Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dominic King: Why The Knee Will Never Jerk With Liverpool FC Supporters Over Rafa Benitez

THE hardest thing to do in testing times, when adversity and animosity is mounting in equal measure, is stick to your guns.

It’s all too easy to fly off the handle the moment something is not going how you want it and it is a sad indictment of the way football is in this day and age that everything must either be black or white – grey areas no longer exist.

Win a couple of games and certain managers immediately find themselves feted as a tactical genius, hailed for breathing fresh life into teams that had gone stale; it’s why Chelsea are back in vogue and why Carlo Ancelotti is getting rave reviews at Stamford Bridge.

Lose a few, though, and the opposite is true; those who see results betraying them have their odds in the ‘sack race’ cut by the day, find headlines in certain sections of the media becoming more and more sensational and discover they are the hottest topic on phone-ins.

Nobody, it seems, wants to look for reasons why a situation might not be going as planned. Quite simply, when a team is failing to win, somebody must carry the can and that person, invariably, is the man charged with team selection.

With that in mind, then, it was both inevitable and predictable Liverpool’s failure to see-off Birmingham City on Monday night left Rafa Benitez stuck in the middle of the storm that has been swirling around him for the past month.

The Racing Post’s back page on Wednesday, for instance, led with a banner which proclaimed “Beleaguered Rafa clinging to job” and how Irish bookmakers Paddy Power had slashed his price on being the next Premier League boss to go to 3/1.

Now before we go any further, Paddy Power, it must be remembered, have recently had their betting partnership with Liverpool cancelled and, upon hearing that news, promptly drew up a market regarding which Reds’ player would have their house burgled.

Fortunately, the vast majority of those who turn up at Anfield every other week are a much more rational bunch and it explains why there have been no signs of public mutiny during a run which has yielded one win in nine games.

There was no booing following the draw nor was there any dissent after the second half collapse at Craven Cottage; when Liverpool conceded a last-minute goal in Lyon, the players were cheered back onto the field.

Critics will say this is a group of supporters blindly following their manager but that, of course, comes from the school of thought which demands knee-jerk reaction – something which is not The Liverpool Way.

There is a reason why the Reds have fallen off the pace in the Premier League and find their aspirations in the Champions League hanging by the flimsiest thread and that, quite simply, has been a catastrophic injury list.

Benitez, remember, has yet to pick his strongest side from the start in any game this season and it is going to be another month at least before he gets the opportunity to pick the Liverpool team he really wants.

Granted a fully-fit squad, it’s safe to assume the identity of the ‘A team’ would be Pepe Reina in goal with a back four in front of him consisting of Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio.

Javier Mascherano would then provided a protective shield for that quartet behind a midfield of Steven Gerrard and Alberto Aquilani; Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun should patrol the flanks with Fernando Torres then being left to fire the bullets.

Do you think that eleven would win only one in nine games? Draw your own conclusion but if Benitez had been able to call upon them all consistently during the past month, it is doubtful he would now find himself under siege.

Reassuringly, he still has the complete backing of the board and the amount of hours he has spent at Melwood in recent days, searching for reasons why results have dipped, shows he is not letting the barrage of criticism affect his daily routine.

Yes, it’s true to say he has bought some players who are not good enough to improve this team and that there is an element of Liverpool’s support which fears Benitez has taken the team as far as he can.

It has, of course, been a miserable start to the campaign but until the treatment room empties, it is too early to make definitive judgements – and that’s why it is vital to keep things in perspective at this moment in time.

Jamie Carragher: Liverpool FC Will Be Raring To Go After International Break

Jamie Carragher insists the mood remains positive at Melwood following the latest spate of injuries to hit the treatment room.

Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and Fabio Aurelio all withdrew from international duty this week with minor knocks, but Carragher is hopeful his team-mates will be ready to face Manchester City next weekend.

Carragher, who will be back from a one-match suspension for the game, said: “We haven’t had that many players training due to the international break, plus the injuries at the club, but everyone’s in good spirits.

“From a club point of view, if you’re going to get injured the best time is maybe during an international break.

"At least it gives the medical staff time to work with the players and try and get them ready for the next match.

“Hopefully we can get everyone back and raring to go ahead of the Man City game.”

City boss Mark Hughes brings his team to Anfield next Saturday and will have ambitions of sending out a message of intent that the Premier League billionaires can break into the top four and claim a Champions League position this season.

For that to happen, either Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool will have to forfeit their place. On current form it is the Reds who appear most vulnerable.

With Liverpool currently 11 points behind leaders Chelsea, and six points behind Arsenal and United – the Gunners have a game in hand – Rafael Benitez needs to halt a run that has brought just one win and three defeats from the last five league outings.

Despite starting the season with four straight wins, City’s form has also dipped recently. Five consecutive draws in the league sees them just a point and one place ahead of the Reds in sixth, and Carragher is calling on the team to display a fighting spirit to ensure they don’t pull further away.

