Monday, December 07, 2009

Midfielder Alberto Aquilani And Forward Fernando Torres Poised To Return For Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has confirmed that injured duo Alberto Aquilani and Fernando Torres are ready to return to action and should play some part in Wednesday’s Champions League tie with Fiorentina.

Aquilani’s continued presence on the Reds bench has been the source of much frustration for Liverpool fans in recent weeks. However, speaking to BBC Sport, Benitez admitted the former Roma man could start the game against the Viola and revealed why he did not face Blackburn Rovers yesterday.

"Aquilani will maybe start the game [against Fiorentina], we are considering this,” explained the Spaniard.

“I feel this [Blackburn] was a difficult, physical place to come and not the right time to throw him on.

"He will be better getting his chance in a home match with our fans behind him. It is a difficult decision when someone is not fully match fit, he could make a mistake and it would set him back."

The Italian could be joined in the starting line up by Torres who is fit again after missing the last five matches for the Reds.

"Hopefully Torres will be ready this week - I don't know if he will play or be on the bench," added Benitez.

"He's a player who everybody knows is really good. He is important for us and would be for any top side in the world.

"Hopefully he will be ready this week and maybe we will see different things. I don't know if he will play or be on the bench and we can give him some minutes.

"It depends on his progression in the coming days."

Ugly Blackburn Tough To Beat, Says Liverpool FC Glen Johnson

Glen Johnson believes Blackburn play "an ugly game very well" as Liverpool FC slipped further behind in the race for a place in next season's Champions League.

Twelve points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea and in seventh place, any thought of the title apparently disappeared long ago. A top-four spot is also looking a big ask after Saturday's 0-0 draw at Ewood Park.

Despite labelling Blackburn's game as "ugly", Johnson admitted the Lancashire side is difficult to play against, saying: "It's always difficult against Blackburn because they don't play much football and just launch the ball forward at every opportunity. They play an ugly game very well and play to their strengths. It makes life difficult for the opposition at times."

He added: "We knew what to expect and we tried to get the ball down on the floor and play. The pitch wasn't great and we took a while to get used to it, but that's football and you have to live with things like this."

The Liverpool defender produced the one piece of quality in a dreadful match by surging past four men to set up David Ngog, whose effort from six yards crashed against the bar.

He added: "We deserved to win, especially after our second-half performance.

"I thought we'd scored when I crossed for David but the ball hit the worst bobble I've ever seen before his effort came back off the bar.

"Sometimes luck doesn't go for you but I thought we played the best football and did enough to win the game.

"We were pushing and pushing and it was so frustrating we couldn't get that goal our play deserved."

Don't Bank On A Happy New Year For Liverpool FC Boss Rafa Benitez

Christmas has come early for George Gillett and fellow Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks’ finances are also set to get a much needed boost.

Gillett banked a tidy £180million profit this week after his sale of Montreal Canadiens to the Molson brewing family was approved by the National Hockey League.

The 71-year-old paid £165million for the team and their Bell Centre arena back in 2001 and eight years on has more than doubled his investment.

Gillett made the decision to sell last year in a bid to ease the pressure on his other business interests, which as well as the Reds includes a Nascar motor-racing team.

Hicks is also in the process of off-loading one of his North American sports franchises.

Reports suggest three bids in excess of £300million have been received for his Major League Baseball club Texas Rangers. The Dallas businessman bought the Rangers for £150million in 1998 from a group that included former US president George W. Bush.

His reign has turned sour and earlier this year the Hicks Sports Group defaulted on £315m in loans tied to the Rangers and Hicks’ other major franchise, Dallas Stars ice hockey team.

The cash-strapped Rangers needed £9million from Major League Baseball’s central fund just to get through last season and Hicks put the club up for sale in an effort to ease mounting debts.

Recently Hicks back-tracked and revealed he was trying to put together a group of investors for a bid that would enable him to keep control.

However, it’s believed the league, which has the final say, have blocked Hicks’ plans and he has been told he has until December 15 to accept a winning bid.

Hicks is about as popular among Rangers and Stars fans as he is on the Kop. The 63-year-old has cut back wage bills and infuriated Rangers supporters by delaying refunds for play-off tickets which were void when the team’s slump meant they didn’t even qualify for the end of season showpiece.

With Gillett now £180million better off and Hicks’ windfall just around the corner, the question is what effect will all this have on Liverpool?

