Friday, December 18, 2009

Reds Could Face Tricky Tie

Liverpool face the prospect of potentially tough opponents in their first experience of the Europa League after UEFA confirmed they will not be seeded for Friday's knockout stage draw.

Poor goal difference in the Champions League groups means Rafael Benitez's side miss out on being among the 16 top seeds for the new-look competition, which replaced the UEFA Cup.

It means Liverpool, along with Everton and Fulham who are also unseeded, may have to play strong teams including a trio from Germany - last season's UEFA Cup runners-up Wolfsburg and Hamburg - as well as Italian giants Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk from Ukraine and Turkish club Galatasaray.

A UEFA spokesman said: "Liverpool will not be one of the seeded teams.

"The top seeds are the 12 group winners from the Europa League and the best four third-placed sides from the Champions League.

"Among the clubs dropping down from the Champions League, Juventus and Unirea Urziceni won more points than Liverpool, while Marseille and Wolfsburg had a better goal difference."

The seeded teams are also given the advantage of playing the second leg at home.

The round of 32 starts on February 16 with the final in Hamburg on May 12.

Rafa Benitez: We Must Build On Wigan Win

Rafael Benitez believes last night’s 2-1 victory over Wigan at Anfield will help restore his players’ confidence.

Goals from David Ngog and Fernando Torres lifted Liverpool up to sixth in the Premier League and they are now five points adrift of fourth placed Aston Villa.

Benitez has urged his side to build on the club’s first home win since late October when they travel to struggling Portsmouth on Saturday.

“It was very important to win tonight, and there were a lot of positives,” he said.

“We knew we had to win and it doesn't matter that we could have scored more – at the end of the day its three points.

"We got the victory, now we can relax a bit and be ready for the next one.

"The main thing for us now is winning a few in the row.

“We have to start with the next one, Portsmouth, and then we can talk of winning three.”

Benitez was delighted with the efforts of his two strikers with Ngog opening the scoring in the first half before Torres came off the bench to settle the contest late on.

Torres was making his 100th appearance for Liverpool and his close range finish took his goal tally to an impressive 61.

"It’s a fantastic achievement by Torres,” Benitez said.

“He was really tired after the last game, but I wanted to put him on at the end.

"Torres was not training for a month, and I wanted to protect him and if necessary not play him. But I think he will be ready for Portsmouth.

“As for Ngog he is improving and did really well too. He's a good option for us now if Torres can't play.”

Javier Mascherano was crucial to Liverpool’s triumph with a tireless performance in the centre of midfield.

Benitez said: “Javier is doing well, working really hard. He's the Javier we knew we had and he's doing better now, although he can still improve.

“He's an inspiration for the other players. Everyone knows he is a key player for us.”

The manager admitted it was vital Liverpool marked the 50th anniversary celebrations of Bill Shankly’s arrival with maximum points.

Legends from the club’s great sides of the 1960s and 1970s were out in force at Anfield last night to celebrate the Scot’s legacy.

They formed a guard of honour to applaud the current players on before the start and were introduced to the crowd on the pitch at half-time.

"I think everyone here knows how important Bill Shankly was for the club,” Benitez added.

“He's a legend and to see all the former players around tonight was fantastic.

“In a top side it's always difficult because usually you've won trophies and this club is one of the biggest in the world.

“We talk of having to win here but I prefer that to fighting against relegation.”

Torres Backed By Mascherano

Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano has paid tribute to team-mate Fernando Torres.

The Spaniard returned from a one-month lay-off in the weekend defeat to Arsenal before starting Wednesday's clash with Wigan on the substitutes' bench.

He came on to score the second goal in a 2-1 victory and Mascherano is delighted to have him back.

Mascherano is confident the Reds can enjoy a successful second half to the season if Torres and talismanic captain Gerrard both steer clear of injuries.

"It is so important for us that Fernando stays fit," the Argentine told Liverpool's official website.

"We know that we can win games when he is not playing but, equally, when he is on the pitch, you can see the respect that other teams give him.

"He causes them so many problems. With Fernando and Stevie (Gerrard) on the pitch, we know that there is always a chance something special can happen.

"It is so good for our team and the confidence they give us. When they are not in the squad, others have to do their job and David Ngog has been doing his job really well.

