to four points should they win on Sunday, and Benitez was focusing firmly on the positives ahead of Sunday's game.

"I am sure our squad is much better than people think. If you have three, four or five players who normally start out injured, then you can't talk about the squad not being strong enough," the Spaniard told his pre-match press conference.

"I am sure if you take four or five players from United, Chelsea or Arsenal, it would be very difficult for them to win some games.

"Beating United last season is something positive we can use. Without Gerrard and Torres, the team was really good and the fans enjoyed the day - especially because we were without two very important players.

"So, if we have to do the same in this situation now, we can do it.

"It's the best way - but it's not the only one. We think we can win and we'll talk about four points at the next press conference."

Benitez also claimed to be coping well with the intense pressure and scrutiny under which his own situation has come in recent days.

He added: "I am really relaxed in terms of my position because I know how we are working on the pitch every day. In the past we were doing really good things and we haven't changed too much.

"It's a question of confidence. We know we have to improve but it's about winning the first game now.

"As a manager you know you will have good moments and bad moments. At this moment we know we have to improve, we have to win and it's a question of time - I'm sure once we win the first game everything will change.

"This game against United could be the right opportunity for us because it's a massive game against our rivals and the fans will be behind the team from the first minute until the last. We can change everything.

"We just need to keep working hard and perhaps need a bit of luck on the pitch. The other day against Lyon we were winning 1-0 and then had two or three chances but couldn't score the second goal. Then we lost in the last minute.

"Sometimes you need to play a little bit better, that's clear - but you also need to keep working hard and [get] that little bit of luck."

Acquiring Liverpool Still Interests Robert Kraft

Robert Kraft has acknowledged that he still harbours an interest in buying Liverpool.

The American businessman owns gridiron franchise New England Patriots, but admits that the global dominance of the round ball game makes the Premier League appealing.

"Yeah, in the right situation. I love the game," he said, according to Sporting Life, though he has reservations about the absence of a salary cap in the Premier League.

"I've said this before - I love competing with fair management - how well I can manage against you. [But] I don't like losing and at some point it's not economic, people just throwing money at it.

"I wanted to do the deal up there but in the end we only go into business ventures where we think we can compete at a high level. Because we like winning, and we like to win consistently."

Kraft, 68, tried to buy Liverpool in 2005 but lost out to compatriots Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The duo's subsequent tenure at the club has been marked by dissension and a certain amount of off-field turmoil.

Kraft is the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of The Kraft Group, a diversified holding company with assets in paper and packaging, sports and entertainment, real estate development and a private equity portfolio. His best-known holdings are the NFL's New England Patriots, Major League Soccer side New England Revolution, and the Gillette Stadium, where they play their home games.

He will be in London this weekend for the Patriots' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley, the third time the NFL has staged a regular season fixture in the United Kingdom.

Liverpool Still Tracking Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross

Stoke City centre-back Ryan Shawcross is still on the transfer radar of Liverpool, according to a report from Sporting Life.

The Reds are set to make a January move for the £8 million-rated defender, who has consistently impressed since moving to the Potteries from Manchester United in 2007.

Liverpool reportedly made summer enquiries about the England Under-21 international but were dissuaded from making an offer by City's price tag.

Reds manager Rafa Benitez is believed to want to increase the number of English-born players in his squad as well as bolster his defensive options.

Stoke are understood to be in negotiations with the player about a new contract, though no agreement has yet been reached.

Manchester United, Everton, Fulham and Arsenal are also believed to be keeping tabs on the young defender.

Ed Smith: Liverpool Must Hold Their Nerve And Trust In Rafael Benitez

Do not be misled. Liverpool are not just sliding down the table. They are deep in the relegation zone. They do not face relegation from the Premier League – no one cares about that. We are talking about relegation from the Big Four's mini-league.

That is the way we now talk about sport, especially football. At any moment in every Premier League season, one of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool will suffer a string of disappointing results. This shocking development is greeted by speculation about the sacking of their manager.

It is a recurrent theme – you just change the name of the manager under pressure at any given moment. Arsenal's poor start to last season led to a national inquiry about Arsène Wenger. Now it is Rafael Benitez's turn. So why do clubs consider sacking successful managers?

Expectation is the illness, impatience the symptom, disappointment the wound. For the first time since 1987 Liverpool have lost four games in a row, and they haven't won the English title for 19 years. Those statistics are being held up as the reasons why Benítez finds himself under such pressure.

