Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rafael Benitez Hoping To Halt Liverpool's Poor Premier League Form With A Win Over Arsenal

In the week Liverpool's Champions League elimination was made formal, following their 2-1 defeat by Fiorentina, Reds' boss Rafael Benitez has declared that the club will be taking their season one game at a time, beginning with their Anfield clash with Arsenal on Sunday.

The Merseysiders will be looking to halt a run of underwhelming domestic form that has seen them slip further and further away from the Premier League pace-setters, but Benitez is praying his side can begin bridging the gap by getting the better of Arsene Wenger's Gunners.

"As a manager you always know you have to work hard to win games, if you are not winning games it's difficult, but it's part of the job," Benitez told journalists at a pre-match press conference.

"I am just thinking about Arsenal," he said. "We have to play against Arsenal, try to win… then think about Wigan, think about Portsmouth, and carry on."

He continued: "Every game can be important until the end of the season. We start with this one, they are [near the] top of the table. If we win we'll be closer to the top four."

When asked how he and the club handle the vitriolic criticism levelled against Liverpool in recent weeks, he jested: "I switch off the volume of the Sky!"

On how managers handle the negative press, he added: "All the managers at top sides have to perform, there is a different situation at different clubs though.

"Arsene Wenger is a fantastic manager and people expect him to win trophies but he knows how difficult it is to do that."

Mascherano Calls For Consistency

Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano believes the team must use Sunday's Barclays Premier League clash at home to Arsenal as an opportunity to rebuild their battered reputation.

An early exit from the Champions League - for the first time since manager Rafael Benitez took over in 2004 - and stuttering domestic form have had some critics writing off the club.

Former captain and manager Graeme Souness said he feared the club could go into "meltdown" if they did not secure Champions League football at the end of this season.

Mascherano admits the team have done "bad things" this season but stressed the players had to start putting things right against the Gunners.

The Argentina captain said: "The confidence is not here at the moment but we have a big game on Sunday to show ourselves, to show the fans and to show everyone that Liverpool still has a good team that can fight for something.

"It's not must-win on Sunday but it's really important. It's not just about the three points, it's about the situation.

"We couldn't play as well as we could (earlier in the season). Some players were not in top form, now maybe we are back in form, and some players were injured - which makes it difficult when you can't play the same team for two or three games."

Consistency is now the key for Liverpool and a good run over the festive period - they are only four points behind third-placed Arsenal - could stabilise their season.

"It's difficult because we cannot win two or three games in a row at the moment," he said.

"We won against Manchester United and then we lost (at Fulham). We couldn't continue winning but we have to start from now.

"It is a great chance for us. All of us want to win and to get the confidence. We want to play like we can play.

"We have to show to everyone that Liverpool is still a big team and can play against anyone."

Mascherano said he felt they could prove their detractors wrong by winning a trophy this season.

Despite their Champions League exit Liverpool now drop into the Europa League, although their poor form means they will be unseeded, and they have the FA Cup to look forward to next month.

"We finished the Champions League in a bad way this season and we are sad," added the Argentina captain.

"We have to do the right things in the Premier League and the Europa League.

"The Europa League is not the same as the Champions League but it is still a competition so we have to try to win it because all of us know when we play for Liverpool it is a big club with a great history.

"The talk now is that it is a bad season for Liverpool but things can change.

"Maybe in May we will be talking about Liverpool winning something."

Aquilani Wants To Face Arsenal

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani has told boss Rafa Benitez that he has no concerns over his fitness as he hopes to keep his first-team place against Arsenal.

The Italy international played 86 minutes of the Reds' defeat to Fiorentina in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday in his maiden starting XI appearance.

Aquilani's full debut has been significantly delayed since his £20million summer move from Roma as he has been rehabilitating from an ankle operation.

But the 25-year-old, who has a reputation in Italy for being prone to injury, is ready to remain in Benitez's first XI plans for Sunday's vital Anfield clash with Arsenal.

