Friday, December 11, 2009

Javier Mascherano Coy Over Liverpool Contract Extension

Javier Mascherano has proved reluctant to formally confirm his long-term commitment to Liverpool when pressed on whether he intends to sign a new deal at Anfield.

Rafael Benitez recently revealed that the club had conducted "very positive" talks with Mascherano regarding a contract extension for the player whose current deal lasts until the end of the 2010-11 season.

Mascherano has been linked with a possible move to Barcelona at various times over the past 12 months after impressing at Anfield following his arrival at the club in January 2007.

But with Liverpool struggling in the league and exiting the Champions League at the group stage, the Argentina captain has declined to confirm that he will be extending his contract with the Merseyside club.

"I just talk about football - not about contracts or money. I want to play," Mascherano said following Liverpool's Champions League defeat at the hands of Fiorentina on Wednesday night.

"I am playing for Liverpool, I am a Liverpool player and, like the manager says, I have two more years on my contract so I think I don't have to say anything else. I play for Liverpool and will continue playing and trying to give my best.''

Aquilani Wants Reds Support

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani hopes to learn from the likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano as he makes his gradual progression to first-team regular.

An ankle injury restricted the Italy international, who arrived in the summer after the departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, to just 22 minutes prior to last night's Champions League defeat to Fiorentina.

However, the £20million signing from Roma gave a glimpse of what the side have been missing with some intelligent touches and clever passes during a 76-minute run-out on his full debut.

Aquilani admitted he was relieved to finally be able to showcase some of his talents but admits there is a long way to go before he is fully up to speed.

"I started for the first time in seven or eight months in the first XI - that's very hard," he said.

"After that length of time it's difficult to be fit but I'm happy because I'm playing and that means I'm getting there.

"My ankle is better, it's improved, so while the result was not good from a personal point of view it's been good physically.

"I can play better but it was important to start and to run because after seven months I need to play, play, play because I'm in a new team.

"There are very good players and they can help me. The [Fiorentina] game was important for the confidence when playing with Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and the other players."

Manager Rafael Benitez insists Aquilani is not a direct replacement for crowd-favourite Alonso and that was immediately evident from Wednesday night's performance.

The slightly-built 25-year-old has an inclination to play at least 15 yards further forward than his predecessor did as his range of delivery and defensive responsibility is not as extensive as the Spain international's.

However, where he is likely to excel is in picking out the killer pass in the congested space around the penalty area and he showed glimpses of what could be important link-up play with Gerrard against Fiorentina.

The Liverpool captain, who saw some similarities with Alonso, was just pleased to have his new team-mate out on the pitch.

"It was nice for Aquilani to get out there and get his first start," said Gerrard.

"He can dictate the tempo of a game. He's a clever player, a good passer. I don't want to tempt fate but he's very similar to Xabi."

Wednesday night's match was the ideal time to start Aquilani as, with Liverpool unable to progress to the knockout stages, it was a dead rubber for the hosts and almost had the feel of a pre-season friendly.

Whether Benitez will be bold enough to field his playmaker at home to Arsenal in Sunday's crucial Premier League match remains to be seen.

Aquilani is willing to rise to the challenge but admits he is still a long way short of match fitness.

"The first half I was okay and then after that I got a little bit tired, but that's normal," said the Italian

"I hope I can play against Arsenal. I am in the squad so I hope I can play more and improve my match fitness, because that is important.

"If you don't play the fitness is not good. The training is good but matches are different.

"I am ready but I don't know if I can play 90 minutes. But this match was important for improving."

If Liverpool, currently in seventh, are to make a bid to regain their place in the top four they have to start it against the Gunners at Anfield.

A win would put them just a point behind Arsene Wenger's third-placed side.

"That is very important for us. We have to think about winning each match - we cannot look at the table - and Sunday we need to win," said Aquilani.

"It is very important for us to qualify for the Champions League next season."

Loyal Liverpool Fans Deserve More Than Gerrard's Aim For Fourth Place

"Fourth place is the priority, it always is at this club. For financial reasons and because all the top players want to play in the Champions League."

If those words had been said by Spurs skipper Robbie Keane, Aston Villa counterpart Stiliyan Petrov, even Manchester City captain Kolo Toure, they would have been more than acceptable.

After all, if anybody breaks through the glass ceiling this season to smash up the cosy cartel at the top of the game, it will be an achievement, irrespective of the money they have spent on doing so.

But none of that trio were speaking.

They were the closing lines of Steven Gerrard's interview after Liverpool's miserable Champions League campaign ended, almost inevitably, with the concession of a last minute goal and defeat by a distinctly average Fiorentina.