But the real reason goes back further. It isn't just losing that causes problems for Benítez. It's the past – the triumphs of previous Liverpool teams. When I was growing up in the early Eighties, Liverpool were the game's aristocrats. They now cannot face the prospect of joining the minor gentry.

Liverpool today is a great footballing dynasty that finds itself outside the corridors of power. Three possibilities await them. They might regain power and pre-eminence, as Manchester United did under Sir Alex Ferguson. They could learn to live with revised expectations, as Everton have done. Or they could end up a basket-case of frustrated nostalgics living in the past.

Liverpool should consider the fate of the West Indies. They once dominated world cricket. In the 1980s, across the whole decade, the West Indies won 17 Tests against England. England won none. How the wheel has turned: in the 2000s England won 15 Tests to the West Indies' two. The West Indies sit eighth in the ICC world Test rankings.

The response of the West Indies cricket board to this long-term decline has been to sack coaches increasingly frequently. John Dyson, who enjoyed a measure of success, was given his marching orders this summer. But the revolving door policy has not arrested the West Indies' decline, it has exacerbated it.

When the West Indies dominated international cricket, Middlesex ruled the county scene. Between 1976 and 1993, Middlesex won seven County Championships and seven one-day titles.

Recent decades have not gone so well. To put it kindly, there has been a certain amount of chopping and changing of coaches and captains – this columnist included. But does trying all the possible permutations for a short period of time ever work?

While all successful teams are different, perhaps the only constant is that when lesser organisations panic, winning teams hold their nerve.

That is what Liverpool must do now. The best way to create sustained excellence is not demanding success immediately but ensuring stability at the top.

Patience is the best policy. Two of England's three best clubs (Arsenal and Manchester United) have the longest-standing managers in the Premier League.

So the best advice for Liverpool fans would be swallow their disappointment, temper their expectation, and trust the man who made them champions of Europe. Rationality demands no less. But when has football ever been rational?

Liverpool FC Fans To March Against George Gillett And Tom Hicks

Security will be heightened at Anfield on Sunday as Liverpool FC fans plan a march to protest against George Gillett and Tom Hicks’ ownership of the club.

The American pair, who have come under pressure from fans’ groups angry at the debt and direction of Liverpool FC, are expected to attend the Premier League clash with Manchester United.

The club are not prepared to discuss their plans to protect Hicks and Gillett, but last season a similar march ahead of the same fixture saw extra police and security staff around the stadium.

The Spirit of Shankly fans group hope for a 10,000-strong march to the stadium.

Gillett attended Tuesday’s Champions League defeat by Lyon, where a large banner on the Kop claimed that fans had been lied to by the owners. Gillett also watched Alberto Aquilani make his club debut in the reserves at Tranmere the following night.

It is believed there are plans for thousands of placards to be waved at the Americans if they sit in their usual front-row seats of the directors’ box.

Les Lawson, spokesman for the Liverpool Supporters Club, a member of the Spirit of Shankly grouping, said: "There have been protests before, but the Americans do have elephant-thick skin.

"But there is no point in sitting back and doing nothing. This will be a direct action to keep the campaign in the public eye.

"There are plenty of other things going on behind the scenes to keep the campaign going, though. The fans have to do something to show their anger at the way Liverpool is being run."

Spirit of Shankly spokesman Paul Gardner said: "There are two culprits (for the way the club is being run) - Gillett and Hicks.

"They are the ones who put us into £245million of debt, promised us a new stadium that has not been built, took money out of the club to pay for their own expenses. We want the owners out now."

Liverpool FC Legend Kenny Dalglish Backs Rafa Benitez

Kenny Dalglish has given his full backing to Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez following the club’s worst run of form for 22 years.

Dalglish is currently employed by the club as a roving ambassador as well as the director of Liverpool FC’s academy. He was appointed in the summer at Benitez’s instigation.

Now the Liverpool FC legend is being talked off in some quarters as a potential safe pair of hands to replace Benitez, should the American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks decide to axe the Spaniard.

Such a move is highly unlikely now that Gillett has openly supported Benitez, with the knowledge that the coach has a new four-year contract and it would cost more that £20million to get rid of him.

But Dalglish has chosen this moment to calm the speculation, saying: "I’m only here because Rafa wants me here.

"Everyone within the upper echelons of this club has no doubt whatsoever about Rafa - I know that for a fact.

"Everybody at Liverpool knows Rafa is the right man to get the club through this.