He said in the Liverpool Daily Post: "I feel good. I'm really happy to have come through my first game.

"My ankle is better, fully healed and there weren't any problems after basically a year without playing it's great to have played so many minutes, because it means I can have more faith that I'm fully fit again.

"There's no fear at all that it might flare up again, I know it's better, so I'm not worried at all about that. I just feel really happy to have played again. It's really important for me to have played, because the more I play, the better I'll get and the fitter I'll be."

He added: "I need to play, play, play because I'm in a new team, and I need games now. My ankle is fine now, I feel good, and now I need to work hard in training for my body. I really hope I can play against Arsenal."

Aquilani is also confident Liverpool can turn around their fortunes this season, despite having been dumped out of the Champions League and sitting off the pace in the Premier League.

Rafa Benitez Must Find Cure To Liverpool FC's Ills

Given the grief the Champions League has inflicted on his team during the last few months, Rafael Benitez would be forgiven for wondering if it was worth the hassle of attempting to qualify for next season’s competition.

From a plethora of last-minute goals, an inability to hold onto leads, a lengthy injury list, a shot-shy attack and players losing form, Liverpool’s mental and physical shortcomings have been laid bare for the whole of the Continent to analyse.

But while their European rivals will have been lapping up the malaise at Anfield, Benitez is still struggling to find a cure for his team’s ills.

Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat to Fiorentina with an experimental line-up mattered little in terms of points and prizes, but it was a significant dent to Liverpool’s fragile morale that they had slowly started to rebuild with a six-match unbeaten run.

Liverpool have set a number of landmarks during Benitez’s tenure, both good and bad, and this was another negative, the first time they had lost successive European home games after the almost identikit loss to Lyon in October.

Let’s be honest. Neither Fiorentina nor Lyon, effective but uninspiring teams, will be anywhere near Madrid when the European Cup is lifted in May.

But that both ousted Liverpool from the competition with a game to spare says everything about how underwhelming their Champions League campaign truly was.

Not that the overall campaign has been any better, with Benitez’s side out of the Carling Cup and having won only three of their last 14 games to slump to seventh in the Premier League table, four points off the top four.

Of course, qualification for next season’s Champions League is the very least Liverpool would have expected back in August, and that has now assumed priority for the remainder of the campaign.

Now, the good news. Alberto Aquilani’s long-awaited full debut on Wednesday has allayed any fears over his long-term fitness, although it will clearly take time for the Italian to get up to speed with the English game.

Steven Gerrard continues to regain his form and match sharpness, while the sight of Fernando Torres back on the pitch for the first time in more than a month – and withstanding a buffeting from the Italian defence – will have offered similar encouragement.

The injury problems of Gerrard and Torres have undoubtedly hampered Liverpool’s efforts this season, and it’s notable none of the miserly five goals they netted in Group E were scored by either player.

And Gerrard admits: “Torres’ return is massive for me, massive for everyone. He’s the main man, he’s our top scorer and we need him back firing.

“If that happens I’m sure we’ll move back up the league and get in them top four places.

“Without a doubt that has to be the main aim this season. It’s obviously important for the club, and having played in the Champions League for such a long time, it’s very important.

“We’ll be right up for the Arsenal game on Sunday. If we can get three points there and then take that into the Wigan game, we can turn a corner.

“If we get back to our full-strength team, and we get people fit, we’re confident we are good enough to finish in the top four.”

Liverpool, of course, already knew before Wednesday’s defeat that they would be plying their trade in the Europa League in the New Year.

The likes of Juventus and Benfica could lie in wait, while the Anfield outfit could also meet neighbours Everton later in the competition – a prospect Gerrard would relish.

We’ll take it very seriously,” he says. “We’ve got to try to win a trophy this year. The FA Cup and the Europa League are our two best chances of that.

“There are some good teams in there. It would be very nice if we were to come up against Everton! We’ll have to see what the draw gives us.”