And they were words that, whether by accident or design, summed up the parlous state of a club that began the campaign targeting their first title for 20 years and are now merely playing for respectability.

That there is no crowd more patient than Anfield was brought home once again last night.

The response to Alberto Gilardino's winner was not boos and jeers - they left that to the Chelsea supporters who lost it at their own players after they had drawn at home to APOEL, ending a run of 12 successive Stamford Bridge wins - but a chorus of "You'll never walk alone".

That is loyalty, with a capital L, the mark of a club that, even in difficult times, can count on the utter commitment and backing of its fans.

And yet, for all the fixed gaze that Rafa Benitez did not lift publicly from the instant he took his seat in the dug-out before kick-off to the end of his post-match interviews, it is hard to say the club deserves it now.

This season, by the standards Liverpool seek to set, has been little short of dreadful.

The full playing record is: P23 W10 D4 L9. If calculated in Premier League terms, 34 points out of 69, mid-table mediocrity.

But if you take the aggregate parts, it looks even worse.

In the Champions league, two wins against the weakest team in Europe, and one point out of 12 from the games with Lyons (not the force they were and currently fourth in France, behind those European giants Montpellier and Valenciennes) and Fiorentina (fifth in Serie A but only one point further clear of the relegation zone than they are adrift of the leaders).

And at home, 24 points out of 45 and actually closer to Wolves, in 18th, than they are to Carlo Ancelotti's table-toppers.

As Gerrard added about the European flop: "It's not good enough from our point of view."

For those Liverpool fans trudging back through the puddles that adorned the Kemlyn Road and the streets around Stanley Park, that was an understatement.

It was not supposed to be like this, not after coming so close last term that, when Yossi Benayoun popped up on the last gasps of injury time at Craven Cottage, many thought that it was their destiny to finally win the crown.

Fast forward eight months from that early April evening, and a cloud of gloom is hanging over the red half of Merseyside.

Should Arsene Wenger's rested Arsenal - you don't seriously expect to see Tom Cruise, Kyle Bartley or Fran Merida again outside an FA Cup fourth round trip to Accrington or Gillingham, do you? - plunder all three points on Sunday, even Gerrard's re-calculated ambition may start to look unlikely, with all the financial repercussions that would bring.

Admittedly, even if Liverpool were still six points behind Spurs at Christmas, you'd back them to overhaul Harry Redknapp's side over the following 20 games.

But Villa and City are also very much in the mix, looking to capitalise on the weaknesses and with every point dropped, the pressure will rise, not just on Benitez, but his players too.

As a consequence of what has happened already this season, Benitez has unwittingly turned Alberto Aquilani into the focus of the entire season, his capture to balance the sale of Xabi Alonso looking like the fatal flaw in the Spaniard's argument.

Aquilani looked tidy and neat against Fiorentina, but way short of being the inspiration he suddenly needs to blossom into despite still feeling his way back from injury, while it would be understandable should Gerrard and Fernando Torres begin to think more about South Africa with their countries next summer, than the Europa League and a fight to the death for fourth.

Benitez has always prided himself on the ability to bring a squad together in the teeth of adversity. This, however, is increasingly becoming his toughest task since leaving Valencia.

Gerrard Slams Champions League Peformance

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard gave a frank assessment of his side's UEFA Champions League performance after they were beaten 2-1 by Fiorentina at Anfield.

The Reds were already condemned to the obscurity of the Europa League prior to the match and were guaranteed to finish third in Group E.

But that did not stop Fiorentina from heaping more misery on Rafa Benitez's side, who picked up just seven points from six matches.

Yossi Benayoun looked to have lifted the gloom surrounding the club by putting his side into a first-half lead with a glancing header.

However, the Italians hit back in the second half, first levelling through Martin Jorgensen and then snatching a dramatic winner in injury time thanks to Alberto Gilardino's strike.

It concluded what has been a miserable European campaign for Liverpool, and Gerrard was forthright in his analysis of the Merseyside club's performance.

"If you look at the whole campaign, it was not good enough from our point of view but now we need to try to qualify for the same competition next year," he told Sky Sports 2.

"It wasn't our strongest team but we gave a good account of ourselves. We were a bit unlucky to lose in the end.

"There was not much in it as far as points were concerned. It was just about getting this game out of the way and trying to get good preparation for the game against Arsenal on Sunday."

There was some good news for Liverpool in the form of a rare appearance from summer-buy Alberto Aquilani.

The midfielder's time at Anfield has been dogged by injury rehabilitation but the Italian appears to be making a timely return to full fitness ahead of his side's clash with Arsenal at the weekend.

Benitez will have been boosted further by the return of striker Fernando Torres after a five-match absence, suggesting his charges are getting back to full strength.