What is clear is that the American duo have no intentions of walking away from Anfield. If anything their extra cash tightens their grip on the club’s ownership.

However, the pair are pressing ahead with their search for third party investors. They want help to pay off the Reds’ £235m debt and to finance a new stadium.

They know the club’s value will only rocket when the Stanley Park development and the huge increase in revenue that will bring is guaranteed.

With more money in their pockets, Rafa Benitez can only hope the Americans loosen their vice-like grip on the Anfield purse strings in time for the January transfer window. But after the experiences of the past two and a half years, the Spaniard won’t be holding his breath.

Gerrard Far As Ever From Elusive Title

When Steven Gerrard, in the coming years, decides that his body and spirit can no longer carry the burden of expectation bestowed upon him by his adoring public, hangs up his boots for good and looks back on his career, the occasion of his 500th game is unlikely to be a highlight.

The Liverpool captain will fear, though, that it may provide an epitaph: Almost, but not quite.

By a curious quirk of fate, Gerrard's debut was also against Blackburn. The man now is scarcely recognisable from the boy of then, who few observers would have picked out as a future contender for the title of best player in the world.

Yet for all that as a player, and as a person, he has changed, one crucial thing has not. More worryingly, it does not look like doing so.

Rafael Benitez's side may be unbeaten in six matches, but they have won just three in 11. They are toothless without Fernando Torres, blessed with just a handful of players of sufficient calibre to share a pitch with the Spanish striker, ever more conspicuous in his absence, and their captain.

Liverpool look as far now as they did in 1998, when Gerrard began on the road to history, from ending their 20-year wait for a league championship trophy.

Gerrard remembers watching the club he now captains lift the league championship in 1990, but he is not going to follow in the footsteps of Ronnie Whelan, his favourite player from that side, this year. There are too many troubles at Anfield for Benitez's insistence that he has not yet ruled out catching Chelsea to seem anything but empty. A team capable of doing so would have created a chance worthy of the name before the 37th minute.

That they did nothing until Lucas picked out Gerrard, who saw his shot deflect wide off Chris Samba, says everything about the team Benitez has created when Torres is absent.

So limited are the Spaniard's resources that his only alternatives to his misfiring senior players were David Ngog, a raw, promising striker, and Nabil El Zhar, just as raw, altogether less promising. There is Alberto Aquilani, too, of course, but he is proving enduringly elusive. Benitez has promised he will start against Fiorentina on Wednesday, in the Champions League dead rubber. How it will help him get used to Premier League life is a mystery.

In his continued absence, though, it was left for Ngog, replacing the indescribably abject Albert Riera, to provide the visitors with a focal point for their previously aimless attacks. He had the best chance of the game to score, too, his shot cracking against the bar after Glen Johnson had raced clear down the right.

"We were trying to do everything," said Benitez. "Attacking from both sides, set-pieces, pushing and pushing very hard. I was convinced it was a goal from Ngog, and we are a little bit disappointed not to win."

So, too, was Sam Allardyce, watching his first game since his heart operation from the stands. "I like it up there," he said. "You can make a better call. I thought we were a little bit unlucky not to win."

A draw, then, was probably fair. Liverpool, and Gerrard, need more than that at places like Ewood Park if they are to bring to an end the frustrations that have accompanied his career. Almost is not enough.

Hands Off Javier Mascherano

Rafa Benitez is braced for a £30million New Year showdown with Barcelona over Javier Mascherano.

Liverpool boss Benitez has warned the La Liga champions they're fighting a losing battle in their ongoing efforts to lure the Argentinian to the Nou Camp.

Benitez will also deliver another blow to the Catalans by securing Pepe Reina's new deal after Christmas.

But he fears Mascherano will become a pawn in the next round of Barca presidential elections, with Sandro Rossell and Agosti Benedito planning to make his signing a key election pledge.

Benitez was called directly by Barca officials last summer when he told them not to bother making a formal offer for the player.

Although Mascherano was unhappy with Liverpool's decision at the time, Benitez thinks he's winning over the 25-year-old midfielder with the promise of a new deal.

"We were talking with him and his agent a month ago about our idea and his idea," said Benitez.

"Everyone can see he's doing really well and has come back to his best. We were really pleased to talk to him to make progress. We have plenty of time but we are happy with him and he is happier now, too.