Despite the tubthumping from the likes of Gerrard and his team-mates, Benitez will put all thoughts of the Europa League on hold in a bid to reignite Liverpool’s stuttering Premier League form, starting at home to Arsenal on Sunday.

“We will take it (the Europa League) seriously, but for us the main thing is to progress in the Premier League,” says the Anfield manager. “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.

“I would expect a different approach on Sunday against Arsenal.”

Rafa Hits Back At Souness

Rafa Benitez has hit back at Graeme Souness after comments made by the former Liverpool manager that the club are on the verge of "meltdown".

Wednesday's Sky Sports studio panel of Souness and Jurgen Klinsmann were critical of the Reds after they succumbed to another late sucker punch in the UEFA Champions League which saw them lose 2-1 to Fiorentina.

Souness, who managed the club in the early 1990s, revealed his fear that his former club could capitulate should they fail to qualify for next year's European competition.

But Benitez, who came close to leaving the club when American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks spoke to Klinsmann about the possibility of taking over from the Spaniard, was unfazed by the Scot's comments.

"I switch off the volume of Sky," Benitez joked to Sky Sports News. "I think they both have a fantastic record as a manager so the fans they know really well what they say.

"The club we have to win, we have a responsibility, we have to concentrate on our job and that's it. If someone talks too much then that's their problem but the fans know the records they have both as a manager is fantastic."

Fernando Torres, who Souness fears will leave the club if they do not clinch Champions League football next term, conceded earlier on Friday that he thought Liverpool were out of the title race.

But Benitez was not yet ready to give up on hopes that the Reds can end their 20-year wait for the domestic crown ahead of Sunday's clash with Arsenal, which can be seen live on Sky Sports.

"I am just thinking about Arsenal," the Spanish tactician added. "We have to play against Arsenal, try to win, think about Wigan, think about Portsmouth and carry on."

The weekend clash, which resulted in a 4-4 thriller last season, could see Liverpool go within one point of the Gunners should they claim maximum points.

But Benitez was quick to play down the significance of the Anfield showdown, claiming every game from now until the end of the season is vital to the Reds' quest for a top-four finish.

Of Sunday's game: "I think it's important but every game can be important to the end of the season.

"We have to start with this one because they are at the top of the table so if we can win we will be closer and we'll have better chances to finish in the top four."

Alberto Aquilani Says Liverpool Gloom Makes It 'Difficult' To Shine

Following defeat to Fiorentina on Wednesday, Liverpool's supporters could at least take heart from the performance of Alberto Aquilani in what was his first start for the club. But the player himself has expressed worry about how smoothly he will integrate into the team, claiming their current malaise has made it "difficult" for him to impress immediately.

The midfielder completed 76 minutes of the 2-1 loss to La Viola – a result that saw Liverpool complete an abrupt and abysmal Champions League campaign with just seven points – and showed with his passing in particular that he could well be a worthy replacement for Xabi Alonso.

The ankle injury that has delayed the 25-year-old's progress since arriving from Roma in August for £20m has now all but cleared, but Aquilani believes a lack of confidence and momentum among his new team-mates means it will still be some time before he is performing at his very best.

"It is a difficult time for me because we are in a difficult place at the moment," said Aquilani. "That makes it harder for any player to start with a new side."

Those are hardly the words Anfield regulars will want to hear. They have placed great hope in Aquilani's arrival into the first-team rescuing Liverpool's season, starting with the visit of Arsenal on Sunday.

Such has been Rafael Benítez's cautious use of the Italy international that he may not even start the weekend fixture – prior to Wednesday, he had been restricted to three substitute appearances – but Aquilani is confident that he will eventually maintain a regular role in Liverpool's midfield and that the team can get out of their current rut.

The loss to Fiorentina, which was secured through an injury time goal from Alberto Gilardino, means Benítez's side has now won just two of their past seven fixtures in all competitions.