“Man City is a massive test,” he said.

“They’re probably looking at us and thinking they can maybe take our place in the top four because of the way we’ve started this season.

“It’s up to us to show some fight and character to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Pellegrino: Rafa Is Calm Man In Storm

Mauricio Pellegrino today acclaimed the leadership qualities of Rafa Benitez during a difficult start to the 2009-10 campaign.

The first-team coach, who played under Benitez at Valencia and Liverpool, describes him as a man who stays calm amid the storm.

And Pellegrino is confident his boss is building a team capable of dominating English football despite a dip in form this term.

"Rafa has gained a lot of experience from his last clubs," Pellegrino told "Like everyone he encounters good moments and bad situations but he's always really calm - he's really calm when things are not the best.

"He keeps going and he convinces the rest of the people to keep going in the same way as always.

"Last season we were really close to winning the league. We got 86 points - and if you look at the last 20 years, this points total would have been enough to win 15 of them.

"So, this team can improve a lot - there is a huge amount we can still improve on, and we are in a difficult moment, but this team is working very hard. We need to win a couple of games and everything will change."

Pellegrino made his own tentative steps into the coaching world with Valencia after hanging up his boots in the summer of 2006.

Two years later he was brought to Melwood for a senior role alongside Benitez and assistant manager Sammy Lee.

On his own managerial ambitions, Pellegrino added: "I don't know. In football our life changes every single week. We don't know what will happen in the future so I don't like to think about it. I enjoy my job right now, try to improve every single day and think about the best for the team and club.

"I have learned a lot in this past year from Rafa. I worked with him as a player too. The mood now among the staff here is very good."

As a championship-winning centre-back, Pellegrino knows what it takes to cut it at the top level.

He has high hopes for budding defenders like Daniel Ayala, Martin Kelly and Chris Mavinga - and has urged them to be ready to grasp any opportunity Benitez gives them.

He explained: "We never know if they will go on to become first-team regulars, but if these boys are here it's because they have the qualities and characteristics to be good footballers and be in the Liverpool squad.

"Emiliano Insua is an example. One week he was in the reserve team, the next he was on the bench, then the next week he was in the first team and now he is frequently in the starting XI. And he's played for his national team.

"The life of a young player can change in one month. You have to be ready in every moment because you never know when your moment will come."

Jose Mourinho Puts Manchester City And Liverpool On Alert For Premier League Return

Jose Mourinho could be set for a Premier League comeback with Manchester City after hinting he wants to return to England.

The under-fire Inter Milan coach, who could be fired if the Italian giants to not reach the knockout phase of the Champions League, said: "I am ready for the next phase of my career. I want to work with a different perspective.

I love Inter and would love to build for the future here... but Italy is not the country for this.

"England is the country. And my football is English football."

City could well decide to bring the self-styled Special One home is Mark Hughes' side continue to stumble. They have drawn their last five matches and face a crucial month with matches against Liverpool and Chelsea in the League and Arsenal in the Carling Cup quarter-finals.

Liverpool could also be interested if Rafa Benitez fails to reach the Champions League knock-out stages.

Liverpool's Andrea Dossena: Alberto Aquilani Is A 'Complete Midfielder'

Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena has hailed Alberto Aquilani as a "complete midfielder", and believes that the former Roma player can forge a strong partnership with Steven Gerrard.

The 25-year-old made his Premier League debut as a substitute during the club's 2-2 draw against Birmingham City at Anfield, though he was said to be in contention for a spot in the starting line-up.

"Potentially, Aquilani is a great player," Dossena said in the News of the World.

"He is only 25, he has yet to gain experience, especially at international level, but he is a tremendous talent.

"He is a complete midfielder who can do everything at both ends of the pitch - he can run, defend, make a hard tackle or score with his terrific shot from long distance.

"He and Gerrard together can give us the strongest midfield in the league, and one of the strongest at European level."

There are question marks concerning Aquilani's injury record, but Dossena is confident that his fellow countryman will prove the doubters wrong when his chance comes.

"Over the past two seasons he has played little football because of his injuries, but when he is fully fit he will prove his value," said the left-back.

"Give him just a little time to settle in England, on and off the pitch, and he will be a sensational player."

Babel Happy At Liverpool

Liverpool winger Ryan Babel has dismissed reports that he is looking to leave the club in January.

Babel has struggled to hold down a regular place in Rafa Benitez's plans, making just two starts in the Premier League this term.

While the 22-year-old is keen to be playing more regularly as he looks to seal a place in Bert van Marwijk's Holland squad for next summer's World Cup finals, he insists he does not want to make a move away from Anfield in search of more first-team action.

"He [van Marwijk] wants players to be playing at their club to get a chance to go to the World Cup so that's also for me what I try to reach and work every day very hard," Babel told Sky Sports News.

