Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Benitez Calls For Focus

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez says his side must not dwell on their defeat to Portsmouth and focus on the next game.

The Reds slumped to a 2-0 defeat on Saturday thanks to goals from Nadir Belhadj and Frederic Piquionne either side of Javier Mascherano's sending off, which led to Benitez launching a bizarre rant at referee Lee Mason.

The Spanish tactician continually described Mason as 'perfect' in the aftermath of the defeat which leaves Liverpool eight points behind fourth-placed Aston Villa in the table.

Wolves go to Anfield on Boxing Day and Benitez insists the squad must shift their focus and prepare for the next game.

"We have to start working this week, preparing the next game," he said.

"You have to change your targets and think about one game at a time. That is the only way. We know we have to work harder now."

After the game, Benitez said: "The referee was perfect. He didn't make any mistakes. He was perfect in giving fouls to (Fernando) Torres, he was perfect in everything. He was perfect."

He did, however, credit Avram Grant's Portsmouth for putting the 10 men under pressure at Fratton Park.

"The 10 players were working very hard," he added.

"Credit to them, they were in the game. They (Portsmouth) were playing counter-attack and with the pace up front it's not easy."

Benitez will have summer signing Alberto Aquilani back for the remaining Christmas period after the midfielder missed the Pompey trip with a calf problem.

"He has a kick in his calf and he didn't train properly," he remarked.

"He is not serious so he will be okay for next week but he couldn't be here."

We Are Failing Liverpool, Says Daniel Agger

Daniel Agger has admitted the current Liverpool squad is letting the club down.

The Denmark defender was part of the side that lost 2-0 to Portsmouth on Saturday, a result that saw the club slip to eighth in the Premier League table. Agger has called on the players to take responsibility for their poor performances.

"We are extremely disappointed and we know that it simply isn't good enough for this club," he said. "We have got to change this. It didn't happen against Portsmouth but we can't let it go on any further."

Agger says only a run of victories can halt the slide. "Why is this happening? It's a bit of everything I suppose but we have got to try to get some confidence from somewhere soon," he added. "You get that by winning games but we are not doing that.

"It's a fight every game for this club. Every game we need to focus and need to make sure we get three points. It's a question of sticking together and we need to do that now more than ever."

Liverpool Should Take Chance To Cash In On Steven Gerrard

It is all very well, in discussing Liverpool’s woes, to invoke the spirit of Shankly. But how do you define it? You can make a start by listening to 73 minutes and 30 seconds of the great man giving his thoughts to John Roberts, the journalist with whom he collaborated on his autobiography two years after retiring as manager in 1974.

Order the CD — The Amazing Bill Shankly — for £9.99 and I doubt that you will find a better distillation of the spirit that was to make Anfield a fortress than this, delivered in Shankly’s machine-gun Ayrshire tones:

“Now I want one thing. I want loyalty. I don’t want anybody to be carrying stories about anybody else. If somebody comes to me with a story — I warn you about this — whoever you’re telling it about won’t be the one who goes. It’ll be you.

“You’ll go — out! I don’t care if you’ve been here 15 year [sic]. I want everybody to be loyal to each other. And to do everything you do for Liverpool Football Club. And we’ll all get together. And that will make strength . . . And maybe one day we’ll get players as well!”

The last bit may or may not have been a joke (as in “people say football’s more important than life and death . . .”) but everything else was as clear and inspiring as on the day he had addressed the staff and players of a run-down Liverpool in 1959.

This was how Shankly persuaded players with big egos such as Emlyn Hughes and Kevin Keegan to muck in with more modest souls such as Ian Callaghan, Ron Yeats and Chris Lawler and produce the institution that his erstwhile assistant and successor, Bob Paisley, developed into the most successful in Europe.

On Saturday morning I listened to Shankly and on Saturday night I heard Rafael Benítez, who has the job Shankly took half a century ago, respond to the 2-0 defeat away to Portsmouth with this gobbet of cheap sarcasm: “The referee was perfect.” Liverpool have become the opposite of Shankly’s raw material. They have got some players all right — some of the world’s best in their positions, in the cases of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and arguably Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina — but a fading spirit.