"This is not the season I was expecting when I signed for the club, that's true" Aquilani said. "I was expecting to play in the Champions League and to find ourselves competing for trophies. But it is a long season and I'm really happy to have come through my first game. It's great to have finally got on to the pitch with players like Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and there's no fear that it [his ankle] will flare up again. I know it's better, so I'm not worried at all about that.

"I have plenty of reasons then to be positive about where the team is going. We have a lot of things to improve on but we also have all the ability we need to get better. With the players we have available to us, we can only get better. I don't have any doubts about that at all.

Javier Mascherano Drops Barcelona Hint After Rejecting Liverpool Contract Extension

Publicly tracked by Barcelona in the summer transfer window, Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano has incited new transfer talk after rejecting a contract extension with Premier League side Liverpool as reported by Sky Sports.

After expressing interest during the summer to play for the Blaugrana alongside countryman Lionel Messi, the price tag placed on Mascherano proved to be too high for Barca's tastes.

But with the recent development in the midfielder's contract talks with Liverpool, Barcelona sports daily SPORT seems convinced that the scene is set for a move to the Camp Nou in the near future.

The Argentine international still has 18 months left on his current contract and was evasive when questioned about the transfer rumours, simply saying: "I want to continue giving my best to help the team recover its form."

It's 'Massive' That Fernando Torres Is Back - Liverpool Skipper Steven Gerrard

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is delighted to welcome silky striker Fernando Torres back to first-team duty after the Spaniard cemented his return during Wednesday evening's 2-1 loss to Fiorentina.

Torres, despite accumulating an impressive goal-haul this season - he has scored 10 in the Premier League alone - has been out of action for the past five weeks due to a groin injury.

"It's massive for me that Fernando is back, massive for the club, massive for everyone here," he explained to This Is London. "He's our main man. He's our top scorer, so we need him back fit and firing.

"If that happens then I'm sure we'll move up the League and get in the top four places," he added.

Regarding their Champions League elimination, Gerrard revealed that it will now be a primary ambition of his to qualify once more for the prestigious European competition after such a long association with it.

"We had gone six games unbeaten before this, so it's a shame we lost. Having experienced the Champions League for such a long time, I want to play in it again next year. If we get back to our full-strength team, we are good enough to do it.

"But we'll be right up for the Arsenal game [at Anfield on Sunday] and if we can take three points there I think we can turn that corner."

Liverpool Can't Win Premier League This Season, Admits Fernando Torres

The Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has conceded that this season's Premier League title is out of reach for his side.

"We are really far out from the Premier League, so we now change our targets," Torres said. "We have to think the Europa League and FA Cup are the two competitions we can win this season and obviously trying to stay in the top four. Staying together is the main thing now.

"If we can stay together manager, players, staff, everyone at the club we have quality enough to stay in the top four and win trophies."

Torres is available for the Premier League match against Arsenal on Sunday after recovering from a groin injury that has prevented him from playing in the league since October.

"Arsenal are doing quite well this season," Torres said. "They are close to the top and playing with young players and doing really good. The mentality of the manager and players is brilliant, but we are playing at Anfield and with the help of our supporters we can beat anyone."

Torres is yet to win a trophy with Liverpool since his arrival in 2007. "If we win one trophy, it will have been a nice season, so we are on target," he said. "The people of Liverpool deserve to play in finals, whether it be in Europe or England, it is a long time since we played in a final and they deserve more trophies."

Alberto Aquilani, who started his first match against Fiorentina, could also be available from the start against Arsenal.

The visitors are hampered by a lack of fully fit strikers and will be relying on Andrey Arshavin. The Russia forward scored four goals at Anfield in April to clinch a 4-4 draw that helped to end Liverpool's title hopes.

Arshavin has been frustrated that he has struggled to match that devastating display. "It doesn't matter where I play on the right side or the left I don't think I have played that well," Arshavin said. "Only sometimes have I shown my full skills and I am not sure why that is. But we are still doing well and fighting for top place so that is very positive and I still have time to show something of myself."