"No-one is pumped up and panicking in any way, shape or form. Everyone is being as helpful and supportive as they possibly can be to the manager.

"Obviously, whether you’re a manager or a player, you have to retain your confidence and belief in what you are doing.

"You have also got to retain your belief in each other. The manager has to retain belief in his players and the players must retain their confidence in the manager.

"It’s very important that everybody sticks together to get themselves through this."

Dalglish, who spent 14 years at Anfield as player and manager, added: "Of course it’s not good for Liverpool - or any club - to lose four games in a row. It is a bad run and the supporters feel it equally as badly as everyone at the club does.

"Everybody’s accountable. When you have success everybody takes their fair share of the credit - and rightly so. So when it goes badly the same thing must apply in reverse.

"People have made mistakes but it’s how you react to them that’s the most important thing.

"The other vitally important thing is that you must never allow other people to drive wedges between you and through various parts of the football club.

"Of course everyone must stand up and be counted - and then at least we’ll be going in the right direction."

Dalglish added: "If you lose four games on the spin you’re not going to be getting praise.

"Yes, there’s criticism. Some will be constructive and Rafa will look at this and take it under his wing and say maybe that’s right. Other parts he will totally dismiss.

"But there’s no way Liverpool and the majority of people would want Rafa to go anywhere.

"Remember last year we beat Manchester United with Steven Gerrard only playing 20 minutes and Fernando Torres not playing at all. So if we did it last year, why can’t we do it this year?"

Dalglish was manager the last time Liverpool FC experienced such a dismal run, and he knows what it takes to emerge from a slump.

He added: "The players will need to stand up and be counted. But then everybody needs to do that.

"For anyone who has any affiliation to Liverpool, then it’s time for them to rally round and channel all their efforts in the one direction.

"That is to help the manager and the players to get the one result everybody wants. That’s the only way to do it."

Rafa Benitez Criticism Is Unfair, Says Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger believes the criticism levelled at under-fire Liverpool FC boss Rafa Benitez is undeserved and "excessive".

Liverpool FC are in their worst run of form for 22 years, with four defeats in the Premier League already, and face a crunch clash at leaders Manchester United on Sunday lunchtime.

Arsenal manager Wenger, though, feels the Spaniard - who won the Champions League against AC Milan in 2005, and reached the final again two years later - should be given more respect for what he has achieved.

"It is always excessive," said Wenger, who himself received plenty of flak when the Gunners struggled for consistency this time last season.

"We are, with a big club, in a job where you know that the moment the team goes through a difficult period, you get more stick than you should.

"But we know in our job as well that it is all part of it.

"I feel sorry that he gets that because he does not deserve it.

"But we all basically understand within this job, that it is part of the rules."

Wenger last secured a trophy with the FA Cup in 2005.

The Gunners boss, though, believes managers of big clubs must be capable of dealing with unfavourable questioning.

"In a big club, you need to be extremely strong because you get a lot of negative vibes," he added.

"When you do not start well in the race for the Premier League, it’s all negative around you.

"What is happening to Liverpool today happened to us last year.

"Every single question is negative for the whole season.

"You need to be extremely strong inside the club to deal with that."

Fergie Backs Beach Ball Decision

Sir Alex Ferguson has stoked the fire ahead of Manchester United's trip to Liverpool by saying he can understand why Sunderland's goal stood last week.

The Reds' dismal run of results continued when they succumbed 1-0 to the Black Cats thanks to a Darren Bent goal that deflected of a beach ball that was thrown onto the pitch by one of Liverpool's own supporters.

According to the laws of the game any goal that is aided by an 'outside agent' should be disallowed but referee Mike Jones allowed the strike to stand.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez credibly did not use the freak goal as an excuse for the defeat but Ferguson can see why the goal stood.

"It was an unusual incident. Obviously the goal shouldn't have been allowed but in the spur of the moment I think the referee was caught off guard with that one," he said.

"I must admit I thought it was a goal but I read the laws of the game saying if there was an outside agent it should be disallowed.

"I thought it was a goal like the wind, the wind can take the ball. You can say that is an outside agent. When you see that it is unusual."

Mourinho Laughs Off Reds Link

Jose Mourinho has rubbished speculation suggesting he could replace Rafa Benitez at Liverpool.

Benitez has come under pressure following a dismal run of four straight defeats in all competitions that has hit their hopes of domestic and European success.

The Reds boss has insisted he feels safe in his job despite the poor results after receiving words of support from co-owner George Gillett.