"Liverpool are a very good team everybody knows that and I am proud to be part of Liverpool."

Meanwhile Babel believes Liverpool's current slump in form - with the side winning just one of their last nine games in all competitions - is down to bad luck.

The Reds drew 2-2 with Birmingham last time out but Babel believes they would have won the game with ease with a bit of luck.

"If you analyze the last game [against Birmingham] we had enough chances to win by three or four goals and we failed to score more than two," noted Babel.

"In the end we drew and I think maybe just that little bit of luck isn't there."

Liverpool's UEFA Champions League hopes are also hanging by a thread with the Reds needing Lyon do them a favour against Fiorentina if they are to reach the knockout stages.

But Babel, who scored in the draw with Lyon in the last European outing, remains hopeful Liverpool can beat the odds to qualify for the next phase.

"Maybe it is not best situation, but we still have confidence," added Babel.

"We have chances to qualify so we go for it."

John Aldridge: Blame Injuries Not Manager Rafael Benitez For Liverpool FC’s Plight

The vast majority of Liverpool fans are still right behind Rafa Benitez and rightly so.

There is enough instability at the club with the owners and the debts, and the last thing we need is to be looking for a new manager.

One win in nine games isn’t great but you don’t turn into a bad manager overnight. Injuries have taken their toll and we all knew how light the squad was before the season started.

Any team would struggle without Torres and Gerrard. The difference is United and Chelsea have players who can come in and do a job, we don’t have that luxury.

We have to call on the likes of Degen, Dossena, Voronin and Babel – hit and miss players who simply aren’t good enough.

When we got injuries it was always going to be a big problem. We can carry one or two, but when you are without four or five of your best 13 players it becomes very hard.

I couldn’t fault the effort against Birmingham but it was another disappointing night. We have leaked so many goals and that’s the reason we’re struggling.

You can argue all you want about zonal marking but there seems to be a lack of belief when it comes to dealing with set-pieces.

We don’t attack the ball, there’s no aggression and it is costing us dearly.

It happened on the opening day at Spurs and it’s still happening – we haven’t learned our lesson.

The only way to sort it out is on the training ground. When I was a player if we leaked bad goals we would spend ages in training defending as a unit. The coaches would ensure you didn’t enjoy it to ensure it didn’t happen again.

We played pretty well on Monday but if you can’t defend you aren’t going to win games.

David Ngog came in for a lot of stick for the dive he took to win the penalty against Birmingham.

I’ve slaughtered Drogba and Ronaldo for diving in the past and I can’t condone what Ngog did.

As a striker you’ve got to be canny. When a challenge comes in like that you have to let the defender take your legs and get your penalty – that’s the way I did it.

Ngog saw the tackle coming and tried to get out of the way of it but you can’t go over a defender’s legs when you haven’t been touched.

I’m sure Rafa will have had a quiet word and hopefully Ngog has learned his lesson.

Mata Signs New Valencia Deal

Juan Mata has finally agreed to a new contract with Valencia after widespread interest in his services.

The 21-year-old has received a significant increase in salary but the length of the contract has not been extended while the minimum release fee clause remains the same of 90million Euros.

The deal means that the winger is still contracted to the club until 2012 so clubs reportedly interested, including Liverpool and Barcelona, are likely to continue to monitor the situation.

However, after two impressive seasons since breaking into the Valencia side in 2007 the club has been keen to tie Mata down to a longer deal but talks have recently stalled as a result of the club's perilous financial position.

"This is the price for the excellent two seasons that the kid is developing at the club," Mata's father and agent Juan Manuel said.

"We are satisfied after the last meetings."

Sporting director Fernando Gomez was quick to play down any notion that Mata would soon be leaving the Mestalla.

"We have not received any formal propositions. I do not say that will be the same in the future," he said.

Hammers: Cole Not For Sale

West Ham insist in-form striker Carlton Cole is not for sale at any price despite reports that Premier League's big guns are preparing January bids.

Manchester United are the latest club linked with a £20million bid for Hammers hot-shot Cole when the transfer window reopens, with misfiring Liverpool also reportedly interested in a player who has flourished under the tutelage of Gianfranco Zola.

Sir Alex Ferguson wants to add strength to a squad weakened by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez and has identified the England man as a replacement.

Nevertheless, a spokesman at Upton Park insisted that Cole is "not for sale", and added: "We want to keep all our best players and the suggestion that we need to sell because of a financial crisis is not true."

Cole has missed out on England's friendly against Brazil in Qatar on Saturday because of injury but his development under Fabio Capello, as well as the progress he has made working with Zola and Steve Clarke at West Ham, has made him an attractive proposition.

For Ferguson, though, Cole is someone who could play with Wayne Rooney and who offers something different - more of a physical presence - from the forwards he has at Old Trafford.

Ferguson has hardly touched the £80million United received for Ronaldo.