To envisage their qualifying for next season’s Champions League now is difficult and, although the time has come for change, the obvious course of replacing Benítez as manager should be neglected, at least for the time being, in favour of imagining what a successor to him could be offered. The cupboard is bare. There is only what lies on the table. Or lies eighth in the table , a point above Fulham, who have a match in hand.

This is because the strategy of surrounding Gerrard with players he respects is failing and the Benítez regime is going down with it.

Because the American owners’ priority is repaying loans, there is little money for more new players to provide for either Benítez or a new manager. It must be raised through sales and here Liverpool are fortunate, for the unthinkable is becoming the inevitable. Gerrard will turn 30 in May. He is approaching his sell-by date and, if Liverpool are truly to face at least 18 months out of the Champions League with no plausible prospect of a return after that, he will probably be among the first to admit it.

Already Mascherano wants to go; talk of Barcelona has turned his head. No one, surely, would blame Torres for wanting to stay at the top level. And in these circumstances Gerrard, too, could leave with no hard feelings on either side, which would not have been the case when he almost joined José Mourinho’s Chelsea.

These three players might raise more than £100 million if sold at a time of Liverpool’s choosing and even today you can build a competitive squad for that. So long as you have a manager who can build a spirit; Aston Villa and Fulham, among others, have proved it.

The argument for keeping Gerrard is fiercely emotional. He has a great talent and a genuine love of the club and, when you think of deeds on which Roy Of The Rovers might have been modelled — the late goals against Olympiacos and West Ham United in the FA Cup Final, the start of the fightback to win the 2005 Champions League final against Milan (even, if to listen so some accounts of his heroism that night you might think he had also scored the goals ascribed to Xabi Alonso and Vladimir Smicer, made Jamie Carragher’s vital tackle on Andriy Shevchenko and deputised for Jerzy Dudek during the penalty shoot-out) — the notion of his wearing another shirt is hard to countenance.

But Liverpool can no longer afford such a captain. They can no longer afford a prima donna whose unquestioned brilliance increasingly seems to embarrass and constrain some of those around him.

Shankly would remember Johnny Haynes. He was one of the greatest English midfield players and he spent his entire career with Fulham. He was a better passer than Gerrard and, though nowhere near as quick, scored as many goals.

Yet in all the time he was with Fulham they never had a side as good as today’s because at Fulham today there is something — just something — of the spirit of Shankly.

Alberto Aquilani Purchase Exposes Rafael Benitez's Transfer Market Folly

By a cruel irony, the midfielder who could have saved Liverpool from their recent defeat at Anfield by Arsenal, and so much else, was watching from the stand, while his supposed deputy struggled on the field as a substitute. Xabi Alonso, the Spanish international sold expensively last summer to Real Madrid, had been the inspiration of the Liverpool midfield, much admired by the local hero, Steven Gerrard. He clashed, however, with Rafael Benitez, his fellow Spaniard, Liverpool's increasingly controversial manager, and Benitez rashly sold him. In his place he signed, for another large fee, the Italian international midfielder Alberto Aquilani and has surely lived to regret it.

Whether or not a fully fit Aquilani, who arrived from Roma, could have emulated Alonso, with his superb through passing, and long-range shooting, who can say? The fact is that given his dire record of constant injury, seemingly ignored by Benitez, it was never likely. And this season, all too predictably, Aquilani has been a casualty for weeks on end, eventually and recently brought back, far short of proper match practice. He is beyond doubt a talented player, but surely a manager as experienced as Benitez must have seen the risk he was taking.

For me, however, Benitez's reputation has long been inflated. Far from emerging from Liverpool's amazing three-goal recovery in that European Cup Final against AC Milan, in Istanbul, as a hero, I felt it was largely his fault, letting Kaka run wild and free in the first half, that his team went 3-0 down.