"But the key players are the key players and you cannot change that. We need to keep the key players fit for the rest of the season."

Liverpool is currently sixth in the Premier League table and Mascherano recognizes the significance of getting another good result against Portsmouth this Saturday.

"The most important thing was to win because we needed it," said Mascherano regarding the Wigan match.

"We want to play better and improve, so it is important that we keep going.

"We will see if we can win at Portsmouth and if we can do that, it will be three amazing points.

"There has been a little bit of pressure but top players have that all the time.

"We cannot forget that Stevie and Fernando have been coming back from injury and it is important to have them in the squad as they are important for us."

Kuyt Keen To Push On

Dirk Kuyt has urged Liverpool to build on their victory over Wigan and go on a winning run.

The Reds suffered a disappointing defeat at home to Arsenal on Sunday before bouncing back with three points in midweek.

Rafael Benitez's men showed glimpses of their best form as they overcame the Latics 2-1 thanks to goals for David Ngog and Fernando Torres.

Kuyt was pleased with the result and performance and has called for more of the same in Saturday's away game against Portsmouth.

"It's a really important win. We showed we wanted to win and played good football for most of the game," the Dutchman told Liverpool's official website.

"Maybe we could have scored a few more goals, and we are disappointed to have conceded, but the most important thing is winning and that's what we did.

"A victory will always lift confidence, but we live from game to game now and we just needed to make sure we beat Wigan.

"We can enjoy this result, and then we have to do the same again on Saturday and try to start a winning run of form."

Kuyt admits Liverpool cannot afford to look too far ahead as they strive to climb the table from their current position of sixth.

"We just wanted to win against Wigan and then take it from there," he explained.

"The situation for us now is to look from game to game, so we are very happy to have got the three points and now we can't wait to play again this weekend.

"For us, every game is very important, so in that respect nothing has changed, but we need a couple of victories and we definitely want another three points against Portsmouth."

Kuyt also praised the display of Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland after twice being denied by brilliant saves from the former Liverpool man.

"Kirky is a very good goalkeeper and he made two great saves from me," said Kuyt.

"I was unlucky not to score, but winning the game was the most important thing."

Fernando Torres Must Take It Easy, Says Rafa Benitez

Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez is handling Fernando Torres' comeback from injury carefully as he intends to get the best out of his star striker over the coming months.

The Spain international was left on the bench for Wednesday night's 2-1 victory over Wigan, although his 64th appearance, off the bench, proved to be timely as he scored the crucial second goal 14 minutes later.

Torres' scrambled home his 61st Liverpool goal on his 100th appearance for the club after David Ngog had put his side ahead with a glancing 10th-minute header. Charles N'Zogbia's injury-time consolation caused some concern but the Reds held on for only their fourth win in 16 matches and just their second at Anfield since September 26.

"I wanted to keep him back because he was really tired after the last game (Sunday's defeat to Arsenal)," said the manager.

"I told him I wanted to protect him and it would be good for me to play him at the end and he was good too. I think he will be ready for Portsmouth."

Benitez admitted victory was the most important thing on an emotional night when the club marked the 50th anniversary of legendary boss Bill Shankly's first game in charge with a host of former stars were paraded at half-time.

"It was very important to win, to get three points, with a lot of positives," said Benitez.

"It does not matter if we couldn't score more goals and be more relaxed in the second half but, at the end of the day, three points is key.

"We needed to get these three points and be ready for the next game. We are thinking about one game at a time so now Portsmouth (on Saturday) is the target."

Wigan manager Roberto Martinez's side have now won only two of their last 10 matches and are just two points clear of the relegation zone, having conceded the most goals in the Premier League with 17 in their last four away games.

Martinez said: "I have mixed feelings. The first goal is really soft for our standards, it was a lapse in concentration. When you come to places like Anfield if you do that you are going to make things very difficult for yourself."

Should Rafael Benitez Be Judged By The Standards Of Bill Shankly?

When you have a history as rich and successful as Liverpool Football Club, the benefits are obvious.

The Reds have long traded off the power their incredible success in the 1960s, 70s and 80s afforded them. Their greatest player - Kenny Dalglish - welcomes new scholars to the club's academy. The walls of Anfield are covered with pictures of great players, great managers, and great success.

