Monday, November 02, 2009

Johnson - Reds Face Disaster

Liverpool defender Glen Johnson has admitted an early exit from the UEFA Champions League would be a 'disaster' for the Anfield outfit.

Rafa Benitez's side are floundering in the Premier League title race after suffering their fifth defeat of the season away to Fulham on Saturday, a match which full-back Johnson missed through injury.

And their European ambitions are also hanging in the balance after back-to-back defeats at the hands of Fiorentina and Lyon ahead of Wednesday's crucial return fixture away to the French side.

England international Johnson knows the implications of the Merseyside giants failing to progress to the knockout stages and does not want to even consider the prospect of slipping into the Europa League.

"It would be a disaster for this club not qualifying for the knockout stages - but it's not something we are thinking about," he told the Daily Star Sunday.

"We have still got to believe we can do it. We don't even want to start thinking about the Europa League.

"It will be no consolation at all. It's not the aim and it's not the plan because we want to be in the Champions. It is one of the main reasons why players want to play for a big side.

"The Champions League is the best club competition there is. I played in it a few times with Chelsea and playing in it again was something that I was looking forward to doing.

"And I would love to go on and win it with Liverpool. But really I don't want to look too far ahead because we have made things very difficult for ourselves in the last two games.

"On paper we should be winning this group. The Champions League is just as important to us as the Premier League.

"They are both massive competitions and we like to do well in them both. The further that we get in the Champions League and the closer we get to the title, the happier the club will be.

"But playing in Europe, as we have shown over the last few years, suits our style."

Former Chelsea and Portsmouth defender Johnson admits Benitez's men need to take maximum points from their remaining fixtures against Lyon, Fiorentina and Debrecen to be sure of progressing.

Lyon currently head Group E with a six-point cushion over the Reds with Fiorentina, who face point-less Hungarian side Debrecen in midweek, enjoying a three-point advantage.

Johnson added: "We are three points behind Fiorentina, so we may need to win all three remaining games. Lyon have got to play Fiorentina as well, so somebody will drop points.

"We would be happy with three wins but Lyon are a fantastic team who score a lot of goals at home.

"Any away game in the Champions League is hard. We must stick together and fight for each other. Hopefully we can keep a clean sheet and come back with three points."

John Arne Riise Eyes Liverpool Return

John Arne Riise has sent a 'come and get me back' plea to Rafa Benitez.

The Roma left-back, sold for £5million in 2008, is hoping to convince Benitez to push for a swap deal involving his replacement Andrea Dossena.

Benitez would need persuading to make such a move, especially with Emiliano Insua, 20 fast emerging on the left side of the Reds' defence.

Liverpool also have Fabio Aurelio fit again.

Riise endured a poor final season at Anfield, culminating in a fateful own goal in the 2008 Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea.

But a move for the Norwegian, who spent seven years at Anfield before his move to Italy, would at least enable Benitez to offload Italian Dossena, who's been a disaster since his £7m move from Udinese.

And with the Spanish coach having limited funds, he may welcome an additional body in his squad, particulary as Riise can also operate in midfield.

Dossena has made it clear he wants a return to Serie A to improve his World Cup chances.

He's been included in recent Italian squads, but is well down in the Anfield pecking order with his starting appearances so far limited to the Carling Cup.

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool Don't Have To Win Trophies To Be A Success

Rafa Benitez has claimed success at Liverpool should not be measured in trophies.

The Merseysiders pride themselves as being the most successful club in England, with 18 titles and five European Cups.

But Benitez, who takes Liverpool into a week that could decide their Champions League fate after Saturday's shock 3-1 defeat at Fulham, said: “I don’t agree when people say that you have to win trophies.

“I always say you have to be there, you have to be close, you have to create a group of players who can fight for trophies.

“We got 86 points last season, yet some people were saying that it wasn’t good because we finished second.

“I think reducing the gap between the top team and Liverpool to four points was a massive achievement.

“Trophies mean a lot to everyone. But the most important thing is to see progression and evidence that you are improving and able to fight for trophies.

“It’s not just about one year. It is about what we can achieve in the future.

“People say that I have now been here five years. I say, look at the differences here now.

“Look at the value of the club before compared to the value of the club now.

“Look at the value of the squad before compared to the value of the squad now. You can see the progression.”