There has still been plenty of conjecture about Benitez's future and several names have been mentioned in the media in connection with the club.

Inter Milan manager Jose Mourinho was quizzed on the subject during his pre-match press conference ahead of the Serie A clash with Catania.

But he closed the door on a possible return to the Premier League at the current time, saying simply: "It is impossible."

Mourinho preferred to focus on Inter but opted against heaping too much praise on young forward Mario Balotelli.

The 19-year-old produced a sensational performance in the 5-0 victory over Genoa last Saturday, scoring one of the goals, but Mourinho has not been too impressed with his attitude in recent days.

"This doesn't mean he's already a phenomenon only because he played a really good match with Genoa," said Mourinho.

"To tell the truth he played a really great game and then he had a really bad working week.

"I value a player for what he does on the pitch but also for the job he does during the week."

Rafael Benítez Hopes Kop Do Not Kick Sand In His Face As He Hunts For Beach-Ball Boy

Rafael Benítez has been unable to get beach-ball boy off his mind over the past few days. That’s the kid who kicked off Liverpool’s latest crisis by throwing an inflatable on to the pitch at the Stadium of Light.

Six days later, Benítez’s side are on the brink of elimination from the Champions League after Tuesday’s defeat by Lyons, their title aspirations are in ruins and Michael Owen and Manchester United are due in town on Sunday. The fitness of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard has added to the manager’s worries.

Yet he is still thinking about the kid. Privately, Benítez has tried to track down beach-ball boy. He wanted to tell him that flicking the ball from the stands five minutes before kick-off was not the reason Liverpool lost to Sunderland and not the reason the season is threatening to spin out of control.

He would like to tell the young lad that he is not responsible for the ills of the team. The boy has gone to ground but Benítez’s critics have broken cover in numbers this week. The Kop will give its verdict on Sunday.

Nowhere in football is the relationship between manager and crowd such an important issue as at Anfield. The umbilical cord between dugout and terraces is the work of one man, Bill Shankly.

When he arrived in Liverpool 50 years ago, he found a run-down stadium and team. Shankly built the English game’s most successful club. Yet that is less important than the bond he created with the fans.

“He made the people happy,” it says on Shankly’s statue outside the Kop. But more than that, he made the people feel they were part of something important, part of a philosophy, a culture. According to the great man, the Kop “sucked the ball into the net”.

Every one of those 26,000 people on the terrace heard that and felt that they had as much to do with victory as the players.

Even when he retired, Shankly embellished the legend he created by standing on the Kop. Ever since, Liverpool supporters have expected their managers to be part Kopite.

Trying to track down the kid is something Shankly would have done.

The bond between manager and fans was reinforced by Kenny Dalglish after Hillsborough. His support for the bereaved families, the injured and traumatised will never be forgotten on Merseyside.

So Kopites want their manager to be someone who understands their dreams and aspirations.

Sometimes they try too hard to project that identity on to the man in the hot seat. In 2001, they sang “Are you Shankly in disguise?” to Gérard Houllier.

The other side-effect of this is an eagerness to support the manager even when it has become clear that he is the wrong man for the job. Roy Evans and Houllier passed their sell-by dates with the sound of adoration ringing in their ears.

Even Graeme Souness was not hounded out by the Kop. Souness was the anti-Shankly; the evil twin with a knack for bringing chaos and a gift for alienating fans.

Benítez is no Shankly, but he has connected with the fans. In 2005, he turned up at a bar in Cologne the night before the Champions League tie with Bayer Leverkusen and drank with supporters. This sort of thing has not made him immune from criticism, however.

A substantial proportion of the crowd at Anfield are irritated by his transfer policy and his perceived innate caution. They are irked by his inability to deliver the title. However, all but his most irrational critics will concede it is impossible to judge his performance against a background of dreadful ownership and political chaos at the club.

Boos rang around Anfield when Benítez replaced Yossi Benayoun with Andriy Voronin against Lyons but this does not mean that Benítez has lost the Kop. Even Bob Paisley was booed for taking off Craig Johnston in the early 1980s.

Paisley reacted by criticising the crowd, saying they were layabouts who’d never done a day’s work in their lives. He soon retracted his attack, saying it was aimed at particular individuals in the main stand. Paisley made the right move. Do not alienate the Kop. They moan in private but, when public backing is needed, they will recall the managers who stood beside them and recognise the real enemy.

So win, lose or draw, Benítez’s name will be sung on Sunday. Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. will not be so lucky.