On Wednesday night, before the 2-1 home win over Wigan, Anfield honoured arguably its greatest ever. Bill Shankly transformed Liverpool between 1959 and 1974, turning a dilapidated shell of a club into one that would go on to dominate European football. The tributes - led by 15 of Shankly's ex-players - were moving and genuine.

For Rafa Benitez, the latest man to attempt to uphold the Shankly ethos, the night was about much more than just remembering the past. The present at Liverpool is something the Spaniard has good reason to be concerned with; the future is not something he dare think about.

It has become commonplace in recent weeks, as we approached the 50th anniversary of Shankly's arrival on Merseyside, to ponder what the gruff-voice from Glenbuck would make of Liverpool's current sequence of results (and performances).

Most tend to agree that Shankly would be sickened by a run which has seen the Reds pick up just four wins in 16 games, crash out of the Champions League and slip to sixth place in the Premier League. In doing so, they often venture the view that Benitez is somehow letting the club - and Shankly - down.

But is that the case? Can anyone live up to the standards set by Shankly, a man whose legend grows year on year? Liverpool's past may be one of its greatest weapons, but when times are hard, it can also become their biggest burden.

No manager can ever compare favourably with a man who helped paint the stands at Anfield, who addressed the public like a great orator, and who produced a litany of incredible soundbytes which will live on forever. No manager will ever do for Liverpool what Shankly did.

But then, Shankly and Benitez operated in different worlds, football-wise. When Shankly found opposition from the Liverpool hierarchy, he found a director willing to back his instincts with capital. How Benitez must long for a Mr. Eric Sawyer to breeze into the Anfield board room these days, armed with David Villa and Gareth Barry.

Shankly moulded unknown players and made them internationals. No one could argue with that, but the landscape of the transfer market was distinctly different. The foreign invasion was still more than a quarter of a century away when Shankly took charge at Anfield, and clubs had both the need, and the time, to blood such players. (Incidentally, Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Emiliano Insua, Lucas Leiva and Peter Crouch all became established international players under Benitez's tutelage).

Liverpool could, theoretically, take players from Bury, Motherwell and Scunthorpe - as Shankly did in Alec Lindsay, Ian St John and Kevin Keegan - and put them in the first team, but would the Anfield fans be prepared to stand by them if they were sub-standard at first? Especially knowing the open transfer market meant a more suitable foreign alternative would be out there?

Benitez is operating in a world where money rules. Coaching, scouting and preparation - all areas in which Shankly and his team excelled - pale into insignificance if a club does not have the financial wherewithal to compete with its big-money rivals. The top flight may have been more competitive in the late 1960s, but a closed safe is harder to crack than an open gate.

Liverpool earn less than half what Arsenal do in gate receipts every season, they pay their players almost £60 million less than Chelsea every year. These are issues that would be alien to Shankly, but which Benitez is battling every day.

Shankly enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the media, delighting them with his quirky and ingenious turns of phrase, and ensuring their pages were never in need of filling. In this day and age though, the chances are at some point the knife would have been stuck into him. Liverpool won nothing between 1966 and 1973, yet there were - quite rightly - few questions asked about Shankly's methods, or his suitability for the role.

No such luck for Benitez. The blanket coverage of the media means manager's positions are under scrutiny now more than ever before. Tenureships at clubs are usually measured in months rather than years, as impatience rules the roost.

Benitez must contend with lists deriding his record in the transfer market (even Shankly made mistakes, look at Alun Evans or Tony Hateley for example). He must field questions about his future, his tactics, his style of play, even his persona. It is hard to imagine Shankly facing the glare of a hundred ex-Liverpool players armed with strong opinions and short memories.

None of this is to belittle the achievements of Shankly, or to defend Liverpool's recent run. To do either would be lunacy.

The point is simply to highlight the problems of comparing eras like-for-like. As Liverpool honours the man who changed the face of their history, is it not time to give some support to the man who is trying to do the same, only in a much greater shadow?

Jamie Carragher Hoping To Break Ray Clemence's Appearance Record For Liverpool

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher has revealed that he is aiming to surpass Ray Clemence in the club's appearance list.

The 31-year-old will play his 600th game for the Reds on Saturday, when his side travels to play Portsmouth at Fratton Park.