Plainly, he need not worry about the sack since, having recently given him a massive new contract, it would cost Liverpool £20 million to get rid of him! Nor was Aquilani's the only transfer to perplex one. What, last summer, possessed him to buy that swift striker Robbie Keane, again at vast expense, from Spurs, when he had plenty of talent up front? It didn't work and in no time at all, Keane was back at White Hart Lane. One must say, though, that when beaten at Anfield by an Arsenal team galvanised by Arsene Wenger's half time team tirade, Liverpool should certainly have had a first-half penalty, when William Gallas brought down Gerrard.

Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez: No Problem With Jamie Carragher Contract Talks

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has quashed speculation that the Reds are having problems with regard to offering a new contract for defender Jamie Carragher.

There were suggestions that the Kop hero - who turns 32 next month - might not be offered a new contact when his current deal runs out in 2011, but the Spaniard insists otherwise.

"I read an interview with him yesterday and I was surprised because he didn't ask for a new contract," Benitez told the club's official website.

"He has 18 months still on his contract. He is clever and knows we analyse things differently when players are over 30 years old. But we are really pleased with him. I don't see any problem if he continues to play at the same level.

"He is someone who trains at 100 per cent. That is very good for the mentality of the team. He is also someone who can set an example.

"I have a fantastic relationship with him and his agent. Everything is okay so we don't have any problems."

Javier Mascherano To Spend Suspension Recovering From Knee Injury

The Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano will be able to use his four-match suspension over the festive period to recover from a knee problem. The Argentina captain sustained an injury in the tackle on Tal Ben Haim which earned him a red card in the 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth on Saturday.

As he has already served a ban this season, Mascherano will be forced to sit out four matches, meaning he will miss fixtures against Wolves, Aston Villa, the FA Cup third-round tie at Reading and the league meeting with Tottenham on 10 January.

However, the club believes his injury would have sidelined him for at least that long any way. "The player had a scan which confirmed the medical team's initial diagnosis that he suffered a medial ligament sprain in his left knee," a club spokesman said. "He is expected to be sidelined for two to three weeks."

Rafa Benitez Still Confident Of Champions League Qualication

Manager Rafael Benitez insists Saturday’s miserable 2-0 defeat at bottom club Portsmouth hasn’t shaken his belief that Liverpool will qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Javier Mascherano was sent off as they crashed to a seventh league reverse of the campaign.

Liverpool now find themselves seventh in the Premier League, eight points off fourth placed Aston Villa, ahead of the hectic festive period.

Benitez is confident they will re-ignite their push for a top four finish when they entertain Wolves on Boxing Day before travelling to Villa three days later.

“We always knew the battle for fourth would be difficult but we know we can play well,” Benitez said.

“We know we have the quality, it’s just a question of belief. When the players have a run of games together we will improve.

“It’s tough when you have just lost and really disappointing, but if you analyse the game against Portsmouth carefully in the first half we had plenty of possession and were in control of the game.

“We started the game with real intensity but made a mistake for their first goal and paid for it. We have to defend better.”

Benitez was fuming at referee Lee Mason’s decision to send off Mascherano for his tackle on Tal Ben Haim just before the break. The Argentinean came off second best in the challenge and damaged medial knee ligaments.

“After the sending off everything changed,” Benitez said.

“I have my opinion about the sending off, it’s very clear. But the referee was perfect. He didn’t make any mistakes.

“Now Javier is injured and I will say again the referee didn’t make any mistakes. He was perfect. I have seen the replay, for me it is not a sending off, but anyway, perfect.

“With only 10 players in the second half it was always going to be difficult.

“We had to go forward and leave spaces which meant they could play on the counter attack. It was really difficult for us.

“We were making some mistakes with our passing and were anxious.

“Everybody has to be disappointed but we have to stick together and be ready for the next game. We must try to get three points and see what happens after that.”

Benitez revealed Alberto Aquilani missed the trip to the south east with a calf injury. The Italian is still waiting to make his first league start following his £20million summer move from Roma.

“Aquilani couldn’t train on Friday but it is not serious so he will be okay for next week,” he added.

Liverpool have confirmed Mascherano will serve a four-match ban after his sending-off at Fratton Park.

The Argentina captain was shown a straight red card by referee Mason and now faces his second suspension of the season.