Benitez’s words will come as a surprise to followers of a club with an insatiable appetite for silverware.

As legendary Anfield boss Bob Paisley once famously said: “First is first and second is nowhere.”

Spaniard Benitez won the Champions League in his first season at Anfield, but the Reds have not lifted a trophy since the FA Cup in 2006.

He was given assurances about his future last week by managing director Christian Purslow.

Hours later Liverpool resurrected their Premier League challenge by beating Manchester United 2-0.

But they travel to Lyon in the Champions League on Wednesday night with their hopes of progression hanging by a thread following the French club’s 2-1 win at Anfield and a defeat at Fiorentina.

Benitez believes he will still have the backing of Purslow and the club’s two American owners, even if Liverpool suffer an early exit from Europe’s premier competition.

But he is aware that such a scenario would have serious consequences when it comes to his New Year transfer budget.

Benitez said: “Christian Purslow made it very clear that when I signed a new contract for five years it was so that I would be at this club for a very long time.

“Now I can control the Academy, I can control the young players we produce and build something very good for the future.

“We have analysed the squad together, looking at plans for January and also next season.

“My belief is that we will qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, but of course, you have to have plans based on whether you have more money or less money available.

“The more money you have, the easier it is.

“If you have less money then you have to manage in a different way and find other solutions to improve.”

Liverpool Want £6million For Babel

Ryan Babel will jet back home to Ajax in January if Liverpool get £6million for the striker.

Boss Rafa Benitez has stood by the Dutch flop, 22, and offered him a fresh chance this season.

But his patience has run out and Benitez will listen to offers.

Babel started the campaign in the first team but failed to respond to the manager's votes of confidence. The winger is worried about his World Cup place and hoped for a loan move last summer, which Benitez blocked.

He needs funds before sealing a new £90,000-a-week deal for keeper Pepe Reina.

Securing Reina, 27, has become a top priority amid interest from his ex-club Barcelona.

He is viewed by many as the best keeper in the world and is happy at Anfield.

Even though he's been in a dark mood at times this season during a fluctuating campaign, he's committed to Anfield.

Reina was prepared to sign a new deal last summer alongside a string of other top stars, but it was put on hold until the Merseysiders could raise more cash.

Fernando Torres Torments Liverpool Manager Rafael Benítez

The fans half feared it, the pundits shook their heads and even the club had doubts, but when it comes to juggling the demands of the Barclays Premier League and European competition, while Fulham are coping magnificently, Rafael Benítez’s team are not.

The fragility of Liverpool’s season was never starker. Benítez is having to calculate how many minutes he can squeeze from his top players without exacerbating their various injuries. It is no way to run a team who were, at the end of last season, among the favourites to win the title and to reach the final stages of the Champions League.

The maths for Benítez are becoming more intricate by the hour. It is clear to the least medically minded that Fernando Torres needs a rest; a proper legs up, TV on, cuppa at the ready rest. But, because he is not as hampered by injury as some of his team-mates, the striker has to feature.

Benítez has always been noted for his scientific method, but the amount of complex mathematics he has to contend with is bordering on the ridiculous.

The 80 minutes that Torres played against Manchester United at Anfield resulted in the Spain forward needing four days of rest. So, children, heads down, turn your exam papers over and calculate how many minutes he should have been allowed against Fulham if he is to be fit for the match against Lyons on Wednesday.

Benítez and his staff decided the answer is 63, but only on Wednesday will we find out if that was the correct calculation.

Of course, there would be little in the way of furrowed brows and calculators if Benítez could rustle up a bench brimming with precocious talent and impressive experience. But he cannot. Perhaps the most telling element to this defeat was that Roy Hodgson, the Fulham manager, had to contend with two injured players — Diomansy Kamara and Damien Duff — at half-time but their replacements were, if anything, more influential.

Fulham can travel to Rome for their Europa League match on Thursday buoyed by a dream victory. So how does Hodgson get the balance right between domestic and European demands?

“You don’t, it would be naive to believe you can get it right,” he said. “The fact is, both competitions are such enormously difficult competitions to win. The moment you dilute your chances of winning one competition by trying to win the other one, it makes life much more difficult. You get injuries because players don’t get the time to recover.”