Gerrard hailed the performance of Aquilani on a difficult night for his side and added that they will now go about winning the Europa League after their Champions League disappointment.

"He's done well," said Gerrard. "It's going to take him a while until he gets up to speed as far as match fitness is concerned.

"But the boy's a player, there's no two ways about it. He sees a pass, he's on the same wavelength and I have no doubts he'll turn into a fantastic player for this club.

"It's another cup to try to win. The final is at Hamburg, a fantastic stadium. We'll try to win it now."

Benitez: Premier League Is The Priority

Rafael Benitez will put all thoughts of the Europa League on hold in a bid to reignite Liverpool's stuttering Premier League form.

The Merseysiders completed a miserable Champions League campaign with a 2-1 defeat at home to Fiorentina on Wednesday night - another late goal, this time from Alberto Gilardino, condemning them to a third defeat in six Group E contests.

A third-placed finish means the club will compete in the Europa League in the new year but Benitez's main priority is to ensure the club return to Champions League action next season via a top-four finish in England's top flight.

He said: "We will take it (the Europa League) seriously, but for us the main thing is to progress in the Premier League. To be in the top four.

"We do not play in the Europa League until February, so we will have plenty of time to concentrate on the Premier League. Another European competition is later.

"What has happened to us in the Champions League, the misfortunes, will be an experience the players will remember and it will give them strength and more determination to improve over the rest of the season."

Liverpool currently lie seventh, three points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, and have the chance to close the gap on another European rival when they host Arsenal on Sunday.

Benitez added: "I hope that a new beginning, a new season, starts for us from this point. Now we must concentrate on Arsenal and try to do well on Sunday.

"This has been a very disappointing Champions League campaign. Two late goals in matches against Lyon changed everything, and now it has happened again against Fiorentina.

"We knew we could not progress before the game, but to lose another late goal was very disappointing for the team, for everyone.

"I would expect a different approach on Sunday against Arsenal. It is always difficult approaching a game like Fiorentina knowing that whatever you do you cannot change the situation, we were already out."

The Spaniard attempted to take the positives from another setback against Fiorentina with the performance of Alberto Aquilani giving him the greatest satisfaction.

"Even though we lost, there were some good things to take into our next match. Alberto Aquilani and Fernando Torres both looked good, while Steven Gerrard is getting closer to full fitness," he said.

"Gerrard is getting more games under his belt, Torres looked very positive and Aquilani played well and showed quality with his passes.

"It was also good to see young Danny Pacheco getting some time on the pitch in the first team, he is a young player of real potential.

"Both Torres and Aquilani are fit and will train hard for the rest of the week and they will be ready for the Arsenal match."

We’ve Got To Get Back In

Steven Gerrard today promised Liverpool will atone for their Champions League debacle by making sure they qualify for next year’s tournament.

A makeshift Reds’ side created an unwanted piece of club history last night when a 2-1 defeat against Fiorentina meant it was the first time they had sustained back-to-back European defeats at Anfield.

It was a gloomy end to a miserable European campaign and one that means they will not be seeded when the draw for the Europa League’s round of 32 takes place in Nyon a week tomorrow.

Skipper Gerrard admitted Liverpool haven’t been good enough but he is confident a squad which now has star striker Fernando Torres fit again and Alberto Aquilani up and running can salvage the situation – starting against Arsenal on Sunday.

“Financially it is very important for the club and having experienced the Champions League for such a long time, I’m desperate to play in it,” said Gerrard.

“We had gone six games unbeaten and it was a shame that we lost this one at the end because we wanted to use it as preparation for Sunday.

“But we will be right up for Arsenal; if we can get three points there and take it into the Wigan game, I’m sure we can turn that corner.

“If we get our full strength team back and get important people fit, I feel as if we are good enough to get into the top four.

“It’s massive to have Fernando back; he’s our top scorer, he’s our main man and if he stays fit, I’m sure we will move up the league and get in the top four.”

Aquilani’s belated first start in a Red shirt was one of the high points for Rafa Benitez and Gerrard, who linked encouragingly with him in the engine room.

The Italian was given a standing ovation when he was substituted late in the second half and Gerrard was suitably impressed with his efforts.

“It was all about giving minutes to squad players and getting some injuries back and it was nice for Alberto to finally get out there,” he said.

“He can dictate the tempo of a game, he is a clever player, a good passer of the ball; I don’t want to tempt fate but he’s very similar to Xabi (Alonso).”

Whether Aquilani starts again against Arsenal remains to be seen but Gerrard has assured supporters that the squad has the depth and quality to manage battling for a top four spot, as well negotiating the long road to Hamburg – the setting for the Europa League final.