Mascherano will miss the forthcoming fixtures against Wolves, Aston Villa, the FA Cup third round tie at Reading and the league clash with Tottenham on January 10.

However, his participation in at least some of those games would have been in doubt anyway as he had to be helped off the field having been shown the red card and is believed to have sustained medial knee ligament damage.

The absence of the Argentinian, who was just starting to rediscover his form, will be a huge blow to Benitez.

Rafa Benitez Isolated By Liverpool Fans

Two thousand Liverpool fans who left home in the early hours and braved icy roads or frozen rails to follow their team delivered a damning silent verdict.

Followers of almost any other club would have booed and chanted for the manager’s head. But they are slow to turn on their own on Merseyside.

So at the start of the second half, with their side a goal down to the league’s bottom team, they sang: “You’ll never walk alone.” It was a defiant show of faith by supporters who know what support means.

But then, long before the finish of a half in which Liverpool were ill-disciplined and wretchedly short of quality, hundreds of those same supporters quietly slouched away.

“Walk o-on, walk o-on” became walk out. There were no angry shouts but the empty seats they left behind were far more eloquent.

Rafa Benitez might have convinced himself Liverpool were in control before Javier Mascherano’s sending off and that the red card was unfair, but should not convince anyone else.

Against a team who have lost six home games, Benitez’s tactics were sterile and cautious, as they often are. A full-back, the bleakly ungifted Andrea Dossena, was stationed on the left of a midfield that had two holding players: Mascherano and Lucas. On the right, Dirk Kuyt toiled earnestly but with no invention.

Ah, but never mind, Fernando Torres was the lone out-and-out striker and good old Stevie G was buzzing around off him, so everything would be all right, wouldn’t it? No. Portsmouth’s Avram Grant had a strategy.

When he was Chelsea manager, Grant did not lose any of his five games against Benitez and engineered a Champions League semi-final victory.

This time, Grant devoted much of the preparation to telling Portsmouth they were good enough to get at Liverpool. He showed them recordings of positive moments in their defeat by Chelsea.

Then he told Michael Brown to nullify Gerrard and leave Torres so outnumbered that he became frustrated.

And although Liverpool had plenty of possession, they looked blunt long before they were torn open by the string of passes which led to the first goal and long before Mascherano was dismissed.

Then in the second half, Glen Johnson’s cavalier enthusiasm for attacking meant Jamie Carragher had to fill in at right-back so often he was not able to properly supplement the flailing Daniel Agger in the middle.

Left-back Emiliano Insua looked worse than Dossena – and there can be no crueller criticism. It was Carragher’s 600th appearance and one felt sorry for him as he looked in vain for forward options.

But above all else, one felt sympathy for those stoic but forlorn Liverpool supporters. They deserve so much better than what Benitez’s assortment of average players were able to produce.

Ben Haim Makes Torres Claim

Tal Ben Haim has accused Fernando Torres of leading with his elbow when challenging him in Portsmouth's win over Liverpool on Saturday.

The Israeli centre-half enjoyed a fine game in helping his side keep a clean sheet but was in the wars, as first Javier Mascherano was red carded for a crunching tackle on him, before Torres appeared to catch him with an elbow.

Ben Haim admitted he had to stay calm to protect the lead against Rafa Benitez's men and boost his side's hopes of Premier League survival.

"I thought he came with the elbow," he conceded.

The former Chelsea player insists Avram Grant's men had the last laugh by earning their valuable win.

"At the end of the day this challenge and other challenges are not important," he said.

"In the game there are many challenges that you could say maybe it's yellow or maybe it's red. It's part of the game and you need to continue playing.

"I don't pay much attention to that stuff because after that immediately you have to be focused and you don't want to make stupid challenges to get yourself sent off and leave your team-mates a man down. You need to control yourself. It was good for me to be like that."

Ben Haim was also involved in the tackle that led to Mascherano getting a straight red card in the first half, which Benitez felt changed the game.

"I thought that it was a good decision by the referee," he said.

"Especially as I moved the ball when he came. It's part of the game so you have to take it."