“Tell me about it,” Benítez might have muttered, having seen Torres warm down after the game, looking extremely uncomfortable as he did so. Surely there must be a temptation to give him a long rest rather than juggle spurts of recuperation with playing time? But Benítez is aware that to have kept a partially fit Torres on the bench would have left him open to even more criticism.

The carefully computed moment for the departure of Torres came with the game poised at 1-1 and though Torres was clearly not functioning at full pelt, he was Liverpool’s most potent threat and his withdrawal must have affected the morale of those left on the pitch.

Fulham took the lead against the run of play, shortly after Yossi Benayoun had hit the crossbar. Bobby Zamora darted, as if invisible, between Emiliano Insúa and Sotirios Kyrgiakos to connect with Duff’s cross.

For all Liverpool’s possession — 74 per cent — they created few real threats and their equaliser came as a consequence of a ricochet that fell at the feet of Torres, who reacted with almost frighteningly quick reflexes to fire past Mark Schwarzer.

Philipp Degen and Jamie Carragher were dismissed within three minutes of each other in the second half, but Fulham had already regained the lead. Dirk Kuyt, with his customary zeal, elected to keep the ball in play acrobatically, but inadvertently set up a Fulham attack that was finished by the neat clip of Erik Nevland’s heel. “There was a bit of a mix-up out wide and once you go down to nine men it is virtually impossible,” Carragher said.

Fulham proceeded to have fun against depleted opponents and sealed victory when Clint Dempsey almost lazily ran to meet Nevland’s through-ball.

Benítez disputed both red-card decisions. Degen can make a strong case that he should have been merely cautioned for his foul on Dempsey and Carragher claimed he reached the ball as he tangled with Zamora. But although luck is not on the Liverpool manager’s side, some of the club’s fans trudged away wondering why Benayoun had been left to shuttle away thanklessly on the flank when he would have thrived operating directly behind Torres.

Even so, in spite of the bedraggled mess Liverpool appeared at the final whistle, few of those fans would bet against the team rising to the seemingly impossible challenge of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League once again.

Benitez Defends Torres Withdrawal

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has defended substituting striker Fernando Torres in their 3-1 defeat by Fulham.

Torres has been nursing a groin injury and was taken off with the scores at 1-1 ahead of the crucial Champions League game at Lyon on Wednesday.

"It is a big risk if you keep a player playing if he has this problem so we wanted to protect Torres as we knew it could be worse for him," said Benitez.

"If you lose the player for 20 minutes it is better than for one month."

Torres played 80 minutes in the win over Manchester United last Sunday and was rested for the midweek defeat at Arsenal for a lack of fitness before returning to the starting line-up against Fulham.

He equalised for Liverpool but was taken off after 62 minutes at Craven Cottage.

"We knew that we had to change him," added the Spaniard, who also took off Yossi Benayoun late on. "In the last game he played 80 minutes and needed four days to recover.

"He was always training with pain. We knew that we had to change him but it was a question of when and we did it at the moment we did. I think that it was best for him."

However, Fulham forward Bobby Zamora cited Torres's exit as a possibly pivotal moment in the game for his side.

"He's one of the best strikers in the world and to see him go off the pitch is a massive boost for us and maybe even gave us another gear," he said.

The Reds had right-back Philipp Degen and centre-back Jamie Carragher sent-off within three minutes after going 2-1 down and Benitez insisted both were wrongly dismissed by referee Lee Mason.

Degen was sent off for a late lunge on Clint Dempsey, while Carragher got his marching orders for a professional foul on Zamora.

"I think the two sending offs were very harsh," said Benitez. "The first one could be a yellow card and for the second one Carragher definitely kicked the ball.

"Zamora was also saying he kicked the ball and we have to analyse this because it is a situation that saw us playing with nine players."

Benitez was also left bemused by the way his team let the game slip away from the after dominating the first half.

"We were in control at 1-1 and I was really surprised we made these mistakes," he added.

The Reds boss was especially frustrated by Fulham's second goal when Dirk Kuyt kept the ball in only for the home side to earn possession and score.

"The second goal was a massive mistake and then shortly afterwards was the first red card.

"Today the main thing for me is 'how can you lose control of a game you are controlling everything of in the first half? That is something we have to analyse.

"Everyone involved has to take responsibility.

"We have to now prepare for the next game and try to lift the players to give them confidence.

"We have an important game in the Champions League and then we will have to continue in the Premier League."