“We’ll take it very seriously and we have got to try and win a trophy,” he said. “The FA Cup and the Europa League give us the best chances of that.

“Hopefully we’ll have a top four finish as well. It’s very important we achieve that. But for the time being, it’s the Europa League and we aren’t seeded because we lost this game.

“I’m sure we’ll come up against a big side and it would be very nice if we came up against Everton at some point but we will see what happens.”

Liverpool's Season Begins Now - Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez hopes that the loss to Fiorentina in the Champions League will kick-start a Red resurgence in what he believes will be "the beginning of a new season".

The Merseyside club has been guilty of conceding late goals on the European stage this season, which ultimately resulted in them being flushed down into the Europa League.

It was a rerun of their entire European campaign when the Viola visited Anfield on Wednesday, as the hosts conceded yet another late goal to hand Cesare Prandelli's men all three points.

"The result and the way it happened just about sums up our Champions League campaign," Benitez is quoted in The Guardian as saying.

"Another last minute goal, and we are disappointed with that for the third time in this group.

"We are still trying to see the positives, we are playing better and we must now take that into a very important game at home to Arsenal.

"It is the beginning of a new season for us now, I hope.

"Now we must be ready for the next game on Sunday [against Arsenal]. We worked so hard, we had chances, so they are the only positives that we can take from the game."

Summer signing Alberto Aquilani made a positive first start in front of the Kop, and Benitez admitted that he may be thrust into the heart of the action against Arsenal this weekend.

"Aquilani showed his quality, his touch was good," he said.

"His vision and passing were good, but obviously he will have to work on his match fitness.

"Everyone is available for Sunday, if he trains well he could well be involved against Arsenal."

Liverpool Plan To Swap Flop Ryan Babel For Spurs Misfit Roman Pavlyuchenko

Liverpool have targeted Tottenham misfit Roman Pavlyuchenko in a surprise January move which could see Ryan Babel head in the opposite direction.

Manager Rafa Benitez knows he desperately needs back-up for Fernando Torres and has grown increasingly tired of Babel's displays and murmurings of discontent.

He is a long-time admirer of Pavlyuchenko and believes he can restore the striker to the scoring form that helped Russia reach the Euro 2008 semi-finals and prompted Tottenham to splash out £13.8million just over 15 months ago.

However, due to Liverpool's dire financial situation, Tottenham hold all the cards in any possible deal. They know Liverpool have a minimal budget and must wheel and deal to get transfers done.

Babel, an £11.5m signing from Ajax two years ago, represents Liverpool's biggest bargaining tool and at 22 he has a great re-sale value. However, Tottenham want optimum price for Pavlyuchenko and may even ask for Babel plus cash.

Manager Harry Redknapp has other targets in mind and has been told he must sell before he can buy. He is keen on bringing in another goalkeeper and centre half and has lined up a deal for Brazil midfielder Sandro from Internacional, who could cost up to £8m.

Redknapp knows Babel has potential but may feel it is better for Tottenham to bring in straight cash for Pavlyuchenko from other suitors so he can plough the money into his priority purchases.

Pavlyuchenko, who has grown increasingly frustrated with his plight at Tottenham and has attended several meetings to discuss his future, will no doubt be delighted about Liverpool's interest.

He is fourth in the pecking order of strikers at White Hart Lane behind Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane and has made it clear he wants away.

Only this week his agent, Oleg Artemov, said: 'We are not happy about his situation at Tottenham, so we'll do everything to ensure he can change club in January. There were contacts with Roma, but for now only by telephone. Spartak Moscow, Arsenal and Zenit St Petersburg are also interested in the player - anything can happen.'

Benitez had considered a move for Pavlyuchenko earlier in the year but again did not have the necessary resources at the time. He believes the former Spartak Moscow star can play in the lone striker role or as a link man between Torres and the Liverpool midfield if called upon.

He is reluctant to strip his threadbare squad further but recognises that Babel represents a sacrifice worth making for the benefit of the squad.

The only saving grace for Benitez would be a successful Liverpool rights issue as the club attempt to raise £100m in time for the January window - then the Spaniard would be able to call his own shots in the transfer market.

Despite glimpses of Babel's potential, he has failed to mature into the player Benitez hoped he would become and has hinted he believes a fresh start would help earn a place in Holland's World Cup squad.

For now, he is taking a diplomatic stance. Babel said: 'I feel confident that I'm good enough to play a lot of games for Liverpool. I keep saying this. Hopefully, I'll get chances to show this. For every player it's nice to go to the World Cup and it's very important to do that in your career.

'As far as I'm concerned, the way to do that is to fight for my place at Anfield, definitely.'