Although the all-time record set by Ian Callaghan is a long way off at a mammoth 857 appearances, the defender feels second-placed Clemence's tally of 665 games is well within reach.

"When you're a Liverpool player, you never look too far ahead because if you do that you'll end up not focusing on what is immediately in front of you," Carragher told LFC Weekly.

"It's a cliché but it's true. My target at the beginning of each season is to play 50 games. If I don't do that, I'm disappointed.

"But I understand that I'm getting older and in a few years' time that may not be possible. I've got another 18 months left on my contract so I'd like to be playing regularly next season. That means potentially, I could finish this season on 620-25 then play another 40 odd games next season - taking me into second position in the all-time appearance list.

"Passing Ray Clemence would make me happy. It will prove that I've been up for the fight for a long time."

Liverpool's £62m Stake Looks Underdone

What a remarkable conjuring act that would be if George Gillett and Tom Hicks do somehow manage to secure £124m in return for a stake in Liverpool. The Daily Telegraph yesterday indicated that there are two or three parties interested in picking up one of two unspecified stakes in the club, each available for a mere £62m.

Apparently, despite all evidence to the contrary, the co-owners believe Liverpool to be worth of £500m to £600m. So for that £62m you can buy yourself a little over 10% of a club that still has to spend more than £300m on building a new stadium.

Now £62m, neatly, bought Randy Lerner 100% of Aston Villa and, unlike Liverpool, it was not making a loss of £11m a year. Nor, unlike Liverpool, had Villa's auditors said there was a "material uncertainty" casting "significant doubt on [the club's] ability to continue as a going concern".

That material uncertainty, deferred when Liverpool refinanced a £290m loan in July, could return when its repayment is required. A spokesman for the co-owners did not come back with answers yesterday about when that will be. Previously, the club's lenders have not extended their loans for more than a year. The current loan's maturity could well be only seven months away.

Nor did the spokesman say whether the £60m that is supposed to be repaid since that July refinancing has been handed over on schedule. Nor was there any response to a question about whether interest payments will rise next year. But with so much clarity about what £62m will buy, who could resist?

Anfield Makes Cut For England's World Cup 2018 Bid

Liverpool has been chosen as a candidate host city for England’s 2018 World Cup bid – but Derby, Leicester and Hull have missed out on selection.

Milton Keynes, Plymouth and several venues yet to be built were also on the final list as England 2018 deputy chairman Lord Mawhinney announced the successful candidates.

But Pride Park, the Walkers Stadium and KC Stadium will not host games if England’s bid to stage the tournament is successful.

Lord Mawhinney, the Football League chairman who headed the selection panel, said: ‘England is fortunate to have so many good stadiums. We have chosen cities which present the lowest possible risk to Fifa and its Fifa who will make the final decision.’

Lord Mawhinney named 16 venues across 12 different cities, with four in London.

However, Fifa regulations state only three stadium can be used in any one city, with a decision yet to be made between the new White Hart Lane and Olympic Stadium in East London.

Mawhinney also revealed Anfield or ‘new Anfield’ would be used. There had been fears Liverpool would miss out.

But Mawhinney added: ‘It would have been very hard to envisage an impressive World Cup bid with host cities that did not include iconic Liverpool.’

Liverpool Pay Tribute To Shankly

Liverpool paid tribute to late manager Bill Shankly on Wednesday to mark 50 years since the Scot arrived on Merseyside to transform the club into soccer superpowers.

Former players from Shankly's era in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as members of his family, paraded on the Anfield pitch at half time in the club's Premier League match against Wigan Athletic.

Shankly's favourite hymn 'Amazing Grace' was played as the likes of Tommy Smith, Kevin Keegan and Phil Thompson helped revive memories of the club's golden past.

"Everybody here knows how important Bill Shankly was to this club," current manager Rafa Benitez said on the club's website (

"To see the former players around was very positive. We have a fantastic club with a great history."

Shankly, who died in 1981, took over at Liverpool when the club was a struggling second division side and spent the next 15 years establishing them at the top.

Under him, Liverpool won three league titles, two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup.

Wednesday's nervy 2-1 win moved them up to sixth in the Premier League, 13 points behind leaders Chelsea.