Rafael Benítez Under Fire As Liverpool Slump Again

Rafael Benítez is facing renewed speculation over his future at Liverpool after his nine-man side collapsed to a humiliating sixth defeat in seven games. The 3-1 loss at Fulham, during which defenders Philipp Degen and Jamie Carragher were both sent off, was their fifth league defeat of the season. However Benítez last night dismissed suggestions that his job is in doubt and pledged to appeal against both red card decisions.

Liverpool had dominated a first half in which Bobby Zamora had put Fulham ahead and Fernando Torres equalised, but when Erik Nevland put Fulham in front for the second time and Torres was taken off, the London club eased to victory – Clint Dempsey scoring a late third for the home side.

Benítez said: "It's hard to take the defeat. The first half was one-sided: we just made one mistake and conceded a goal. The second half they were more offensive and we made a massive mistake when we conceded the second goal. We worked hard with nine players, but it was very difficult. The red cards were two incidents in a few minutes when we were losing and they were difficult to take. The first one was a yellow card. The second one you can clearly see Carragher was kicking the ball."

Benítez dismissed questions over his future at Anfield, saying people needed to be "realistic" about the run of results, and shrugging off boos from Liverpool fans after he substituted Yossi Benayoun. "We still have confidence: we just need to take our chances and not make mistakes like we did today," he said. "You have to stay calm and keep working hard and find solutions. We also have to be realistic, and focus on three points from the next game against Birmingham."

Liverpool now face going into the crucial Champions League match against Lyon on Wednesday without Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. Benítez said he would "have to see how Gerrard progresses" with his troublesome groin injury, while Torres is still not fully fit and was taken off after 60 minutes at Craven Cottage.

Benítez said: "We decided to play Torres against Manchester United last Sunday and it was a difficult decision because he was not 100% fit. He needed four days to be ready and is still not 100% fit. We decided to put him on the pitch today, but we had to protect him and that's why we took him out. I don't want to lose an important player for one month."

Carragher insisted the referee, Lee Mason, was wrong to send him off. "I felt it was harsh," the defender said. "I got a toe on the ball and I don't know if the referee was in the best position to see that. And when Bobby Zamora said I got the ball that says it all really." Asked if Liverpool's crisis was hurting, he replied: "Yeah, it's hurting a lot."

Hodgson Refuses To Write Off Reds

Fulham manager Roy Hodgson has warned the Premier League's top teams not to write off Liverpool in the title race.

The Reds are nine points behind league leaders Chelsea after losing 3-1 at Craven Cottage on Saturday but Hodgson still believes they are challengers.

"If I was Manchester United or Arsenal or Chelsea I don't think I would be writing them off," Hodgson told 5 Live's Sportsweek programme.

"They could go on a good run, winning seven, eight, nine games in a row."

Liverpool's loss to Fulham was there sixth defeat in seven matches in all competitions, leaving them fifth in the league table.

However, Hodgson has seen enough from the Merseyside club to convince him they are capable of turning their season around.

"You never know. They are a very good team, very well organised," said the 62-year-old.

"They have some very good players and are unlucky at the moment that their talisman Steven Gerrard isn't playing and Torres isn't 100% fit and has to be nursed through the games."

With only a quarter of the season gone, Hodgson also suggested it was too early to be rubbishing the credentials of any side and suggested there have been precedents of clubs overhauling pints deficits to claim the title.

"I remember not so long ago Manchester United were lingering in the middle of the table almost halfway through the season and went on to win it," he added.

After extending their unbeaten league run to four matches with Saturday's victory, Fulham lie 11th in the table on 14 points.

However, Hodgson remains realistic about his side's chances of repeating last season's 7th-place finish, which saw them qualify for the Europa League.

"To be one of the best seven teams in the league is going to be very difficult for us on an annual basis," he explained. "The club is not necessarily geared for that.

"More and more money is being spent and the top four is rapidly becoming the top seven in terms of financial power.

"It would be nice if we could treat our fans to a season when they are not biting their nails into the last two or three games and be a good enough team to occasionally spring surprises like we did yesterday."

Second-half goals from Erik Nevland and Clint Dempsey sealed victory for Fulham on Saturday, after Fernando Torres had levelled following Bobby Zamora's 24th minute opener.

Liverpool also had Philipp Degen and Jamie Carragher sent off just prior to the third Fulham goal.