"He has two more years on his contract, we were talking before and we will sit down sooner rather than later and talk about the future.

"The last conversations that we had were very positive."

While Liverpool sweat on whether Mascherano will publicly commit himself to the club - the player kissed his badge after creating the first in last week's Merseyside derby - there are no such fears about Reina. He recently told Sport of the World he would 'die for the Liverpool shirt' amid more interest from Barcelona.

The signing of keeper Reina on a new four-year-deal worth £90,000 a week should be a formality after Christmas.

"We are very happy with him," said Benitez. "He has been improving every single year and he will improve more because goalkeepers have more time in their career. He's always positive and he's one of the best in the training sessions because his attitude is always good.

"It depends on the agent and what the player wants but Pepe is very happy here in Liverpool so I don't see a big problem.

"The team- mates love him because he's a very good example."

Why Fernando Torres Is Right To Want His Kids To Grow Up As Scousers, By Derek McGovern

It was a surprise to learn that Fernando Torres wants his children to grow up and be Scousers.

Many would say it's impossible to do both.

The thing about Liverpudlians, as Torres has no doubt found, is that to a man they have a childlike sense of fun.

I'm not talking about the famous Scouse wit - like money, some Scousers have it; most don't.

I'm talking about the ability to find enjoyment where none should exist, like a funeral, an industrial strike, or an Everton match.

In London, those who have any dosh left after paying the mortgage rush home at 11pm because they have to work the next morning. In Liverpool they stay out until the wee small hours because they have to work the next morning.

I told a Cockney mate that I was writing a piece about why it's great to be a Scouser and asked if he had any advice.

"Lie," he said.

That's the thing about non-Scousers. They really haven't a clue what a joy Liverpool is to live in.

They rely on Merseyside stereotypes, perhaps because Merseysiders have nicked most of their stereos.

They shudder when they see our boarded-up shops - but rather those than boarded-up minds.

They shake their heads when they read of Croxteth gang crime, ignoring the inconvenient truth that Liverpool is the safest of all English cities for everyone bar Sun readers.

My missus is a Cockney who would never dream of leaving Liverpool now, even if I untied her. Thousands of the students who spend three years here on half a lager choose to stay on and have their homes here, their homes repossessed here, and ultimately their homes burgled here.

They put up with the bad eggs of the city - as bad as any eggs you'll find - because the good eggs, the vast majority, are the warmest, most generous of all.

That's exactly what Torres has discovered in less than two years on Merseyside. He has opened his heart to Liverpool and in return Liverpool has opened its heart to him. It helps of course that he scores bundles yet doesn't nick our orange girls off us, but we'd love him anyway.

And as for his daughter speaking Liverpudlian - a hybrid of Spanish and Scouse would sound most appealing, unless of course it was called Spouse.

No Chance, Rafa

Matt Le Tissier watched Liverpool fall further behind the Premier League pace-setters.

With Fernando Torres still sidelined, the Reds failed to make an impact against a Blackburn side buoyed by the return of Sam Allardyce - and their Carling Cup win over Chelsea.

It left Rafa Benitez bemoaning a poor first half but looking forward to Alberto Aquillani's first start in a red shirt against Fiorentina in midweek.

And for Le Tissier it can't come quick enough because he insisted Rovers looked the least likely to break the Ewood Park stalemate.

"The first half was dire, absolutely turgid stuff," he told Soccer Saturday.

"In the second half it was a lot livelier but still, in terms of great chances, Liverpool had one. It fell to David Ngog who was a little unfortunate; Glen Johnson did so well and his cross came in and maybe it did take a bit of a bobble because he was just looking to side-foot it in, but it's come off his shin and hit the bar.

"They had a lot of pressure in the second half, some long-range efforts went in, but that was the only gilt-edged chance they created in 90 minutes.

"(Nikola) Kalinic had an absolutely perfect chance late on to win the game; Reina did well to come out of goal and close down the angle but Kalinic for me, showed a lack of composure, panicked a little bit. They had another one late on when (Benni) McCarthy turned but should've done better."

"Big Sam would've probably snatched your hand off for a point at the start of the day, but in the end, they had more chances.

"(Franco) Di Santo looked like a man bereft of confidence when he went through but wanted about four or five touches to get into position to have a shot before Carragher got back and took the ball off him."